When it comes to the intersection of technology and government control, China represents a unique case study with global implications.
The role of technology in China’s political and social systems is a subject of ongoing debate, with implications for both US domestic and international affairs.
To better understand China’s rapid rise to power, you must understand Beijing’s massive surveillance ecosystem.
China’s surveillance ecosystem is powerful – the government collaborates with private tech firms promoting surveillance technology that is used all throughout China. The system is designed to give the government unprecedented levels of access to information about its citizens. Large tech giants, like Tencent and Alibaba, collect and analyze social media and financial data on behalf of the Chinese government, where the data is then shared with government agencies for analysis and monitoring purposes.
More disturbingly, the same technology is now being deployed globally, giving Chinese authorities access to information about almost anyone in the world.
Here’s how it’s being done.
First, let’s look at how the surveillance ecosystem operates inside China.
Advanced AI and facial recognition are some of the tools used to get biometric data. This data can be used to track individuals and score them on a social credit system, granting individuals points and privileges based on how well they comply with government approved behaviors and laws. For example, those whose shopping habits or online activity are unfavorable will find themselves with low credit scores, sometimes restricted from purchasing goods and services, even being banned from buying plane tickets or property.
This “safe city model” is powered by vast centralized information systems that read people’s data from public cameras, stores, banks, and even cell phones. It’s truly state of the art data-driven governance, ensuring society is free of harmful actors.
However, does this type of centralized government and state control over individual behavior truly prevent society from the dangers of social outliers? Is this the definition of “criminal” a society wants the state to impose on a population? It’s not hard to see how being a state sanctioned social outlier, meaning doing things the state doesn’t like, easily subjects large populations to group think, forced social conformity, and political censorship. In this context, “criminal” is anything that challenges the power of the state, where the public is banned from providing any kind of checks and balances on the people who make the laws.
So how can China’s surveillance ecosystem affect the global population, in this case the US public? We have constitutional rights to freedom of speech and (somewhat eroding) privacy protections, plus we do not have to worry about a government sponsored social credit score.
Well, we live in the age of social media and apps. For many of us, we live our lives on our phones. The internet has given us access to countless information, allowing us to create connections and social interactions with people we couldn’t otherwise. But the flow of information goes both ways. As much as we consume, our data is also consumed by the websites and phone apps we use on a daily basis.
And China is using our data to gain political, economic, and even military dominance over the US.
China has access to sensitive data on U.S citizens by:
- Cyber-attacks: The Chinese government has been accused of using cyber-attacks to hack into US companies and government institutions and steal sensitive information.
- Intelligence gathering: Chinese intelligence agencies have been accused of gathering information from online platforms, including social media and messaging apps, by monitoring user activity and collecting data.
- Foreign influence campaigns: The Chinese government has been accused of using social media and other online platforms to spread misinformation and propaganda to influence public opinion in the US.
Beijing justifies these activities with a concept called cyber sovereignty, which is a government run doctrine that was developed to prevent the flow of online information that threatens China’s domestic political stability. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses this as a means of justifying its strict control over the internet in the country, arguing that this level of control is necessary to protect state security and maintain social harmony.
The Chinese government’s goal is to build technological supremacy over the US, using its vast data collection methods to harness enough data on its citizens and foreign businesses to fuel research on advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.
These new technologies are making a large impact in shaping public opinion all over the world and will likely be utilized to counter Washington’s global influence.
Let’s explore a little deeper.
China’s Geopolitical Ambitions
Here are three reasons why China is a major geopolitical threat to the US:
- China’s increasing technological prowess is a major threat to the US, as it has the potential to undermine US dominance in the world.
- China’s growing economic power is a threat to the US, as it has the potential to weaken US influence and strength abroad.
- China’s military strength is a threat to the US, as it has the potential to undermine US military might and threaten its security and stability.
The U.S and China are engaged in a struggle for geo-strategic control and political dominance that will shape and define the global order in the coming decades. It is a competition that will be played out across these three spheres of influence, ultimately shaping the fate of the world. China’s rise to power, especially in the Asia Pacific region, is creating a new global paradigm that is not compatible with the existing Western dominated international order.
China believes the world should not be dominated by one economic superpower – but rather a multi-polar world where many different countries all have their own economic spheres of influence. Beijing believes the U.S has too much economic power – and that this could be used to undermine China’s influence and interests. The CCP wants to wield more influence over global areas such as economic and foreign policy and is currently engaging in activities to make the world less U.S-centric.
