By Dr Kiran Hassan, Associate Fellow – Institute of Commonwealth Studies,
Is China’s growing presence in the media in Commonwealth countries compatible with the Commonwealth’s core values of good governance, freedom of expression and transparency?
The rise of Chinese technology has recently transformed the global media landscape. China is the biggest exporter of mobile phones (49% of mobile phones in the world in 2018 ) and a world leader in innovative AI technology (China will lead the global market in artificial intelligence by 2030 ). In the opinion of Nigel Inkster, a former senior analyst at MI6, this domination of market share is a key to China’s economic development and to the Beijing government’s aspirations to become a major global power. According to Inkster, China’s technology strategy is increasingly about shaping the global ICT environment in ways favourable to Beijing’s own interests, wusing its status as the global manufacturing hub for ICT products, and its growing economic and political reach . This observation is echoed by many academics who, while acknowledging China’s emerging role as a serious player in media technology, argue that the export of technology is directly connected to the Chinese government’s perception of the successful expansion of China’s soft power .
This article will explore the impact of Chinese technology in parts of the Commonwealth. Closely associated to the Chinese drive to dominate the global ICT market is the Chinese parallel strategy of investment in foreign media corporations, and Beijing’s parallel campaign of invitations to journalists to visit China. The looming Chinese presence within the media in Commonwealth countries raises questions whether core Commonwealth values of freedom of expression, transparency and good governance risk being compromised by China’s growing technological influence in domestic information flows and media management.
AI and new wave of scrutiny
China’s AI sector is expected to be worth 1 trillion yuan ($146 billion) by 2030. Some of the leading Chinese AI companies include DJI which is a leader in the global drone market, and Sense Time which has earned attention by occasionally beating Google and Facebook in image-recognition competitions, and Cloud Walk which is believed to have pushed into new areas of facial recognition including 3D face-scanning. Chinese AI technology’s main attraction to the wider world is that it is cheaper and accessible. Two-thirds of global investment in artificial intelligence is pouring in to China, which helped the AI industry there grow 67% in 2017 alone . The CCP President Xi Jinping believes that being at the forefront in AI technology is critical to the future of global military and economic power competition. In the Chinese political economy, all major technology firms cooperate extensively with China’s military and state security services, and are legally required to do so .
Chinese AI technology has a different appeal for the larger economies within the Commonwealth. For example, Tencent, one of China’s ‘big three tech companies’, has already dipped its feet into the Canadian AI scene, investing in Element AI, a start-up co-founded by Montreal university academic and deep learning expert, Yoshua Bengio . Chinese AI companies are also collaborating with Britain. Zige plans to launch Mento (an educational Robot) in Britain soon. Mento was developed to teach language and general knowledge to children aged 4 to 12 . And the controversy around Huawei’s involvement in the development of 5G is well known.
In other parts of the Commonwealth, Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE are constructing “smart cities” in Pakistan and Kenya, featuring extensive built-in surveillance technology. In cities such as Singapore, Hikvision, Yitu and SenseTime are supplying state-of-the-art facial recognition cameras for the establishment of a surveillance program, with 110,000 CCTV cameras mounted on lamp posts around the city-state. The aspiring Commonwealth member, Zimbabwe is also in the process of creating a national image database that can be used for facial recognition with the help of a Chinese company . According to Wire magazine, since January 2017, Freedom House has identified 38 countries where Chinese firms have built internet infrastructure, and 18 of these countries are using AI surveillance developed by the Chinese.
There are countless other examples which indicate that Chinese companies have successfully courted governments across the Commonwealth with its advanced AI technology. But with the enhanced Chinese footprint in the tech world, there needs to be honest and open acknowledgement of the kind of imported technology which was originally developed to support Chinese state surveillance, and its implications for the domestic sphere. Monitoring the behaviour of entire populations raises questions and challenges for policy makers, regulators and wider society across the Commonwealth, and those who support democracy and human rights.
China and the smartphone boom
China is now one of the leading cell phone manufacturers in the world. Over one billion cell phones were produced in China between January and August 2018 . According to Counterpoint Research, by August 2017 Huawei had sold almost as many smartphones as Apple. By the end of 2016, it had already dethroned Samsung from the top spot as the most profitable Android device brand in the world .
China’s smart phones are preferred in strategically important markets in the Commonwealth, such as India. With a domestic population of over 1 billion, India is the second largest smart phone market in the world and represents a key battleground for a number of phone makers from the United States, China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Currently, China has succeeded in capturing the largest share of the Indian smart phone market. According to data from IDC, four of the top five smartphone brands in India are from China—Xiaomi, Vivo, Oppo and Transsion, which hold the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th positions, respectively .
