From Digital Silk Road to Surveillance Superhighway
China's Global Gambit
At this point, it is no surprise to see the rise of China and the disruption this means for global stability and welfare. And I'm not talking about the economic rise of the world's second most populous nation, this is a great thing we have hundreds of millions of people escaping poverty and reducing human suffering on a scale we haven't seen in a very long time. The problem is (and will continue to be) the type of regime that is currently ruling over China, the repercussions this has on the global economy, and the threat the CCP is not only for its citizens but for human freedom worldwide
.One of the more ambitious projects that have been undergoing in recent years is the Belt and Road Initiative, possibly the largest investment in infrastructure we have seen this century with highways rail lines ports, and almost anything you can imagine to connect the Eurasian continent to China, both as the center of this logistic network but also as the main financier. This, of course, is a long-term project aimed at China to have a place under the sun once again and maybe make for the century of humiliation.
But as we know nothing that China does is for the well-being of anyone else but China and when the regime wants to expand its influence and the strength it has on other governments to make them subservient this has been one of its greatest ploys. And a big part of this Belt and Road initiative passes also through the digital world. Where the Chinese regime wants to grow its dominance and influence on economic development but also to spread its ideals and methodologies for social control and population surveillance.
Digital Silk Road
Now don't get me wrong as previously stated I think a rising China economically is a great thing for everyone it means more and more people are joining the global economy and that is a net positive we have more workers enjoying the benefits of the global marketplace and it is noticeable how people on both sides end up better thanks to trade and commerce.
Under the Belt and Road initiative, we have seen the Rise of the Digital Silk Road (DSR) this initiative is to support other countries and provide them with valuable technological infrastructure while at the same time giving incentives and benefits to exporting companies to facilitate goods and services for other countries.
Also part of the investment done worldwide in infrastructure is sometimes filling a void some. nations don't have the capital or the technological capacity for developing and installing. So the fact that China has been developing and exporting a whole bunch of technology and infrastructure is a great thing the problem comes back to politics and surveillance.
Chinese infrastructure is developed by Chinese companies which on the surface might seem like private companies with autonomy and safety precautions to prevent intervention from outside forces but sadly time and time again it has been a facade where Chinese companies in strategic areas are much more aligned with the CCP and subservient to its commands than we might think which of course compromises a lot of the safety and privacy concerns that are basic when we talk about essential infrastructure. Because you might doubt installing some 5g towers that come from a Chinese company or you know they might have a backdoor accessible by a foreign regime.
This mistrust of the independence of Chinese firms from the CCP has led many countries to ban Chinese companies from participating in public infrastructure contracts due to these well-found doubts about the transparency and safety concerns over handling this important infrastructure to Chinese firms.
A great quote from the late 90s and early 2000s came from President Clinton talking about internet censorship in China claiming it was like trying to nail jello to a wall, decades afterward the Chinese have been able to nail that jello very very well. China is the largest surveillance authoritarian state in the world(never forget this fact) with all of its population living under constant watch of course, due to its population, the job of keeping your population in check is not possible to be done only by party officials.
This is why China has mastered the “art” of state surveillance and Chinese companies are the great unsung “heroes” of this modern-day dystopia. The development of face-tracking software which has been implemented in most CCTV cameras spread out across the country provides the government a clear picture of where you are and at what time.
Then we got WeChat the “everything app” where most Chinese netizens chat, shop, post, and use it as a map for so many other things thanks to this centralization it is incredibly easy to track what people say, what they are consuming, and where they in real-time. After years of perfecting, it becomes a constant eye floating over each Chinese citizen and reports 24/7 what people are doing and lets party officials know whenever someone is acting out of line.
And if that wasn't enough we got the system lock-in of the Sesame Credit system, China's most recent innovation in social engineering and population control. Using this as an excuse to provide a credit score system like most countries have to provide trust and safety so that banks could know if people had good or bad credit and based on that knowing they were trustworthy humans. This on the surface doesn't seem like that much of a bad thing, but when you start digging deeper notice some characteristics of this “social credit score” and how it is tied not only to how fast you paid your last loan but mostly to how loyal are you to the CCP’s ideology and commands for its people if you are not committing any crimes of thought for example and behaving outside of what the regime wants its citizens to be doing.