If the world becomes multi-polar, China would be able to gain influence over global trade and the international economic order, pressuring other countries to adopt polices favorable to Beijing by imposing trade tariffs and restrictions. China could use these methods to create economic pressure, possibly enough to shape global markets, benefitting China’s own industries to give it strategic advantage over main competitors.
China would also be able to advance its interests politically and militarily – as Beijing will have more resources to invest in its armed forces. This could allow Beijing to project its power and influence in multiple regions to shape the geopolitical landscape in a way that advances its political objectives abroad. One example could be if China succeeds in controlling major trade routes or fortifying strategically better ones, allowing Beijing unparalleled access and power over the control and trade of vital natural resources.
Here’s Why China Is Gaining A Technological Edge Over The US
China’s technological prowess is very daunting. China is a leader in many areas, including AI, 5G, and quantum computing. Beijing has also developed several new technologies that can be used to spy on and control world populations. These include facial recognition technology, mass surveillance systems, and technology that can scan the Internet and censor content deemed subversive. All these technologies represent a security and privacy threat to the world.
Washington is working to develop similar technologies in an effort to counter this threat but is merely playing catch up to Beijing’s advanced research and sophisticated application of cutting-edge technology tools.
One area China is dominating is quantum computing.
China’s advancements in quantum computing can create new security threats to U.S national security. A quantum computer processes information faster than a traditional computer and can be used for advanced calculations, such as predictive modeling. A quantum computer can easily break even the most complex codes and algorithms. This means it can be used for malicious purposes such as hacking and spying on sensitive military, banking, and medical systems.
But most pressing issue for the United States in terms of national security is China’s developments in artificial intelligence (AI) technology. China is currently making advancements that is either on par or out competes the most sophisticated AI being developed by American companies. Beijing’s goal is to have AI technology never seen before in the West.
Some of the cutting-edge AI technologies being developed in China include:
- Neural network-based deep learning systems: Designed to mimic the structure and function of the human brain, enabling machines to recognize patterns in complex data and make decisions. This technology can be used for speech recognition.
- Robotics: Robotic technology is being developed to perform real-world tasks, from manufacturing to healthcare. One notable project is the “Chinese Dream Robotic System,” which is designed to create a robotic platform that can walk, run, climb, and grasp.
- Deep learning models: These models use artificial neural networks to process data like a human brain. They are trained on vast amounts of data to recognize patterns and make predictions.
The company developing AI weapons and technology for the Chinese military is a company called SenseNets. SenseNets is developing several different technologies that could give Beijing an advantage over the US in a direct conflict. One being an AI-based facial recognition technology that can be used to identify targets and track enemy forces. Another one is an AI-based target acquisition technology which could be used to identify and shoot down airborne targets more accurately. The one most concerning is an AI-based hacking tool that can be used to cripple US communications and computer networks, giving China significant advantage, wherever the battlefield may be.
None of this is as worrying as China’s development and usage of advanced AI algorithms.
Here’s where TikTok comes in.
And yes, TikTok is a national security concern. Here’s why government officials all over the world are on edge.
Let’s start with ByteDance. ByteDance is the Chinese company that makes these advanced AI algorithms. It is one of the most powerful technology companies in the world, and it has the potential to create a very powerful and insidious propaganda machine. Whoever created these algorithms are extremely talented people who have a very deep understanding of human behavior. These algorithms are extremely dangerous and the potential for mass manipulation is near 100%.
So can China try to predict future political movements and events with these AI algorithms?
It certainly seems like they are. Using data from the TikTok app, China has developed unique algorithms that can potentially predict future political events, or any non-political event, with a high degree of accuracy. The algorithms are based on machine learning techniques that produce deep insights into past behavior patterns and can identify trends that can be used to make accurate predictions about future behavior. This technology can be used for social control and manipulation, and if used by political actors with bad intentions, can be used to undermine democracy all over the world.
China can control the information and can potentially program the culture in the West. China can use the app to shape opinion around world events, with the spread of CCP sponsored disinformation created and promoted on the app.
The technology that is used in the TikTok app is a complex system of algorithms that can track users’ activity on the app. This information is then used to generate personalized feeds for users that are likely to keep them engaged and coming back for more. This information can also be used to target users with ads and other personalized content. This is because TikTok uses machine learning models that can predict user behavior based on past actions. This is why the app is so highly addicting. You are being feed exactly what you want within seconds and without having to search for it. People on the app are drowning in a never-ending echo chamber of their own addictions, and sometimes extreme social and political content is pumped into people’s feeds, used as tool by Beijing to gain proxy control over impressionable minds.
