The more than 1.4 billion people living in China are constantly watched. They are recorded by police cameras that are everywhere, on street corners and subway ceilings, in hotel lobbies and apartment buildings. Their phones are tracked, their purchases are monitored, and their online chats are censored.
Now, even their future is under surveillance.
The latest generation of technology digs through the vast amounts of data collected on their daily activities to find patterns and aberrations, promising to predict crimes or protests before they happen. They target potential troublemakers in the eyes of the Chinese government — not only those with a criminal past but also vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities, migrant workers and those with a history of mental illness.
They can warn the police if a victim of a fraud tries to travel to Beijing to petition the government for payment or a drug user makes too many calls to the same number. They can signal officers each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.
It takes extensive evasive maneuvers to avoid the digital tripwires. In the past, Zhang Yuqiao, a 74-year-old man who has been petitioning the government for most of his adult life, could simply stay off the main highways to dodge the authorities and make his way to Beijing to fight for compensation over the torture of his parents during the Cultural Revolution. Now, he turns off his phones, pays in cash and buys multiple train tickets to false destinations.
While largely unproven, the new Chinese technologies, detailed in procurement and other documents reviewed by The New York Times, further extend the boundaries of social and political controls and integrate them ever deeper into people’s lives. At their most basic, they justify suffocating surveillance and violate privacy, while in the extreme they risk automating systemic discrimination and political repression.
For the government, social stability is paramount and any threat to it must be eliminated. During his decade as China’s top leader, Xi Jinping has hardened and centralized the security state, unleashing techno-authoritarian policies to quell ethnic unrest in the western region of Xinjiang and enforce some of the world’s most severe coronavirus lockdowns. The space for dissent, always limited, is rapidly disappearing.
“Big data should be used as an engine to power the innovative development of public security work and a new growth point for nurturing combat capabilities,” Mr. Xi said in 2019 at a national public security work meeting.
The algorithms, which would prove controversial in other countries, are often trumpeted as triumphs.
In 2020, the authorities in southern China denied a woman’s request to move to Hong Kong to be with her husband after software alerted them that the marriage was suspicious, the local police reported. An ensuing investigation revealed that the two were not often in the same place at the same time and had not spent the Spring Festival holiday together. The police concluded that the marriage had been faked to obtain a migration permit.
The same year in northern China, an automated alert about a man’s frequent entry into a residential compound with different companions prompted the police to investigate. They discovered that he was a part of a pyramid scheme, according to state media.
The details of these emerging security technologies are described in police research papers, surveillance contractor patents and presentations, as well as hundreds of public procurement documents reviewed and confirmed by The Times. Many of the procurement documents were shared by ChinaFile, an online magazine published by the Asia Society, which has systematically gathered years of records on government websites. Another set, describing software bought by the authorities in the port city of Tianjin to stop petitioners from going to neighboring Beijing, was provided by IPVM, a surveillance industry publication.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment faxed to its headquarters in Beijing and six local departments across the country.
The new approach to surveillance is partly based on data-driven policing software from the United States and Europe, technology that rights groups say has encoded racism into decisions like which neighborhoods are most heavily policed and which prisoners get parole. China takes it to the extreme, tapping nationwide reservoirs of data that allow the police to operate with opacity and impunity.
Often people don’t know they’re being watched. The police face little outside scrutiny of the effectiveness of the technology or the actions they prompt. The Chinese authorities require no warrants to collect personal information.
At the most bleeding edge, the systems raise perennial science-fiction conundrums: How is it possible to know the future has been accurately predicted if the police intervene before it happens?
Even when the software fails to deduce human behavior, it can be considered successful since the surveillance itself inhibits unrest and crime, experts say.
“This is an invisible cage of technology imposed on society,” said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, “the disproportionate brunt of it being felt by groups of people that are already severely discriminated against in Chinese society.”‘Nowhere to Hide’
In 2017, one of China’s best-known entrepreneurs had a bold vision for the future: a computer system that could predict crimes.
