The 21st Century started with the promise of how technologies can be used to bolster, not undermine, democracies, activism, and human rights. However, the maddening pace at which digital technologies have evolved in recent years means that authoritarians around the world are quickly learning new ways to use telecommunications infrastructure, electronic devices, software applications, information content, and policies and international fora for governing these technologies to suppress advocates for liberal democracy around the world. Among authoritarian regimes pioneering the use of emerging technologies to push back against liberal democracy, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) stands out for its aggression in repurposing digital technologies and infrastructure to enable the suppression of civil society.
This collaborative report between the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) program and the International Republican Institute (IRI) examines the diverse ways that the PRC party-state uses its digital information operations to advance its strategic goal of making the world less hospitable for democracy and more welcoming for autocracy. To do so, this report will examine the full digital information “stack” and how the PRC party-state uses it to achieve those goals. Next, this report will provide an overview of the PRC party-state, its digital information environment, and finally, provide five case studies of countries affected by these policies: Thailand, Myanmar, Uganda, Nigeria, and Jamaica. Through a better understanding of the stack, the PRC party-state, and related case studies, this report seeks to illuminate the different ways countries in the Global South can be susceptible to China’s influence on the digital information stack.
This report seeks to fill that gap and be a reference for those seeking to push back against the PRC party-state and its autocratic partners. To bolster digital democracy and counter digital authoritarianism, civil society must learn how the PRC party-state uses its influence to shape, influence, control, surveil, and suppress information that is contrary to the PRC and Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) goals or critical of those institutions or other autocrats.
Case Studies and Recommendations
This section of the report examines five case studies across the Global South in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Caribbean to lay out how Chinese state-owned and private companies are involved in the countries’ digital information stacks. The countries examined vary in susceptibility to China’s influence on their digital information stacks ranging from the more resilient Jamaica to the most vulnerable Myanmar.
We have provided a selection of overarching recommendations below that can be applied to the countries covered in the case studies. Most recommendations are relevant to civil society, democratic organizations, and political actors on the ground working to stand up for civil liberties and human rights in their countries. Others offer avenues for established democracies to use their influence to support developing democracies resist Chinese domination of their digital stacks.
For each recommendation, we have provided further guidance or examples of how the recommendation can be applied in a local context, highlighting the context of a case study country. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of country-specific recommendations, but rather to serve as inspiration for the application of the recommendations.
1. Monitor PRC Influence
Civil society actors must be mindful that although the governments featured in this report vary in many ways (levels of press freedom, treatment of political opposition, close relations with the government of the People’s Republic of China, and other factors), they all share a desire to work closely with Chinese companies in areas like public safety, government efficiency, or monitoring political opposition. Such cooperation can mean accepting investments and cooperation in the digital information stack. Possible scenarios for cooperation range from outright collaboration between Chinese companies and local public security services to the adoption or adaptation of PRC models of surveillance and technological control.
Democracy organizations should consider monitoring mechanisms to track such collaboration, including technology exchanges, trade arrangements, changes in the security apparatus, surveillance abuses, etc. International donors and organizations can provide support to watchdog organizations through resources, monitoring tools, trainings, and exchanges with global peers.
- Track policymakers’ efforts to court closer ties with Chinese ICT companies.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister (PM) Andrew Holness has publicly expressed several times that partnering with the Chinese ICT company Huawei could be beneficial for the development of the island nation’s ICT infrastructure. PM Holness visited Huawei’s Shenzhen headquarters in 2019 to seek further opportunities for collaboration, and while there, stated that Huawei could play a role in fighting crime, maintaining public order, and improving government efficiency in Jamaica. To ensure that PM Holness and other leaders fully appreciate the risks of pursuing cooperation that can infringe on rights in Jamaica, activists and advocates on the ground should investigate and publicize policymakers’ efforts to establish closer ties with Chinese ICT companies, especially on projects that can limit civil liberties.
2. Build Public Awareness
Civil society, media groups, and political actors should conduct awareness campaigns, drawing from the monitoring described above, to inform the public about the extent and possible impact of PRC cooperation on democratic function. Programming could include communications support to CSOs, training for journalists, and technical assistance to political parties on how to incorporate information on PRC influence operations into their platforms, policies, and constituent outreach.