But the AI algorithms are not the only thing to worry about with TikTok. If you have it on your phone, the app collects your personal data outside of the app, including browsing history and location data. When you install the app on your phone, you grant it permission to access certain information on your device that is unrelated to the app itself, including the websites you visit and the apps you use.
ByteDance has been accused by security experts and US lawmakers of collecting user data and sending it to severs in China. Beijing denies this.
TikTok has exceedingly sophisticated information on millions of people. The app was created by a Chinese company with close ties to the government. I will leave it to your imagination as to why a highly competitive emerging superpower would not use that information to their advantage.
How China’s Economic Growth Is Reshaping The World Economy
China’s rapid economic expansion and strategic investments in emerging technologies, such as the abovementioned AI, have given rise to concerns that Beijing is seeking to economically undermine the US. While many of China’s investments are focused on domestic development, there is growing evidence that some of these investments are also intended to gain a competitive edge over the US and its allies.
Chinese companies have been accused of engaging in unfair trade practices, such as intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers to gain an advantage in global markets.
One example of how Beijing is seeking to economically challenge the US is the way the CCP uses its currency and exchange rates to gain an unfair advantage over the US in global trade. For example, China has been artificially devaluing its currency the yuan, which makes its exports cheaper and more competitive on the global market.
China also uses its enormous stockpiles of US Treasury bonds to artificially prop up the value of the yuan and manipulate the exchange rate of the yuan, which gives China an unfair competitive advantage in global markets. China’s stockpile of these bonds also gives China an enormous amount of economic power over the US – they can use their holdings to cripple the US economy whenever they want.
Additionally, China’s growing presence in developing countries through its Belt and Road Initiative has raised questions about its long-term objectives in these regions.
One area of concern for the US is China’s growing influence in Africa.
In recent years, China has been making large investments in Africa, especially in countries such as Djibouti and Kenya. These investments give Beijing more power carve out financial incentives that enrich Chinese state-owned companies and could potentially allow the CCP to gain control over Africa’s resources.
China can use its growing economic power in Africa to reduce America’s global economic power. For example, China can use its access over the port of Djibouti to weaken the US economy due to the port being close to global trade lines. China can use its control over the port to deny access to the US, hurting the US economy by reducing Washington’s trade opportunities with Asia and Africa.
The port of Djibouti is important because it’s the largest port in Africa and is the only port in the region that connects to the major East-West trade lines. China owns 40% of the port after buying their stake in 2016 as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. This port gives Beijing great geographic proximity to the shipping lanes of Africa and Asia, also providing China with great trade options and a tactical advantage in any conflict with other countries in the region.
Additionally, China has gained influence over Kenya through the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a part of China’s foreign aid strategy through which China has given Kenya loans. By giving these loans, China has growing control over Kenya’s political landscape. The Kenyan government owes money to Beijing, which allows China to build deeper access into the country’s political and economic machinery. China can use its access to make deals favorable to the CCP or even own large parts of foreign companies that deal with industrial goods.
Overall, the US will need to take steps to counter China with the goal of maintaining a level playing field for international trade and investment.
A few examples include:
- Negotiating new trade agreements with countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe.
- Tougher restrictions on Chinese companies that engage in intellectual property theft.
- Level the playing field by pushing for greater transparency from China regarding subsidies for Chinese companies and state-owned enterprises.
- Address Chinese currency manipulation by imposing tariffs or other penalties on Chinese imports.
Lastly, the US can invest more resources to develop blockchain technologies. Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize supply chain management by providing a secure, transparent, and tamper-proof system for tracking goods from production to delivery. It’s also important the US begins make faster progress in creating a secure digital currency to help it compete with China in the financial technology sector, as China has made substantial investments in the e-yuan. Also, blockchain can help facilitate cross-border transactions, making it easier for businesses to interact and trade with international partners.
China’s Under The Radar Military Power
The Chinese military has a large, well trained, and equipped army that can pose a serious threat to the US in a direct conflict. Beijing has an ability to sustain large and complex fighting forces, as they have a vast arsenal of advanced vehicles, weapons, and machinery.
China’s military infrastructure and logistics are also well developed and capable of deploying large numbers of troops or weapons to any target anywhere in the world.
To diminish American hard power, China has developed advanced tactics and strategy to counter traditional American military advantages, assisted by heavy investment in long range missile technology and an upgraded navy and air force.