The entrepreneur, Yin Qi, who founded Megvii, an artificial intelligence start-up, told Chinese state media that the surveillance system could give the police a search engine for crime, analyzing huge amounts of video footage to intuit patterns and warn the authorities about suspicious behavior. He explained that if cameras detected a person spending too much time at a train station, the system could flag a possible pickpocket.
“It would be scary if there were actually people watching behind the camera, but behind it is a system,” Mr. Yin said. “It’s like the search engine we use every day to surf the internet — it’s very neutral. It’s supposed to be a benevolent thing.”
He added that with such surveillance, “the bad guys have nowhere to hide.”
Five years later, his vision is slowly becoming reality. Internal Megvii presentations reviewed by The Times show how the start-up’s products assemble full digital dossiers for the police.
“Build a multidimensional database that stores faces, photos, cars, cases and incident records,” reads a description of one product, called “intelligent search.” The software analyzes the data to “dig out ordinary people who seem innocent” to “stifle illegal acts in the cradle.”
A Megvii spokesman said in an emailed statement that the company was committed to the responsible development of artificial intelligence, and that it was concerned about making life more safe and convenient and “not about monitoring any particular group or individual.”
Similar technologies are already being put into use. In 2022, the police in Tianjin bought software made by a Megvii competitor, Hikvision, that aims to predict protests. The system collects data on legions of Chinese petitioners, a general term in China that describes people who try to file complaints about local officials with higher authorities.
It then scores petitioners on the likelihood that they will travel to Beijing. In the future, the data will be used to train machine-learning models, according to a procurement document.
Local officials want to prevent such trips to avoid political embarrassment or exposure of wrongdoing. And the central government doesn’t want groups of disgruntled citizens gathering in the capital.
A Hikvision representative declined to comment on the system.
Under Mr. Xi, official efforts to control petitioners have grown increasingly invasive. Zekun Wang, a 32-year-old member of a group that for years sought redress over a real estate fraud, said the authorities in 2017 had intercepted fellow petitioners in Shanghai before they could even buy tickets to Beijing. He suspected that the authorities were watching their communications on the social media app WeChat.
The Hikvision system in Tianjin, which is run in cooperation with the police in nearby Beijing and Hebei Province, is more sophisticated.
The platform analyzes individuals’ likelihood to petition based on their social and family relationships, past trips and personal situations, according to the procurement document. It helps the police create a profile of each, with fields for officers to describe the temperament of the protester, including “paranoid,” “meticulous” and “short tempered.”
Many people who petition do so over government mishandling of a tragic accident or neglect in the case — all of which goes into the algorithm. “Increase a person’s early-warning risk level if they have low social status or went through a major tragedy,” reads the procurement document.
When the police in Zhouning, a rural county in Fujian Province, bought a new set of 439 cameras in 2018, they listed coordinates where each would go. Some hung above intersections and others near schools, according to a procurement document.
Nine were installed outside the homes of people with something in common: mental illness.
While some software tries to use data to uncover new threats, a more common type is based on the preconceived notions of the police. In over a hundred procurement documents reviewed by The Times, the surveillance targeted blacklists of “key persons.”
These people, according to some of the procurement documents, included those with mental illness, convicted criminals, fugitives, drug users, petitioners, suspected terrorists, political agitators and threats to social stability. Other systems targeted migrant workers, idle youths (teenagers without school or a job), ethnic minorities, foreigners and those infected with H.I.V.
The authorities decide who goes on the lists, and there is often no process to notify people when they do. Once individuals are in a database, they are rarely removed, said experts, who worried that the new technologies reinforce disparities within China, imposing surveillance on the least fortunate parts of its population.
In many cases the software goes further than simply targeting a population, allowing the authorities to set up digital tripwires that indicate a possible threat. In one Megvii presentation detailing a rival product by Yitu, the system’s interface allowed the police to devise their own early warnings.
With a simple fill-in-the-blank menu, the police can base alarms on specific parameters, including where a blacklisted person appears, when the person moves around, whether he or she meets with other blacklisted people and the frequency of certain activities. The police could set the system to send a warning each time two people with a history of drug use check into the same hotel or when four people with a history of protest enter the same park.