There are reasons for this dominance of market share. Firstly, the Chinese mobile industry’s primary focus is to appeal to the Indian consumer. By offering Indians affordable yet highly efficient mobile phones, the Chinese reach beyond their sales targets. These mobile companies are also offering consumers a premium experience at a lower price, and using a determined strategy to reach previously overlooked potential users: for example, Oppo and Vivo are offering open retail stores on high streets in rural provinces. This approach of offering an Apple-esque in-store customer experience has been very successful. India remains an important market for brand reputation as well. A strong performance in India could help Chinese phone makers such as Xiaomi, OnePlus, Huawei and others do better in other global markets
Chinese mobile companies have also triumphed in Africa. The Chinese company Transsion’s success has hinged on a globalization strategy that has enamoured it to users across Africa. By working closely with research and development centres in Nigeria and Kenya, and providing affordable and region-specific phones to urban and rural Africa, Transsion has been able to innovate continuously around the needs of its customers and bump up its sales. Transsion’s rise in Africa comes as Chinese conglomerates are making the most of the continent’s appetite for technology, trade, manufacturing, and infrastructure. This increased commercial interest in Africa is paralleled by growing Sino-African political and financial relations, and growing diplomatic links.
Along with the smartphone boom, Chinese apps are gaining global popularity. The Chinese app WeChat (the Chinese version of WhatsApp) has an estimated million users in Canada. The same app has seen a rapid increase in the number of users in Australia. It was reported that after the enforcement of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) on 20 December 2015, approximately 3 million people in Australia are already making use of WeChat for WeChat pay, booking of restaurants, ordering taxis, transferring money to their friends, shopping online and using the translation feature to bridge communication gaps. More than 10,000 shops and restaurants in Australia are now using the WeChat Pay system. WeChat is also the favoured app by Australians for doing business with the Chinese . Warning bells have been sounded by reports of Chinese government surveillance of messages supposedly protected end-to-end encryption. “The app – thought by Western intelligence agencies to be the least secure of its type in the world – has essentially got you over a barrel.”
The Chinese lead in the smart phone industry is not welcomed by the United States. For some time the US has been concerned that companies such as Huawei could use its telecom equipment to spy for the Chinese government. Huawei denies that it has ever, or would ever, spy on its customers and is suing the US government over a law banning government agencies from doing business with companies that use technology from Huawei and ZTE. This confrontation has prompted companies such as Google to revoke their licenses to Huawei for installing its software, such as the Google Play app store and Gmail, on its phones. It is expected that Facebook will soon follow Google’s footsteps and prevent the Chinese telecom giant from preinstalling Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram apps on its devices. Retaining top position in the manufacturing and export of the smart phone market is strategically important to both the United States and China. With leading social media companies such as Google and Facebook refusing to co-operate with Huawei, the company may not be able to sell as many phones as it had targeted.
Chinese smart phone exports and AI technology have indeed transformed the world at a lightning speed. These technologies have hugely benefitted the dissemination of health information, banking, disaster management, political, social and business sectors at a global scale. But equally, this unexpected technological global leap has pushed us to face unmanageable problems such as the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation via social media platforms, micro state surveillance, facial recognition systems, “deep fakes”, electoral manipulation and fraudulent democracies.
According to Rita Payne, President Emerita of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, disinformation caused by social media has been seen to cause social and political harm, with people having less trust in the news; or, in some cases, being subjected to violence or death as a result of ‘stories’ circulating on social media. In India, for example, the sharing of fake news about child abductions on WhatsApp have led to lynchings. Across the political spectrum and in countries ranging from Brazil, Russia, states in Asia and Africa, attempts are being made to manipulate, subvert and hijack democratic processes. Chinese technological penetration of Commonwealth countries and societies has potentially a much more malign influence on democracies and good governance, as social media has been seen to subvert election processes. This goes beyond the close structural links between Chinese IT and the Chinese state, and possible dangers to national security in Commonwealth countries. The use of AI and advanced surveillance systems, based on Chinese technology, presents authoritarian elites and governments with disturbing possibilities of state surveillance and control. This raises the very important question: how prepared are individual Commonwealth governments to table media responsibility and regulation of the Chinese tech giants, especially on issues on Human Rights? Monopolies and monopsonies are inherently damaging for democratic governance and civil society.