Engineering global consent: the Chinese Communist Party’s data-driven power expansion
14 Oct 2019|

The Chinese party-state’s technology-enhanced authoritarianism is expanding globally. But the way it’s doing it isn’t always distinctly coercive or overtly invasive. While there’s been an important focus on technologies such as 5G, surveillance and cyber-enabled espionage, that narrow view misses the bigger picture. The Chinese Communist Party has a much more ambitious vision for harnessing a broad suite of current and emerging technologies in support of its own interests, including some that might seem relatively benign, like language-translation technologies.

By leveraging state-owned enterprises, Chinese technology companies and partnerships with foreign entities—including Western universities—the CCP is building a massive data-collection enterprise that gives it control over large data flows.

For the Chinese party-state, data-gathering is a means of generating information to enhance state security—and, crucially, the political security of the CCP—across multiple domains. The party-state intends to shape, manage and control its global operating environment so that public sentiment is favourable to its own interests. The CCP’s interests are prioritised over the Chinese state’s interests and the Chinese people’s interests. The effort requires continuous expansion of the party’s power overseas because, according to its own articulation of its threat perceptions, external risks to its power are just as likely—if not more likely—to emerge from outside the People’s Republic of China’s borders as from within.

As this approach continues to take shape, many Western governments will find themselves both struggling to understand the problem and struggling to respond.

A new report from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre uses the company Global Tone Communications Technology (GTCOM) as a case study to explain how this new phenomenon can work. GTCOM is a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned enterprise that the Central Propaganda Department directly supervises. It provides both hardware and software translation tools. GTCOM describes itself as a ‘cross-language big data’ business: it collects bulk data globally in more than 65 languages and processes it for output into other products and services for government and corporate clients. The products can be applied to tools that have global implications, such as parts of China’s social credit system.

GTCOM claims to collect ‘billions’ of pieces of globally sourced unstructured data. Through just one of its many platforms, focused on traditional and social media, GTCOM claims to gather 10 terabytes of data a day (equivalent to 5 trillion words of plain text) as part of its ‘cross-language big data’ business, and 2–3 petabytes a year (equivalent to 20 billion photos on Facebook). Anything translated by the company’s translation services is part of the bulk data it collects.

The company uses bulk data collection and artificial intelligence processing of data for information platforms and tools provided to the party-state. Such tools include propaganda, intelligence, social credit system–linked creditworthiness determination products, and government services.

As GTCOM is a company openly contributing to state security and intelligence data collection, the case study sheds light on many other issues that should be of critical importance to global decision-makers. It demonstrates, for instance, the global consequences of the PRC’s military–civil fusion priority, which ‘seeks to break down the barriers between China’s civilian and military sectors’.

National and local governments across the globe—under liberal and illiberal regimes alike—are choosing to buy technologies from PRC companies such as GTCOM’s strategic partners Alibaba Cloud and Huawei. For instance, ASPI’s Mapping China’s technology giants report conducted research into 75 smart city projects around the world, most of which involved Huawei. Many of those projects include more coercive and overtly invasive technologies, such as surveillance cameras and facial and numberplate recognition technologies, but they can also include services like smart transportation and smart parking meters.

Companies such as GTCOM and its strategic partners can simultaneously act in their best interests to provide services and generate profits and to support the party-state’s larger objectives. After all, it’s the party-state that allows them to operate. No single PRC-based actor is shielded from the reality of the CCP’s suite of state security legislation, which delivers the consistent message that every individual and entity is responsible for state security.

While ideal solutions to this emerging set of problems don’t exist yet, partly because research on these issues hasn’t been in-depth or forward-looking, there are a range of areas that governments should be investing in and working with industry and civil society on. The report recommends strengthening data privacy laws and foreign influence transparency schemes. It also recommends greater investment in data literacy and data transparency programs, and calls for a rethink of how governments deal with foreign propaganda in the digital age.