Yitu did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
In 2020 in the city of Nanning, the police bought software that could look for “more than three key people checking into the same or nearby hotels” and “a drug user calling a new out-of-town number frequently,” according to a bidding document. In Yangshuo, a tourist town famous for its otherworldly karst mountains, the authorities bought a system to alert them if a foreigner without a work permit spent too much time hanging around foreign-language schools or bars, an apparent effort to catch people overstaying their visas or working illegally.
In Shanghai, one party-run publication described how the authorities used software to identify those who exceeded normal water and electricity use. The system would send a “digital whistle” to the police when it found suspicious consumption patterns.
The tactic was likely designed to detect migrant workers, who often live together in close quarters to save money. In some places, the police consider them an elusive, and often impoverished, group who can bring crime into communities.
The automated alerts don’t result in the same level of police response. Often, the police give priority to warnings that point to political problems, like protests or other threats to social stability, said Suzanne E. Scoggins, a professor at Clark University who studies China’s policing.
At times, the police have stated outright the need to profile people. “Through the application of big data, we paint a picture of people and give them labels with different attributes,” Li Wei, a researcher at China’s national police university, said in a 2016 speech. “For those who receive one or more types of labels, we infer their identities and behavior, and then carry out targeted pre-emptive security measures.”
Toward Techno Totalitarianism
Mr. Zhang first started petitioning the government for compensation over the torture of his family during the Cultural Revolution. He has since petitioned over what he says is police targeting of his family.
As China has built out its techno-authoritarian tools, he has had to use spy movie tactics to circumvent surveillance that, he said, has become “high tech and Nazified.”
Surveillance cameras within 100 meters of Zhang Yuqiao’s home. There are no cameras in other places in his village, he said.Credit…Zhang Yuqiao
When he traveled to Beijing in January from his village in Shandong Province, he turned off his phone and paid for transportation in cash to minimize his digital footprint. He bought train tickets to the wrong destination to foil police tracking. He hired private drivers to get around checkpoints where his identification card would set off an alarm.
The system in Tianjin has a special feature for people like him who have “a certain awareness of anti-reconnaissance” and regularly change vehicles to evade detection, according to the police procurement document.
Whether or not he triggered the system, Mr. Zhang has noticed a change. Whenever he turns off his phone, he said, officers show up at his house to check that he hasn’t left on a new trip to Beijing.
Even if police systems cannot accurately predict behavior, the authorities may consider them successful because of the threat, said Noam Yuchtman, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who has studied the impact of surveillance in China.
“In a context where there isn’t real political accountability,” having a surveillance system that frequently sends police officers “can work pretty well” at discouraging unrest, he said.
Once the metrics are set and the warnings are triggered, police officers have little flexibility, centralizing control. They are evaluated for their responsiveness to automated alarms and effectiveness at preventing protests, according to experts and public police reports.
The technology has encoded power imbalances. Some bidding documents refer to a “red list” of people whom the surveillance system must ignore.
One national procurement document said the function was for “people who need privacy protection or V.I.P. protection.” Another, from Guangdong Province, got more specific, stipulating that the red list was for government officials.
Mr. Zhang expressed frustration at the ways technology had cut off those in political power from regular people.
“The authorities do not seriously solve problems but do whatever it takes to silence the people who raise the problems,” he said. “This is a big step backward for society.”
Mr. Zhang said that he still believed in the power of technology to do good, but that in the wrong hands it could be a “scourge and a shackle.”
“In the past if you left your home and took to the countryside, all roads led to Beijing,” he said. “Now, the entire country is a net.”
China Just Launched Its Digital Yuan, Could This Be the End of Cash?
China has officially started rolling out its new digital currency, and it’s got us thinking a lot about cash. More specifically, is a cashless society the new reality?