The problem for people outside of China of systems like these is that more and more authoritarianism regimes are looking to China as a role model in surveillance and repression with “simple” systems that don't require thousands of spies and collaborators checking their neighbors and reporting like the GDR during the cold war. But creating subtle systems that can incentivize the population to be on the lookout constantly both self-policing but also watching the behavior of its neighbors to avoid disturbing the orders of the regime.
So with the decline in democratic rule around the world will the Chinese surveillance state become the new norm in the coming century? I hope this is not the case thinking of what would that mean for the billions who are living in countries that are sliding away from democracy and into authoritarian regimes.
AI: Weaponizing Information
We've discussed how AI is such an important technology for the coming century we know that in so many areas it can increase scientific discovery rates to unprecedented rates and increase productivity all over the place. But, another great/scary way AI will be used in the coming years is for manipulation and charisma. More and more we will have to be on the lookout for dark players using top-notch technology to craft subtle and powerful arguments for very unsavory ideas.
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This is one of the reasons why AI has scaled to become a geopolitical tool or even a weapon shortly. With it, you could develop camouflaged propaganda campaigns to unravel the logic of a government or erode the trust of a population in the institutions they live in. This is a very dangerous thought because if weaponized like this we could be seeing a complete fragmentation of institutions globally regardless of our position on the political spectrum and that would be a very dangerous scenario to be in.
In this scenario, we have to safeguard the development and some limitations or better tools to prevent AI from being misused like that. The current model of China exporting its surveillance and repression technologies and systems abroad is NOT setting a good precedent for the near future where they also have developed robust -enough AI systems that could develop powerful arguments about whether people should slowly give in to authoritarian regimes and even support them.
It's becoming alarmingly clear that authoritarian shadows are creeping into our free societies, and they're doing it through our screens. TikTok, a giant in the social media world, is at the forefront, wielding unmatched influence from the palm of our hands. The evidence is mounting: sophisticated algorithms and filters are being used not just to entertain, but to skew our perceptions. They're pushing specific hashtags and stories, subtly shaping the narrative to favor the goals of the Chinese Communist Party and chip away at the foundations of democratic and free values. It's a silent battle for our minds, playing out in the open, yet hidden in plain sight.
This is a powerful precedent that more people should be made aware and the risk this represents should be treated more seriously. We know the dangers and harm that social media already has just by existing from companies that try to be somewhat neutral and let its users be free to express themselves on these platforms without the influence of any government (though they do have cultural biases of course). Still, now we have social media giants with clear explicit guidelines aligned with an authoritarian regime and this should be taken with more caution than other cases because of the influence this can have in societies and on generations to come who are consuming more and more content from these biased and curated apps that could slowly hit surely veer the trust of citizens away from democratic and open societies towards more and more acceptance of dictatorships and China-like authoritarian regimes.
As we approach the horizon of a new era, marked by rapid advancements in technology and shifting global dynamics, the need for international cooperation and ethical guidelines has never been more critical. The implications of AI and digital infrastructure, as leveraged by authoritarian regimes such as China, pose a stark reminder of the dual-use nature of technology. It is capable of uplifting humanity or serving as a tool for surveillance and control. The case of China's ascendancy and its strategic initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Digital Silk Road, underscores a broader challenge facing the global community: balancing the benefits of economic integration and technological progress with the imperative to safeguard human rights and democratic principles. Sadly I think this has failed so far in the decline of democracies worldwide and the rise (or even acceptance) of authoritarian regimes in the global discussion. We need to be fighting to defend and uplift humanity towards democracies and open societies harder still.
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To navigate this complex landscape, a multifaceted approach is essential. It involves bolstering international norms and agreements that prioritize transparency, privacy, and freedom; incentivizing technological innovation that empowers individuals rather than suppressing them which is why the development of AI as a tool for empowering individuals with a logical safety precaution and avoid its exploitation by dark forces worldwide is an imperative of our times. We need also to enhance public awareness about the nuanced ways in which technology is manipulating us for geopolitical ends. As the world grapples with the increasing integration of AI into the fabric of daily life and the pervasive reach of digital surveillance, the collective action of governments, civil society, and the tech community is crucial. Together, we must ensure that the march of progress leads to a future where technology serves as a beacon of empowerment and inclusivity, rather than an instrument of authoritarian control and division. In doing so, we uphold the promise of a global order that values freedom, justice, and human dignity above all.