Awareness efforts should include outreach to business leaders about the possible risks of working with Chinese companies with well-known track records of human rights abuses and by exposing the downsides of projects that compromise civil liberties. Groups can showcase examples of unfavorable financial outcomes for domestic companies through increased Chinese investments and national economic sovereignty losses through certain state trade arrangements.
- In Nigeria, highlight the threat posed by compromised undersea cables.
Many voters and even policymakers may assume that undersea cables are merely content-neutral “pipes” over which internet is carried, when in fact the firms tasked with building, operating, and maintaining these arteries of information have tremendous power to surveil, censor, and of course, disable the flows of content over their networks.
- In Uganda, publicize exploitative Chinese trade and investment deals.
China is by far the biggest public sector lender on the African continent, and generally imposes harsh terms on borrower governments to ensure that its investments are recouped, and to establish greater leverage over developing countries when they are not. This has led many African policy experts and members of civil society to accuse China of practicing “debt-trap diplomacy” aimed at ultimately exploiting African states, including Uganda, of their natural and human resources. Most recently, this came to a head in Uganda over fears that China sought to take possession of Entebbe International Airport over debts incurred during its renovation. The perception of Chinese “neo-colonialism” in the form of exploitative lending is profoundly concerning and offensive to many Ugandans.
3. Sustain Advocacy
Civic, political, and business groups should develop advocacy efforts to apply pressure on governments and parliaments to be more skeptical of significant investment projects and other arrangements with Chinese firms that would compromise their government’s digital information stack. Advocacy campaigns could put forward draft legislation to build defenses but also lean on parliament to carry out its oversight function of executive policies. This advocacy should be aimed at both the local government and other global democracies, including in North America and Europe.
Such efforts should involve extensive research, with the help of international partners, of effective policies and legislation to defend against technological influence. International programming could include training in advocacy techniques, coalition building, and legislative outreach.
- Advocate for greater support for financing from established democracies.
Local civil society groups should not only publicize the risks of exploitative investment deals but ask richer democracies around the world to increase the availability of fair financing for public development projects and should not by shy about highlighting the exploitation and injustice imposed by Chinese lending terms, when appropriate. This is an animating issue for many societies.
- In Thailand and beyond, sustain and emulate the tactics and scale of the Milk Tea Alliance.
The Milk Tea Alliance was an extraordinary success in both form and substance. On substance, the movement reasserted the universal dimension of democratic values. Youths in places as diverse as Thailand, Taiwan, and Belarus all found they shared certain aspirations and expectations about how their governments should operate. On form, the movement managed to grab global headlines and to raise awareness to these youths’ struggle far beyond those places’ borders. It is important that the civil society ties birthed in that movement be sustained and reactivated when needed. And the transnational, humor-based, and social media-focused nature of the movement should be emulated in future attempts to push back against autocratic maneuvers in Southeast Asia and beyond.
4. Improve Local and Global Democratic Legislative Oversight
Parliaments can play an essential role in exercising oversight of the executive, and the private sector, in its relations with the PRC. Committees on foreign relations, human rights, defense and security, and technology and trade can all exercise scrutiny provisions to detect and prevent harmful arrangements and conduct. Parliament can also hold the government to account for how taxpayer money is used—purchasing of equipment, trade arrangements, debt—and whether it serves the public’s interest. Committees can conduct hearings, inquiries, and question hours as well as create special commissions.
Where political will of the governing party is lacking, and depending on parliamentary rules and procedures, opposition parties could play a critical role in instigating investigations. International organizations could greatly support this process by providing training in the tools of oversight and effective scrutiny measures, such as impact assessments of draft policies and legislation. Parliamentary exchanges, such as the House Democracy Project (HDP), could also lend knowledge and support to legislators. Other democracies around the world, including the United States and the European Union, can enact legislative measures that can also help serve as models or have direct implications in other jurisdictions.
In countries where democratic backsliding has severely limited the powers of legislatures, such as in Myanmar, legislative paths may not be appropriate.
- Push democratic governments for stricter sanctions and export controls on Chinese Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies.