The Chinese military also has advanced technologies that rival the US in several areas, including electronic warfare and cyber warfare. For example, the Chinese military has been accused of using AI-powered bots to conduct large-scale cyber-attacks. The US is concerned China’s advanced electronic warfare capabilities are being developed to disrupt American communications and command and control systems. Due to these fears, the US military is putting more focus on China’s ability to infiltrate American defense networks and disrupt American military capabilities.
The Chinese military is also invested in developing AI based weapons that can give them an advantage over the US.
- Unmanned combat vehicles, i.e., drones: These autonomous vehicles can fly or operate on land and can be programmed to perform a wide range of tasks, including reconnaissance, intelligence gathering, and target identification. They can also operate remotely and be controlled via AI algorithms, allowing them to operate without human involvement.
- Autonomous sea drones: These undersea vehicles can perform mine-clearing, submarine hunting, and surveillance. The autonomous sea drones use AI-based algorithms to identify and track targets, potentially allowing them to be deployed in more dangerous or remote areas.
- Smart missiles: These missiles can reportedly identify and track targets on their own, without the need for human intervention.
- Satellite surveillance: China has launched several high-resolution imaging satellites that use AI to analyze data and may be able to identify and track objects on the ground, including military installations and vehicles.
Considering the information listed above, the biggest issue facing the US military is China’s growing ability to wage both kinetic and non-kinetic warfare.
Meaning China can use a range of tactics to build pressure on US power in the Asia Pacific region without leading to a direct military confrontation.
This can include a combination of economic warfare, industrial sabotage, covert assassinations of military leadership, disinformation campaigns to weaken political leaders, and cyber-attacks on power grids or other critical infrastructure.
In the past few years, the US has seen an uptick in attacks on domestic infrastructure, like manufacturing and food processing plants, as well as several devastating train derailments. Although not confirmed by any publicly official reports, there is a chance these attacks originated from actors in China and Russia to demonstrate their capabilities to wage unconventional warfare against the US. These attacks also may be a demonstration of their cyber warfare capabilities.
There have been many recent hacks and breaches of US infrastructure with the intention of disrupting domestic operations. These hackers are very skilled and have shown the capability to attack critical infrastructure, steal classified information, and even shut down the power grid.
For example, the recent attack (2021) on the Colonial Pipeline led to several economic disruptions and a temporary shutdown of the pipeline for many days. A group known as DarkSide, gained access to the pipeline’s computer systems by exploiting a virtual private network that was not highly protected. Once getting access, they deployed a ransomware to encrypt the pipeline’s data, making it inaccessible to the company. DarkSide was then able to demand a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key.
The hack was a part of a larger campaign of cyber sabotage targeting critical infrastructure worldwide but may have had a larger goal of destabilizing and weakening the US.
The SolarWinds attack is another important example of a possible attempt at cyber sabotage, possibly from Chinese and Russian state-sponsored operatives or private organizations with or without state backing. To add context, SolarWinds is a popular network management software used by many large and critical organizations in the US. The hack on SolarWinds compromised the software’s code and introduced security vulnerabilities that enabled hackers to exploit and access private networks. The hack was a major security breach that may have allowed hackers to gain access to sensitive information from a wide range of organizations including government agencies, private businesses, and even individuals. It was dangerous because it created an enormous security risk that could lead to the infiltration of countless private and public networks nationwide.
The World Order Of Tomorrow Is Already Here
In light of everything mentioned, China is rapidly emerging as a formidable global power that is challenging the US’s traditional role and position in the world. Washington must continue to invest in its own abilities, strengthen its partnerships with like-minded nations, and innovate to maintain its competitive advantage and remain a dominant force in a complex and changing world.
As China continues to develop its AI capabilities, its capacity to collect and process vast amounts of data on US citizens and infrastructure represents a growing security and privacy risk. The US needs to ramp up its own digital defense capabilities to better protect from cyber-attacks. The US government will need to work with the private sector to ensure data is stored and processed domestically and proper safeguards are in place to protect data privacy.
The US will also need to develop new regulations to address the challenges posed by China’s rapid development of sophisticated AI technology.
As the Chinese government continues to invest heavily in AI research, it’s important for all of us to consider how this growing technological power could impact our daily lives and our global political landscape. Whether you are a business leader, a government official, or just a curious citizen, I encourage you to look deeper to better understand how AI is reshaping our world and think about how this new technological power will be at the frontier of controlling the way we think, act, and live.