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China might be the first country to abandon physical money in favor of digital legal tender. Part of the reason China has taken the lead creating a state-backed digital currency is because the country initially lacked the credit-card based payment infrastructure of other countries, like the U.S. So, tech companies like Tencent and Alibaba developed apps that let people exchange money digitally with their phones. The apps have proven extremely successful, with hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens using them regularly. So successful in fact that six years ago, China’s central bank saw the upsides of developing its own digital yuan. As of April 2020, the program is being taken for a test run in four Chinese cities. The details on how the currency actually works aren’t very well known, but a few things are clear. The digital yuan is tied to the value of the normal, physical yuan. Since it’s state backed, that means the government is liable for it and it should be stable, compared to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, where the value can swing wildly. And because it’s backed by the state, that means it’ll be more widely accepted. But how will the digital yuan work, what are the pros and cons, how is it different from cryptocurrency, and what does this mean for the rest of the cash-using world?
Find out more in this Elements. #digitalyuan #cryptocurrency #china #yuan #money #tech #seeker #elements
Read More: ‘An absolute necessity:’ Why this expert says China desperately needs a digital currency https://fortune.com/2020/07/30/china-…
“It’s the first time we’re going to have money that we program to do things automatically; that has functionality.”
China Plans to Test Digital Yuan on Food Delivery Giant’s Platforms https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articl…
“A virtual yuan could bolster the government’s grip over the world’s No. 2 economy and its giant financial services industry, and some observers think it could someday shift the global balance of a U.S.-dollar-centric global currency system.”
What to expect in a cash-free future https://qz.com/1805523/what-to-expect… “For the first time since paper money was invented some 1,000 years ago, a future where cash is no longer kind seems possible.”
China Marshals the Power of Its Surveillance State in Fight Against Coronavirus
Officials use big data to track the movements of infected individuals
In January, a person infected with the dangerous new Wuhan coronavirus used public transportation to crisscross the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing, potentially exposing those along the way to the highly contagious pathogen.
Using the country’s pervasive digital-surveillance apparatus, authorities were able to track—down to the minute—the sick person’s exact journey through the city’s subway system.
4:30 p.m.: Enters Nanjing South subway
station (1), takes line 3 to Daxinggong (2) station and changes to line 2. Gets off at Xian Men station (3) at 5:15 p.m. and walks to Nanjing General Hospital’s (4) outpatient building.
At 6:18 p.m. enters Xian Men station (3)
and takes line 2 back to Daxinggong (2) and changes to line 3 to Luizhou East subway station (5).
After 6:45 p.m., takes the No. 692 bus near
Jiangshan Road and Mingjiang Road (6) and gets off at Daqiao North (7).
1:36 p.m: Gets on the No. 637 bus at Puzhu
North Road, Da Qiao North road (1) gets off outside Pukou Hospital (2).
2:33 p.m.: Takes the No. 692 bus near the
hospital and gets off at Puzhu North Road,
Lehua Road (3).
2.43 p.m.: Boards the No. 558 bus, towards
Chenghecun, gets off at Nanjing’s No. 2 Hospital (4). Sees doctor and is brought to Nanjing Municipal Center for Public Health Emergency (5) and placed under quarantine.
Sources: Google Earth; Nanjing government
Officials then published those and other details of the person’s movements on social media and warned residents to get themselves checked if they had been in the vicinity at the time.
“In this day and age, you can trace everyone’s movements with big data,” Li Lanjuan, an adviser to the National Health Commission, said in an interview with state television.
China’s government has launched an unprecedented effort to track the fast-spreading virus, which has infected more than 20,000 people and killed at least 425 around the world.
Much of the work is being done by armies of neighborhood monitors and managers of residential complexes, tasked with checking on people believed to have recently traveled to Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, and reporting their findings to authorities.
But the human virus trackers have help. Authorities are sifting through information from phone companies, railroads and airlines as they tackle the country’s biggest public health crisis since an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, almost two decades ago.
China has built a formidable digital-surveillance system in recent years, linking facial recognition, security cameras and social-media monitoring with regular human surveillance. The aim is to keep tabs on its 1.4 billion citizens, chiefly to identify and prevent threats to social order and Communist Party control.