In Jamaica, the United States’ strict sanctions and export control regime on many well-known Chinese ICT companies has reduced the impact of Chinese companies on Jamaica’s digital information stack. The U.S. sanctions and export controls regime has raised the stakes for the Jamaican government and has dissuaded officials from approving the installation of Chinese ICT equipment across the digital information stack, specifically the network infrastructure layer. The U.S. policies have had a more considerable impact due to Jamaica’s proximity to the United States, less than 600 miles south of Miami, Florida.
Activists worldwide concerned about China’s involvement in the digital information stack in their respective countries should continue to encourage officials from not only the United States but all democracies to issue more stringent sanctions and export controls on companies like Huawei, ZTE, China Unicom, and others.
5. Increase Transparency from Technology Companies
Civil society actors should seek more transparency from all technology companies involved in the digital information stack. Some governments discussed in this report are skeptical of working with Western technology companies due to legacies of colonialism and foreign interference; however, ensuring more transparency from these companies could also strengthen and empower local governments to be skeptical towards Chinese companies and their investments.
Similarly, civil society groups in countries with restrictive environments should push global democracies and the technology companies themselves to maintain access to these platforms for their countries’ citizens.
- In Myanmar, pressure the junta to restore access to social media platforms.
Until it was banned in the early days of the coup, Facebook was the internet in Myanmar. Over a year later, the country’s population can now access a “whitelisted” internet, but Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are still inaccessible without using a VPN, and the junta is working to make VPN usage illegal in Myanmar.
Myanmar civil society should ask democracies (who, in turn, interact with Myanmar’s current authorities) and Western social media platforms to put pressure on the junta to restore access. The huge market share of those platforms was one of the biggest weaknesses in the PRC’s control of Myanmar’s digital stack, and democracies should strive to restore that advantage.
6. Develop and Maintain Channels of Protected Communication
Democratic actors on the ground should advocate for the development, institution, and sustainment of protected communications technology due to its significance for vibrant political debate.
In their own operations, democratic actors on the ground should use applications that circumvent state surveillance like those founded by the U.S.’s Open Technology Fund, including Signal, Tor, Ricochet, and others.
In their advocacy with their own governments and democratic governments worldwide, democracy advocates should push for support for open technological alternatives.
- In Myanmar, develop an alternative to Huawei’s scanning app.
Huawei’s scan app scans Myanmar citizens’ ID cards to translate handwritten information into electronic databases for telecom operators. It is now used by all of Myanmar’s major telecom operators whenever someone buys a new SIM card in the country. It allows the Chinese tech giant to build, and likely preserve access to, a database containing the identification information of an ever-growing share of the population. Democracies should sponsor an alternative system that would serve the same purpose without having a PRC tech company act as the middleman.
- In Uganda, encourage the development and availability of alternative non- Chinese 5G hardware providers.
In a market like Uganda’s, where nearly all internet access is cellphone-based, having non-PRC party-state providers for both devices and infrastructure hardware is uniquely important. Democracies in North America, Europe, and Asia should make competitiveness in the wireless market a strategic priority not only for the benefit of their own immediate security, but to give developing countries and their consumers more secure options too.
The United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia, Thailand was a key Cold War partner in a critical region. Although Thai-US relations remain solid, the current military government in Bangkok shares Beijing’s outlook on governance and seeks to “silence critical voices, centralize policy and power, and privilege big businesses and mega-projects in growing Thailand’s economy.”1 Thailand still maintains strong bilateral relations with other democracies, including Japan and the EU.2 But the values that currently underpin its system of government are making it steadily drift toward China.
This drift is especially visible in the various layers of Thailand’s digital information stack:
- In the network infrastructure layer, Chinese tech companies are involved in everything from submarine internet cables and data centers to the rollout of Thailand’s 5G network.
- In the device layer, Chinese smartphones, including some with known security vulnerabilities, have a significant market share, and Chinese companies under U.S. sanctions over human rights abuses in Xinjiang are helping the Thai government in set up several smart city projects.
- In the application layer, TikTok is rapidly becoming a key platform for political activism, even as non-Chinese platforms remain the most widely used in the country.
