China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific

China: The rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific - Digital

China continues to export its digital authoritarianism playbook across the Indo-Pacific, reveals ARTICLE 19’s new report. 

In October 2023, at the third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China’s leader Xi Jinping signalled his intention to focus away from the more grandiose legacy projects of the Belt and Road Initiative in favour of ‘small yet smart’ projects. This acknowledgement of Party priorities reiterates the need to better understand the scope of China’s global ambitions to reshape digital governance – away from an open, free and interoperable internet, in favour of a model based on government control and mass surveillance.

The Digital Silk Road: China and the rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific examines China’s digital infrastructure and governance influence in four countries: Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand. Because the Indo-Pacific will retain its strategic significance for China as it rolls out next-generation tech and seeks partners in normalising its authoritarian approach to digital governance, the report argues that assessing China’s regional partnerships and what they mean for rising digital repression in the region is vital to understanding China’s ambitions to rewire the world and rewrite the rules that govern the digital space. 

Michael Caster, Asia Digital Programme Manager at ARTICLE 19, said: 

“Through its Digital Silk Road partnerships, China is seeking to create a China-centric global alternative to current technological standards and digital governance norms. By expanding its authoritarian model, China aims to ultimately supplant the tenets of internet freedom and rights-based principles of global digital governance.  

“This report shows that dual infrastructure and policy support from China, in the hands of authoritarian states, has contributed to increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and information, the right to privacy, and other acts of digital repression. 

“The international community must resist the normalisation of China’s repressive vision for the global internet – this requires diplomacy and political will, but also concrete resources invested in real alternatives that respect human rights.” 

Chinese national tech champions, including Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba, have been at the forefront of the Digital Silk Road partnerships, and related development assistance projects.  The companies, effectively proxies for the Chinese Communist Party priorities, have become the leading technology infrastructure providers in the region, especially when it comes to 5G, submarine fibre-optic cables and satellite systems. 

The report highlights the multiple concerns this dominance poses for human rights, including freedom of expression and information, and the right to privacy. In that, it echoes the concerns of local civil society in the region, who fear that, in the hands of authoritarian states, the infrastructure built by Chinese companies can support policy changes to exert greater control over the internet, through mass data gathering, surveillance and censorship. 

Inspired by Chinese digital authoritarianism, since 2021, Cambodia has been working on imposing its own version of the Chinese Great Firewall, under a National Internet Gateway. Nepal, which received development assistance from China in exchange for cracking down on Tibetan refugees, and Thailand, where the cooperation agreements with China bolstered the digital dictatorship imposed after the 2014 coup, have also been entertaining the possibility of implementing a China-style firewall. Although Malaysia has not declined to this level of authoritarianism, its leaders continue to express support for the Chinese model of digital governance, and pursue collaboration on policy, standards and cybersecurity. Cooperation agreements between China and countries are not made public – hampering the ability of civil society and other actors to fully assess impact and risk. 

To counteract China’s growing influence, the report calls for the international community to expand the resources available to support internet development around the world, based on internet freedom principles. The historic underinvestment in connectivity that respects human rights has allowed China to exploit the real development needs of countries in the region, and offer its technologies as the readily available and accessible solution, often fuelling an embrace of digital authoritarian tactics. 

China’s vision of a government-controlled, sovereign internet must continue to be resisted at the global level. In 2024, the United Nations states are negotiating the Global Digital Compact, which aims to ‘outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all’. It’s vital that the principles of free and open internet are defended and reaffirmed in the final document. Internet governance must remain a space for multiple actors, including private sector and civil society, and should not be dominated solely by nation state interests. 

Read the full report