How China’s AI technology exports may lead to the emergence of new power structures outside the control of existing governance and accountability frameworks and impact the rules-based global order and geopolitical alliances.
The notion of power and geopolitical influence in the digital era
Until recently, analytical attention to the development of digital technologies, including AI, has tended to focus on corporations such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFAs). These GAFAs, some of them deemed to be more powerful than some states, have changed the notion of power and geopolitical influence. These corporations are leveraging the power of AI, networks, data intelligence infrastructures, and regulatory frameworks to impact public space around the world. This is leading to the emergence of new power structures outside the control of existing liberal democratic and human rights accountability frameworks, to the extent that even democratic societies resent this power over their public space.
Meanwhile, less noticed but arguably more effective in its consequences, is the Chinese government’s investment in the development and application of these same technologies, —aimed at strengthening its state intelligence infrastructure—strongly suggesting that AI could shape society and government in very different ways than the originators of said technologies at issue may have anticipated. Capitalizing on these current structural and technological shifts in the global information environment—enabled by algorithms, artificial intelligence, and other new opportunities created, China and its allies are able to censor and manipulate information at its source and control what populations can see and say on the internet. While Russia’s role in undermining Western democracies through algorithms is well documented and debated, it is China’s combination of state-directed capitalism and coercive economic diplomacy which will potentially upend the rules-based global order and a geopolitical re-alignment, possibly leading to a real multipolar world. Together with its allies it will, among other strategies that constitute its sharp power, do so through AI-driven applications and ironically by exploiting the vulnerabilities in the openness of democracies. All in all, it will be an attempt to create a new political order which challenges states’ sovereignty.
Chinese AI capabilities and domestic objectives
China is spending vast sums on research related to AI technologies, as cyberpower sits at the intersection of a number of its national domestic and foreign policy priorities.
China’s international cyber ambitions are closely paired with its existing and growing use of AI technologies for surveillance and social control at home. This is evident from the intrusive AI-driven surveillance infrastructures being employed in Xinjiang state and that of the Great Fire Wall (GFW). Although American companies took an early lead in AI, for example, as measured by the application of machine learning and number of AI patents registration, China is closing the gap with the U.S. At the current technological advancement rate, it is predicted that by 2025 China will surpass the U.S. and by 2030it will dominate the industries of AI. This poses significant implications to the economic, political, security, cultural, and human rights global order.
China’s foreign objectives
To advance its “going out” foreign investment public diplomacy policy, in 2017 the Chinese government outlined its roadmap for turning itself into the “world’s primary AI innovation Centre” by 2030. The Chinese state-backed “AI National Team,” a group of leading Chinese technology firms, are investing in the development and exporting of new technologies with state backing. Coupled with sizable state investment in cyber technology development, this suggests China aims to become an AI-centered “cyber-superpower”.
In recent years, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s export of AI technologies to developing countries, ‘operating both within the Global South and the international community, ’has grown rapidly, reinforcing the idealized South-South development model and a geopolitical re-alignment. There has been a widely held view amongst development practitioners and policymakers operating within the Global South, that the South-South development model has largely been conducive for economic growth, particularly in terms of attracting investment, infrastructure, including internet infrastructure, and diversifying the landscape of trading partners, diverging from former colonial ties. However, an unintended consequence of this has been that the pro South-South stance has hindered critical thinking in relation to discerning the negative repercussions.
As the democracy and human rights implications stemming from the unregulated export of Chinese AI to the Global South are beginning to surface, it is imperative that this idealized narrative is challenged. It is clear that China’s export of AI technologies exceeds mere economic purposes. In addition to expanding its cyber-industry market share, these exports allow Beijing to use developing countries as laboratories to test, diversify, and improve its surveillance technologies. This goes beyond conventional trading parameters, constituting instead a form of economic exploitation that leans toward extractive dynamics. Perhaps this is an emerging form of cyber colonization?
Recently, China signed agreements with Zimbabwe, Angola and Ethiopia, ostensibly to diversify algorithm training data. Despite the potential economic gains of China’s AI technology exports to Africa, the prospective implications of such unregulated trade on democratic, participatory governance, and human rights in Africa may be extremely negative. Particularly susceptible are countries with long histories of human rights abuses and poor records regarding the rule of law, where China’s surveillance technologies are proving increasingly attractive to governments facing strong domestic opposition, ongoing insurgencies, and other security challenges, including popular protests.
The unregulated export of Chinese AI technologies to countries that fit this profile is likely to reinforce existing systemic repression as well as introduce new ones. AI-driven applications will soon allow authoritarians to analyze patterns in a population’s online activity, identify those most susceptible to a particular message, and target them more precisely with propaganda.AI will create persuasion infrastructures at scale…to manipulate individuals one by one, using their personal, individual weaknesses and vulnerabilities”. Such influencing campaigns –aimed at either specific populations of authoritarian countries or those of democracies abroad – undermine free speech, political participation, and other liberal principles in countries around the world through coercive economic diplomacy.
How does this affect the liberal world order and liberal democracies in the west?
China’s growing development and export of AI technologies is fostering state monitoring and control of society, censorship, and the empowerment of states often unaccountable to their populations. Under the guise of BRI, China is seeking to export and globalize its policy of authoritarian cyber controls, which directly run counter to democratic societies’ aspirations for a free and open global internet. However, China’s efforts to influence cyberspace and the rules-based global order is part of larger trends and patterns relating to authoritarian cooperation and innovation, including the emergence of authoritarian cyber counter-norms and its effort to actively contest democratic development, the democratic ideal, and liberal order. Since the end of the Cold War, China and its allies sensed the democratic state’s reluctance to defend the liberal order and a wrong assumption that China would liberalize. Despite their divergent views, China, Russia, and Iran all agree on the goal of weakening the global democratic norms encouraged by the West. Cyberspace and in particular AI provides a new frontier through which to realize their shared ambitions to undermine human rights, in particular freedom of speech, by controlling information at the source and carrying out influence campaigns as outlined above.
Companies and governments that are using AI at a global level should adopt global standards. They should apply human rights law, which provides global standards, for example, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects everyone’s right to “seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.”
In the same way they have done on the internet, the West should promote a distributed model of AI governance that involves the GAFAs, technical bodies, the private sector, civil society, and governments. They should categorically reject Beijing’s preferred state-centric and UN-led multilateral approach to governing cyberspace as China can easily use its diplomatic clout at the UN to frustrate the distributed model of internet governance. The West should strengthen the voice of marginalized populations, which include urban and rural poor communities, women, youth, LGBTQ, ethnic and racial groups, people with disabilities – and particularly those at the intersection of these marginalized groups, by insisting that:
Companies that own global AI platforms should involve local communities in governing their AI-driven platforms and take measures to create a workforce that includes marginalized populations;
Governments and companies that use AI must be more accountable and transparent in disclosing radically more information about the nature of their rulemaking and enforcement concerning expression on their platforms.
At a technological level, the West should avoid the so called AI race but proactively fortify their own and foreign digital diplomacy through robust government-backed policies and programs that foster a healthy AI ecosystem, like the EU, based on trust. In practical terms, this should include investing in public spatial data infrastructure projects in the Global South in order to monitor and control data flows, building better algorithms that effectively counter Chinese information strategies. The West should also seek ways to engage countries that violate-human rights by showing them the long-term benefits of a liberal world order and cushioning them from being victims of the current geopolitical and geoeconomic realignment contest.
Just like the European Union, these countries should adopt a more assertive policy stance towards Beijing over the openness of Chinese markets and the role of state-led firms, and in this context, the Chinese AI firms such as Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu also.