The country’s state-run media has celebrated the application of the authorities’ big-data tracking abilities in the campaign to control the disease outbreak, touting it as an example of the social benefits of technology.
Shizhu county in Chongqing, in southwestern China, said it used unspecified data to track more than 5,500 people arriving for the Lunar New Year holiday from Hubei province. Roughly half were placed under home quarantine, according to a report in the Communist Party-run Chongqing Daily newspaper.
In Zhejiang province, not far from Nanjing, authorities dealing with one patient who denied having contact with anyone in Wuhan were able to use data analysis to show he had interacted with three others from the city, China Central Television reported last week.
Chinese officials not only have access to more data than most other governments, they can also tap it more quickly thanks to close relationships with the mostly state-run companies that oversee the country’s transportation and telecommunications networks.
That has allowed China to partially automate the process of tracking the movements of infected individuals—a process known as “contact tracing”—which most countries still do using face-to-face interviews.
In China, “there is a much greater capacity to access and analyze big data, so the potential scale of contact tracing that could be undertaken is much larger,” said Nic Geard, an engineering professor who studies data modeling of diseases at the University of Melbourne.
Mr. Geard, however, cautioned about risks to individual privacy. Even if data is redacted, “there can be enough personally identifying information such that you can reconstruct the person’s identity,” he said.
An online leak of personal information, including home addresses, belonging to hundreds of people who had traveled home from Wuhan illustrates the dangers. Several in the group, many of them university students, reported being bombarded with harassing phone calls and messages on social media.
In a notice published last week, China’s Ministry of Transport warned taxi and ride-hailing companies to take greater care in protecting user privacy when transferring data to the National Health Commission.
Some experts argue that in an emergency privacy matters less. “In the event of a public safety threat, it is OK to sacrifice some privacy for the benefit of society,” said Zhu Wei, associate professor at China University of Political Science and Law and adviser to the government on legal issues in cyberspace.
Chinese citizens are accustomed to handing over personally identifying information to the government and organizations like the country’s state-run railway.
Huang Xin, an executive with China State Railway Group Co., said at a press conference in Beijing last week that it had set up a task force to help response teams track passenger traffic and identify people who have shared cars with virus patients.
The company had provided such data more than 200 times in the 30 days since the start of the outbreak, he said.
Transportation authorities said last week that, in addition to entering national ID numbers, all railway passengers now also need to provide mobile-phone numbers to purchase tickets.
China’s tech giants have also sought to adopt big data to fight the outbreak. Chinese search engine and mapping provider Baidu Inc. produced an online map that allows users to track the final destination of outbound car trips from Wuhan in the days leading to the city’s shutdown. Sogou, another Beijing-based search engine, runs an app allowing travelers to search retrospectively if they were on the same flights or trains as infected victims.
Smaller startups introduced maps for Chinese netizens to track the number of virus infections in a neighborhood in real-time.
China’s three big state-run telecom operators contribute to the tracking by using network signals to monitor the location of mobile phones, said Huang Huang, a data scientist at Peking University’s School of Government. Mobile-phone numbers in China are tied to national ID numbers, meaning it is easy for carriers to identify the owner of almost any device, Mr. Huang said.
One of those carriers, China Unicom, created a big-data team of more than 100 people to help the government’s outbreak response team track population movements, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
None of the three telecom carriers responded to requests for comment. China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which regulates data-sharing, also didn’t respond to a request for comment. China has been on an extended Lunar New Year holiday break because of the coronavirus.
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West Africa has tried to use information from telecom carriers to fight the spread of Ebola in the past, but those efforts were hindered by difficulty identifying the owners of mobile-phone numbers, patchy mobile network coverage and pushback from privacy advocates, according to Susan Erikson, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.
Few of those problems come into play in China, where roughly 850 million mobile internet users are served by 4G networks that cover almost the entire country. Concern over data privacy, though growing in major cities, is small to nonexistent in most places.
