The Digital Silk Road: China’s quest to wire the world and win the future,
Jonathan E Hillman, Profile Books, £ 20.00
Will China take over the Internet?
With the world’s largest online population, estimated at around one billion users, and a booming digital industry, China has expanded its global digital footprint in recent years.
Chinese technology multinationals have built the basic telecommunications infrastructure used by millions of people around the world. China is poised to become an even bigger player in shaping the Internet for the foreseeable future thanks to the digital Silk Road, the digital component of Beijing’s multibillion-dollar “Belt and Road” initiative. Road”.
Introduced in 2015, the Digital Silk Road brings advanced IT infrastructure, fiber optic cables, data centers, 5G networks, cloud solutions and smart cities to countries around the world. Rather than a well-defined set of projects, the China Digital Initiative appears to be an umbrella term for a collection of telecommunications and data products and services provided by companies based in China.
In The digital silk roadJonathan Hillman examines the main features of China’s digital expansion and what he calls “network wars” between the United States and China. Researched diligently and convincingly written, the book begins by examining China’s rise as a technological superpower, provides a description of the “battlefield” and ends with suggestions on what America can do if it wants to. emerge triumphantly.
Through seven chapters, Hillman covers many aspects of the Digital Silk Road, from networks installed by Huawei in Glasgow, MT, to the submarine cable connecting Pakistan and East Africa to the Europe; from BeiDou satellite systems to safe city surveillance equipment in Hangzhou, as well as facial recognition software used to suppress predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Entitled “CTR + C”, the second chapter is worth mentioning for its description of Huawei’s rise to power as a unique case of copy and theft. In addition to receiving generous government grants, it documents how Huawei stole secrets from the laboratories, showrooms and computers of its competitors. He also poached some of their top engineers and hired coaching services from IBM and other American companies to improve internal management.
Here, Hillman succumbs to the common trap of seeing technological imitation as a Chinese characteristic, a culturally motivated practice that defines Chinese companies. It is by no means specific to China. The story of late development, or catching up, is a story of emulation, reverse engineering, and even outright theft. The United States itself applied strict protectionist measures during the 19th century and continued to copy British inventions long after independence.
The book then shines a light on the stories of marginalized communities in the United States, left out by the American approach to market-based telecommunications coverage. These communities, like developing countries, had no better alternative than Chinese companies such as Huawei, which provide financially competitive services. Hillman argues that for most developing countries and disadvantaged groups, data security is a side issue, not a priority. In the end, the choice of suppliers comes down to price.
At the heart of The digital silk road lies the unsubstantiated claim that the world’s digital data could only be secure if it was collected, stored and controlled by Western corporations and their allies. Yet it’s still unclear why more expensive, US-based tech companies would represent safer options for developing countries. As Edward Snowden has shown, the United States National Security Agency has accessed the data of millions of people, both in America and abroad, by tapping directly into the servers of Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, among others.
So far, there is no evidence of a similar global surveillance program led by Beijing. That’s not to say that the Chinese don’t engage in espionage – they sure do – but everyone else does, too.
Computer networks began to enable espionage on an unimaginable scale from the 1960s, during a worsening period of the Cold War. Now spying can be done from the comfort of an office chair. Some have argued that Washington’s relentless campaign to ban Huawei is less about the potential security threat posed by Chinese tech companies and more about concerns that the United States will lose its long-standing dominance in cyberspace.
That being said, China is building a dystopian model of the Internet that combines censorship, mass surveillance and repression. Behind the Great Firewall, Hillman provides a detailed account of an increasingly controlled Internet with content deletions, restrictions on the use of VPNs, account closings, and systematic tracking and arrests users. Far from the initial assumption that the internet would usher in a wave of democratic transformations, including in China, the Chinese Communist Party has successfully used digital technologies to contain dissent and consolidate its grip on power.
According to Hillman, China is currently leading a charm offensive to export its authoritarian Internet governance model to other developing countries. While portraying China as an active promoter of its own Internet model sounds compelling, it is an interpretation that is largely based on guesswork.
For example, China, Africa and the Future of the Internet by Iginio Gagliardone shows how China’s presence in Africa’s digital space has taken different forms, with China supporting locally entrenched visions of the African society. information, adapting and adjusting to both democratic and autocratic parameters.
A related concern in The digital silk road is the idea that “China” is a homogeneous entity with a clearly defined project, a master plan to conquer the global internet.
Hillman’s characterization of China is vague and assumes intrinsic characteristics that apply to all Chinese actors. No distinction is made between private companies and public companies. In its story, the Communist Party pulls all the strings. However, the 2020 Chinese crackdown on its tech titans suggests a more complex story.
Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, was fined $ 2.8 billion for breaking anti-monopoly rules, and Jack Ma, its co-founder and managing director, and once China’s richest man, was forced to keep a low profile for several months. Strict new regulations targeting Chinese tech companies, from taxi apps to online course platforms, reflect the CCP’s desire to curb the power of digital capital and indicate existing tensions between the interests of the state and those of digital entrepreneurs. .
Hillman concludes with some political solutions to allow America to win the ongoing “network war”. Recognizing that no information empire has emerged without an active state behind it, the author calls for more industrial policies supporting American technology companies. He also suggests the creation of a grand coalition of democratic countries, reminiscent of the Cold War group, to curb China’s digital authoritarianism.
Beyond Hillman’s alarmist rhetoric and Manichean language dividing the global internet into two distinct camps, lies a more nuanced reality. Ultimately, The digital silk road is unlikely to replicate Beijing’s model for internet governance, but will likely end up taking very different forms in different countries, with a mix of infrastructure, hardware, software and practices that reflect local ecosystems pre-existing and social preferences.