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AI Could Be China’s Next Big Foreign Policy Tool

Pravish Agnihotri

China has ramped up its investment in the development of AI surveillance technologies and has also begun exporting them. What does this mean for Chinese foreign policy?

In June 2020, the Indian government banned the Chinese owned social networking app TikTok. The move was motivated by concerns over safety of the users’ data. Similar concerns have also sparked debate within the US government on banning the app. Although Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat are facing opposition, AI powered Chinese surveillance technologies are being increasingly employed around the world. As their popularity increases, these technologies have the potential to become powerful foreign policy tools. 

In 2015, the Chinese government announced Made in China 2025, a 1.68 trillion dollar plan aimed at achieving global AI dominance by the year 2030. In 2018, China also announced its AI Innovation Action Plan for Colleges and Universities, a plan to make Chinese education institutions the hotbed for AI innovation by 2030. Chinese state-backed investment banks are also continuously investing in Chinese AI startups. For example, the Chinese Electronics Technology group, a state owned company, owns 42% of the video-surveillance company Hikvision through its subsidiaries. Since 2017, $30 billion dollars have been invested in Chinese AI firms by both private and state investors. Although investment in AI is booming around the world, the Chinese state without an independent judiciary holds asymmetric power over AI startups. When the state does not indirectly own the start-ups, it can easily persuade them to share the data they collect with them. The Chinese state is also one of the biggest customers of these AI firms, further increasing chances of collaboration. For example, HikVision received a $290 million contract from the Chinese state in Xinjiang. Thus, Chinese AI start-ups become extensions of the Chinese state. 

China has already begun perfecting a system of mass surveillance in the region of Xinjiang. The region is increasingly being outfitted with surveillance cameras equipped with sophisticated facial recognition technology developed by state-backed Chinese AI firms. Citizens are constantly monitored in public places and various checkpoints around the cities. Other personal information, including an individual’s purchase history, address, family-links,  and biometric data are all linked together to create a comprehensive, all-seeing system. Residents of Xinjiang are also required to install mobile apps that monitor their phones for religious content. These apps can scan chats for verses of the Quran, religious books stored on the phone, donations made to religious organisations, or even a simple association with someone who attends mosques. If flagged, a citizen’s movement can be severely restricted, and in the worst case scenario, the citizen could be detained. 

Although Xinjiang represents the most intrusive form of Chinese surveillance, it does not mean that other regions of the country are not under the state’s watchful eye. The Great Chinese firewall continuously monitors and filters content on the internet. Chinese cities are dotted with surveillance cameras just like Xinjiang. Chinese social media apps have also become tools of surveillance. The most popular Chinese social media app is WeChat which serves as a social media app, a news app, a dating app, a ticket booking platform and a payment app. The app is used by around 1 billion Chinese citizens. The app was found to be monitoring content shared by its users. Various private pilot projects for a social credit system with an eventual plan for a state-backed national rollout are also underway. Scoring badly on the system may prevent a citizen from “travelling, buying property, or taking out loans”. Chinese AI firms are also perfecting smart-city projects which can track criminals, large crowds, and guide traffic, further increasing the scope for surveillance. Used together, this allows the Chinese state to track the movements, associations, and purchases of its citizens both online and offline. 

Chinese AI technology is also in demand internationally. Malaysian police are being outfitted with facial recognition cameras by Chinese firm Yitu. These cameras can match the faces of criminals in a central police database. Zimbabwe signed an agreement in March 2018 with Chinese firm CloudWalk to create an expansive facial recognition system for surveillance and law enforcement. China plans to offer its surveillance expertise to suppress terrorism in Pakistan as a part of its CPEC project. China will also offer “safe-city” programs to track explosives in conflict-ridden cities like Peshawar. Chinese firm Dahua has installed its “Intelligent Transportation System” to detect traffic violations and monitor blacklisted cars. Serbia, Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt have also inked similar deals with Chinese AI firms. As Chinese AI becomes more sophisticated and its demand increases globally, it will come to play an increasingly pivotal role in Chinese foreign policy. 

According to International Relations theory, one of the primary motivations driving a country’s foreign policy is self-preservation. A country’s actions towards others would primarily be influenced by ensuring the stability of its regime and strengthening its internal political control. Threats to regime stability can arise both internally and externally. Thus, states could be expected to act against both international and domestic threats. 

For an authoritarian regime, external threats could take the form of democracy-promotion measures taken by an international democratic bloc or waves of democratisation. Internally, threats could take the form of dissent from the civil society. 

International pressures to democratise can take many forms. Democratic states can enforce economic sanctions on authoritarian states. These states can also prevent authoritarian states from accessing important international institutions. Further, aid, investment, or bailout packages are also used as bait to bring about democratisation. 

An international authoritarian bloc, facing democratisation pressures, can choose to collaborate using collective agreements signed with an autocratic great power. The threat of escalation would prevent pro-democratic blocs to put pressure on individual authoritarian states. An authoritarian superpower can also represent and support smaller allies in international institutions and also become a source for economic and political assistance. This further allows smaller authoritarian states to repel democratisation pressures. 

Active democracy promotion isn’t the only threat to the regime stability of authoritarian states. The mere existence of successful democracies can spark up domestic opposition. In such a case, the maintenance of stable and economically successful authoritarian regimes becomes important to legitimise the regime type itself. The higher the number of authoritarian regimes, the more likely they are to be considered a legitimate form of political organisation. 

This is where Chinese AI tools gain political salience. China has long resisted pressures of democratisation despite a surging educated middle-class. Its use of technology in monitoring information and surveilling its citizens can partly explain the stability of its regime. These technologies of social control, with its proven effectiveness in China, can be used as extremely potent leverages to create alliances in the international arena. It wouldn’t be a surprise if leaders around the world are tempted to use China’s AI technology to ensure the survival of their regimes. Further, building alliances on the basis of AI can also lead to the creation of an international authoritarian bloc. This bloc can successfully resist pressures to democratise further securing domestic authoritarian regimes. Numerous stable authoritarian regimes can also grant legitimacy to themselves, further repelling pressures to democratise. 

Additionally, if an authoritarian regime comes up with a new and effective model of social control, it can also be expected to export that model to other regimes around the world. China has already proven that its expansionary measures are aimed at achieving global leadership. The “China model” – which marries economic freedom and industrial growth with absolute political and social control – can be expected to be exported around the world. A key part of the Chinese model is its surveillance state. For states looking to emulate China’s success, access to its surveillance technology would prove to be crucial. In such a case, the surveillance model it is currently perfecting in Xinjiang can become an even more powerful bargaining tool. 

Despite massive leaps, China still is not the global leader in AI. Most surveillance technologies are also in the nascent stages of their development. However, fuelled by its commitment and impressive investments, China is well on its path to dominate with its increasingly sophisticated technology. Mobile phones and internet connectivity are becoming more and more accessible with every passing day. We have also observed a surge in authoritarian states who will find China’s AI driven surveillance attractive. China has recognised AI’s potential very early on. Will it end up making all the difference? 

Pravish is a student of Political Science, International Relations, Economics and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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