Ms. Erikson, who spent time in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis, said the idea of using big data often sounds more impressive than it is.
“In reality, there is too little return on the massive investment required to translate telecom info into public health action,” she added. “The opportunity costs in an emergency are huge. Paying attention to low-return activity during a crisis means not paying attention to other more urgent public health needs.”
5G Is Where China and the West Finally Diverge
The rollout of speedy new cellular networks is a geopolitical turning point, but neither Trump nor the public yet recognizes this.
The rollout of fifth-generation cellular networks around the world will likely be a defining geopolitical dilemma of 2020. But American and European consumers could easily mistake 5G for just another marketing ploy for early adopters—to the detriment of democracies worldwide.
When the number in the corner of our smartphone screens changed from 3G to 4G, few of us even noticed. Ditto when LTE, another step in the evolution of cellular networks, appeared as an alternative to 4G. Still, for the better part of the past two years, wireless carriers on both sides of the Atlantic have been hyping 5G—which, they promise, will offer data speeds of up to 100 times faster than current connections. Tech futurists say fifth-generation networks will support a plethora of internet-connected sensors, vehicles, appliances, and other devices that will perform functions yet unimagined.
In Europe, the walls of nearly every major airport from Stockholm and Brussels to Lisbon and Madrid have been plastered with 5G-related ads. In the United States, network providers such as AT&T have even rolled out what they’re calling “5GE” networks—a pre-5G deployment that capitalizes on the vaguely futuristic branding of fifth-generation networks even before all the requisite new radios and chipsets have been installed. Still, 7 of 10 Americans tell PricewaterhouseCoopers they’ll wait patiently to receive a 5G device until they are eligible for an upgrade from their current provider.
Amid this much public indifference, 5G may seem like an unlikely battleground between China and the West. Yet the transition to 5G may mark the point, after decades of Chinese integration into a globalized economy, when Beijing’s interests diverge irreconcilably from those of the United States, the European Union, and their democratic peers. Because of a failure of imagination, Western powers risk capitulating in what has become a critical geopolitical arena. Simply put, neither the American nor the European public seems to view the networks that supply Snapchat clips and Uber cars as anything close to a security threat.
Some of the world’s leading telecom-equipment manufacturers, including Huawei and ZTE, are Chinese companies with murky ownership structures and close ties to China’s authoritarian one-party government. Many in the U.S. national-security establishment rightly fear that equipment made by these companies could allow Beijing to siphon off sensitive personal or corporate data. Or it could use well-concealed kill switches to cripple Western telecom systems during an active war. The mere threat of this activity would endow China’s leadership with geopolitical leverage at all times.
This is why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently exhorted EU allies not to “trust Chinese firms with critical networks.” China has fought back, threatening to scuttle a trade deal with Denmark’s Faroe Islands and, more recently, to retaliate against the German auto industry should European officials bar the use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks.
The framing of 5G primarily as a consumer-technology matter works to China’s benefit. “Choose 5G,” proclaimed one ad in the Brussels airport—part of a campaign that presents a false choice between Huawei and the 4G status quo. A focus on tech alone would also suit U.S. and EU telecom operators eager to deliver faster speeds while minimizing their own costs. The Huawei equipment they buy is typically cheaper than the gear produced by the three suppliers based in democratic countries—the European firms Ericsson and Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung.
Meanwhile, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, from European economics ministers to President Donald Trump, have viewed the 5G dispute first as a trade issue. Even as the Trump administration has taken steps, as The New York Times has described it, to “block China’s national telecommunications champion, Huawei, from operating in the United States and starve it of American technology as it builds networks around the globe,” the president has also hinted at a willingness to waive restrictions in exchange for economic concessions from China. In 2018, Trump backed down from national-security sanctions against ZTE as a sweetener in his trade negotiations with Xi Jinping.
Against these attitudes, Pompeo and others sounding alarms about Huawei can be perfunctorily dismissed as protectionists, xenophobes, or military hawks. The American secretary of state has become a particular target of criticism in China, where government officials and the media have described him as a font of “lies and fallacies” and a “Cold War warrior.”