- In the content layer, despite some success with older generations, Chinese diplomats’ and state media’s efforts to improve their country’s perception have largely faltered with younger Thais who were instrumental in the rise of the Milk Tea Alliance, a pan-Asian pro-democracy movement.
- In the governance layer, Thailand’s autocratic government is passing cybersecurity laws that resemble Chinese regulations and moving toward a more centrally controlled digital information stack that draws inspiration from the Chinese model.
With Chinese actors well-positioned in the network infrastructure and device layers of the Thai digital information stack, their relative weakness in the application and content layers is compensated by the overall appeal of China’s autocratic model for Bangkok.
Myanmar’s long land border with China and lengthy coastline on the Indian Ocean make the country strategically important for Beijing. However, the February 2021 military coup has made the situation in Myanmar less predictable. On the one hand, the coup undid many of the investments Chinese companies had made in the country under the democratically elected Suu Kyi government. On the other hand, the junta is militarily and diplomatically dependent on its northern neighbor as its brutal repression of the population has pushed out other investors, including Japan, Singapore, and India. If they can navigate the turbulent political context, the Chinese state and Chinese companies stand to lastingly increase their footprint in Myanmar.
Their involvement in Myanmar’s digital information stack reflects this risky calculus:
- In the network infrastructure layer, Chinese companies have been involved in all of Myanmar’s submarine internet cables and are central to the deployment of 4G and 5G in the country. A Huawei-developed system collects the ID information of most Myanmar citizens when they buy a SIM card and key government functions like disaster relief depend on Chinese state-run navigation satellite technology.
- In the device layer, Chinese companies manufacture more than half the handsets sold in Myanmar and are collaborating with the government to deploy smart city systems, often including facial recognition technology, in the country’s main cities.
- In the application layer, TikTok is making headway with Myanmar’s youth and has already become a battleground for pro- and anti-military activists. However, non-Chinese apps like Facebook and Line still dwarf their Chinese competitors, and the coup largely reversed Chinese companies’ inroads into Myanmar’s digital payment industry.
- In the content layer, China’s efforts to place more of its state media’s content in local outlets have not been enough to avoid significant backlash over its support to the military government, both real and perceived.
- In the governance layer, the military government has passed a cybersecurity bill with provisions that directly echo those found in the regulatory framework of China’s digital information stack, and some media reports indicate that Chinese experts have helped the military increase its control over Myanmar’s internet.
The military government hardening stance toward pro-democracy opponents will increase its reliance on China. Underpinned by a cybersecurity bill that echoes Beijing’s own digital governance architecture, measures like banning Facebook and pushing Norwegian telecom group Telenor out of the country are paving the way for the Chinese state to further cement its entrenchment in Myanmar’s digital information stack.
In recent years Western countries have been very critical of the Ugandan government’s crackdown on political opponents and of legislation that targets the country’s LGBT+ community. The Chinese government has used these periods of elevated criticism or threat of sanctions as opportunities to provide more loans for infrastructure across Uganda. Often these loans have been used to fund infrastructure built by Huawei, which has helped several Ugandan entities spy on the communications of political opponents and has reportedly established a surveillance network in major cities across the country. Additionally, China’s ownership of satellite subscription television services like the Star Times gives the CCP a means to broadcast programming that aligns with its strategic goals.
China’s role in developing Uganda’s digital information stack provides it with points of leverage at each layer:
- In the network infrastructure layer, Uganda’s National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) and Electronic Government Infrastructure (EGI) were financed by the China Import-Export Bank and constructed by Huawei.
- In the device layer, Huawei has deployed surveillance hardware across Uganda, and aided Ugandan security forces in using it to track political opponents.
- In the application later, Chinese firms have supplied most of the software on which the Ugandan government operates.
- In the content layer, China produces news and entertainment aimed at African audiences, often crafted to support pro-China narratives and elevate authoritarian leaders with whom they work, including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
- In the governance layer, China is investing in the human capital of Uganda through educational programs and scholarships, generally aimed at encouraging both brand and ideological loyalty among Ugandan students, workers, and elites.
Through these five avenues of leverage over Uganda’s digital future, China has positioned itself to support one of its favored strongmen, while Museveni makes himself ever more beholden, both financially and practically, to the Chinese government and the firms through which it operates.
