The Global Expansion of PRC Surveillance Technology

Implications for Human Rights and International Governance

Countries around the world are increasingly adopting surveillance technology developed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), helping Beijing realize important policy goals. These include normalizing its own surveillance-heavy version of national social control among other nations, having access to “back doors” built into PRC-developed technology to access data from other countries, and influencing international governance of emerging technologies. This report assesses how and to what extent the spread of PRC-developed surveillance technology helps Beijing get closer to the realization of these goals in various countries around the world. It also identifies the PRC state and corporate actors that develop these new technologies and train authorities in other countries on their use.

While the report assesses that there does not appear to be a unified PRC strategy to export tech-enabled repression, China’s activities in this sector merit scrutiny for several reasons:

The report arrives at these conclusions through a three-part analysis. Part 1 examines the PRC’s strategies to achieve a leading role in surveillance and other associated technologies, including efforts to shape international rules and technical standards. Part 2 explores the role of PRC-based technology companies, including an effort to evaluate their alignment with state goals. Part 3 examines PRC surveillance technologies through three country case studies: Kyrgyzstan, Ecuador, and Malaysia.

This analysis shows the spread of increasingly global surveillance technology driven by PRC companies’ commercial acumen backed by strong state direction and support. The PRC prioritizes sovereign governments’ absolute control over surveillance tech and the data it collects, while placing little or no emphasis on protecting citizens from state violations of their privacy. This approach, combined with PRC-based firms’ strong appetite for commercial risk, means that China’s surveillance companies sell to developing markets often ignored by competitors. Through its technology sales, the PRC is willing to enable repressive state behavior that companies from the United States or Europe might balk at, out of reputational or legal concerns. And while PRC’s efforts to achieve a commanding position in international and multilateral standards-setting bodies have not been entirely successful, Chinese companies’ market success could set technical standards through sheer dominance of the market. Layered on top of these risks is the ever-present concern that – because PRC firms are unable to deny state demands for their data – the PRC state might misappropriate data collected through PRC-provided surveillance systems abroad, either for espionage or to surveil regime opponents overseas.

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