Yet the West has ample reason for caution about Chinese 5G suppliers. For one, the recent Chinese National Intelligence Law requires these companies to comply with Communist Party demands to turn over data or otherwise engage in snooping or network-disruption activities. Party-backed actors in China’s public and private sectors also have a long record of cyberattacks on the West, including stealing intellectual property from companies and sensitive personal information on citizens.
The case against Huawei isn’t just guilt by association. The company itself is suspected of committing blatant corporate espionage: A Justice Department indictment from early 2019 cited highly specific demands by Huawei headquarters in China for information from engineers embedded in T-Mobile’s facility in Bellevue, Washington. An email exchange exposed Huawei’s pressure on employees in the field to steal even guarded equipment and trade secrets; according to the Justice Department, a bonus program offered rewards for the most valuable information stolen. One Huawei employee, the U.S. government alleges, literally walked out the door with a proprietary robotic arm in his bag.
And recent revelations about how China’s ruling party exploits the full panoply of personal information it has amassed about its citizens—facial-recognition images, mandatory DNA samples, 24-hour GPS coordinates, and search-history and online-activity tracking, as well as plain old eavesdropping—to quash religious freedom and basic rights should give major pause to Western governments and wireless carriers alike.
While Pompeo’s State Department has been pressing its case at one international forum to the next, his message has been met with some skepticism in Europe. Simply to acknowledge 5G as a security threat invites headaches that EU governments and telecom carriers would rather not contemplate. Ripping out Chinese gear would be a massive financial and logistical undertaking.
European regulators are used to viewing the American tech industry as a rival, and they bristle today at taking direction from Washington. And despite the fact that two 5G suppliers are European, and EU officials have argued for “technological sovereignty”—a term most reasonably construed to mean technological independence from the United States—member nations have not yet settled on a joint policy.
On top of that, the EU single market prides itself on principles of fair competition and an unwillingness to favor or reject a company because of its national origin, especially when its products are competitive, as Huawei’s are, on metrics such as price. The irony in this approach, of course, is that the Chinese state has subsidized efforts by Huawei to undercut its European and South Korean competitors, not least because of the possibility of obtaining geopolitical leverage. The Wall Street Journal estimated recently that as much as $75 billion in state support fueled Huawei’s rise. The failure to see 5G beyond the consumer lens is also a failure to understand Chinese companies as implements of state power as much as private entities in their own right.
The dispute over 5G isn’t the first time in recent history that economic infrastructure matters have overlapped with geopolitics in unhealthy ways. Nor is it the first time that overlap has caused problems for the transatlantic relationship. The European energy sector has long relied on cheap natural gas piped in from Russia, and deregulation has allowed Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom, to buy or build a large share of the infrastructure used to transport and distribute it. American policymakers have implored European leaders to diversify their energy sources, for fear of increased dependence on an authoritarian Russia. These warnings are often dismissed as self-serving, since American energy firms compete with Gazprom for European business.
The Trump administration’s mixed messaging on 5G lends credence to the cynical view that the United States is not serious about China as a national-security threat but regards it mostly as an economic competitor. (Never mind that U.S. telecom firms do not compete with Huawei on 5G equipment.) And the president’s trade threats against Europe—targeting products as varied as cheese, whiskey, and airplane fuselages—are not helping. Such positions prioritize trade conflicts over common security interests and alienate allies that the United States needs.
Even as Pompeo and others in the Trump administration warn against Huawei, European policymakers don’t know if Trump is serious about 5G as a national-security problem or planning to trade away the issue in exchange for the reduction in Chinese tariffs against U.S. farm products. But they do think he is serious about tariffs on them. They see trade as the one issue on which Trump has been consistent from the start of his presidential campaign.
The United States can work with its European partners to reduce geopolitical dependence on China and protect privacy and human rights in a data-centered age. But that will require Western policymakers and the public alike to conceive of 5G as something more than a consumer issue or a trade issue and devise a shared solution to protect the networks whose importance in our lives will only grow.