Data and cyber sovereignty have gained significant political salience in Nigeria over recent years as President Muhammadu Buhari and his government seek to silence critics using Western social media platforms like Twitter. The Nigerian government has also expressed concern over the possibility of the United States and other Western governments accessing Nigerian data stored in centers in North America and Europe. Additionally, Nigeria’s place in Sub-Saharan Africa as a hub for entertainment and other forms of media make it strategically valuable for Chinese information control. China has invested considerable resources into building up Nigeria’s entertainment hub “Nollywood” and several Chinese news outlets maintain bureaus in Lagos and Abuja.
China’s role is visible at each level of Nigeria’s digital information stack, giving it potent leverage over Nigeria’s society and economy:
- In the network infrastructure layer, Nigeria is heavily reliant on undersea cables that run along the West African coast, several of which are partially owned by Chinese firms or were constructed by Huawei Marine.
- In the device layer, China has supplied CCTV cameras, Huawei Safe City hardware, and other surveillance technology to Nigerian police and security forces.
- In the application layer, China has furnished Nigeria with sophisticated oil and gas drilling sensors and management systems, giving Chinese firms leverage over and insight into Nigeria’s chief exports to China.
- In the content layer, China has invested in the Nigerian film industry and seeks to use Nigeria as its African hub for cultural exports, including news and entertainment.
- In the governance layer, China has encouraged Nigeria to pursue a path of substantial government control over the internet and over its citizens’ data.
Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Africa and one of the most populous democracies in the world. But domestic challenges and democratic backsliding have given China opportunities to encourage and facilitate censorship and surveillance by Buhari’s government, while turning Nigeria into an outpost of Chinese cultural influence in the region.
Jamaica serves as a staging ground for PRC investments across the Caribbean region. Jamaica is a BRI signatory and has received several infrastructure investments ranging from transportation to its digital information stack. However, U.S. sanction actions targeting Chinese companies have curbed their investment in Jamaica’s ICT sector.
The relationship between Jamaica and the PRC is visible in the various layers of Jamaica’s digital information stack:
- In the network infrastructure layer, Chinese telecommunication companies are not involved with the undersea cables, but Chinese telecommunication companies Huawei and ZTE provided equipment in Jamaica’s 3G and 4G LTE ICT networks. It is unclear whether Chinese companies will be involved in Jamaica’s 5G networks.
- The presence of Chinese telecommunication companies in Jamaica’s device layer has dramatically tapered since the U.S.’s blacklisting of several PRC companies. The most notable examples of cooperation are ZTE working with Digicel Group, a Caribbean mobile phone company with headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica, to create the world’s first low-cost mobile phone in 2009, and Intcomex promoting Huawei’s brand across Jamaica to improve device sales.
- In the application layer, TikTok is a popular social media platform in Jamaica and used by politicians to promote their parties and policies, which has garnered some controversy in the country.
- Chinese messaging and narratives in the content layer echo those across the Caribbean, focused on promoting the PRC within the media ecosystems of Taiwan’s Caribbean diplomatic allies.
- Lastly, in the governance layer, Jamaica was the first Caribbean country to remove laws that criminalize defamation and have not used ICT equipment from Chinese companies to suppress domestic dissent. Still, Jamaican government officials are courting more opportunities from Chinese companies to make some governance processes more efficient, ranging from fighting crime to maintaining public order.
Despite the ramifications of U.S. sanctions and export regimes and a strong legal framework to protect basic freedoms, some Jamaican government officials continue to entertain the possibility of the PRC’s involvement in the country’s digital information stack. Civil society actors should be wary of these ties as well as of outreach by Chinese telecommunication companies to promote themselves through donations and training opportunities.
- Benjamin Zawacki, “Of Questionable Connectivity: China’s BRI and Thai Civil Society,” Council on Foreign Relations, 7 June 2020, available at https://www.cfr.org/blog/questionable-connectivity-chinas-bri-and-thai-civil-society
- David Hutt, “Thailand moves to strengthen EU ties amid US-China rivalry,” Deutsche Welle, 30 July 2021, available at https://www.dw.com/en/thailand-moves-to-strengthen-eu-ties-amid-us-china-rivalry/a-58706850