Under China’s digital belt
Concerns over the Belt and Road initiative in Serbia
Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action. — Michel Foucault
[This piece was written in April right after the Belt and Road Summit. It was originally published in Serbian on April 30, and can be accessed here.]
In April 2019, China hosted a Belt and Road Initiative Summit in Beijing; an event meant to bring together the leaders of countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi’s landmark foreign policy initiative.
My country, Serbia, is one of 135 countries participating in the initiative, which has been loudly and proudly stated over and over again in all local news reports during the Summit. One of the deals signed on that occasion by the Serbian government was a deal for Huawei to build smart city networks in three largest cities in Serbia. Huawei is also expected to launch a regional centre for innovations in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, as part of the plan to implement smart city projects. With the latest scrutiny of Huawei’s interference in foreign governments, as well as troublesome conduct of the Chinese government in regards to civil rights on the internet, the deal between Huawei and Serbian government requires more transparency and scrutiny of independent experts.
China is frank about its use of advanced technologies to surveil its citizens — rightly so, as one of the most powerful countries in the world, with a centralized Internet and technology sector, it is not threatened by any concerns human rights groups continue to raise.
With more than 200 million government-owned CCTV cameras (and 400 more to be installed by 2020) on its streets, China tracks its citizens, but furthermore, the government implements punishments based off the data it collects. Its social credit system, run under the motto “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful,” uses hardware and software to track, punish and reward citizens. The use of facial recognition, a technology capable of identifying people based on a set of facial features, is widespread. While many see this as an opportunity to create order in the population of 1.4 billion people, the system poses a threat to those who don’t share the same values as the Chinese government. Those who go against the system, such as investigative journalists, protestors, and dissidents, lose in major ways. With low scores, citizens can’t travel, they can’t take loans, send their children to the school of choice, and are treated as second-class citizens. Reportedly, the national watch list of would-be criminals and potential political agitators includes 20 to 30 million people.
Beijing’s surveillance is at its highest is in the Western province of Xianjing, home to 10 million Sunni Muslims, who are seen as ‘a hinderance to a harmonious society’. Here the state deploys iris scans, wifi sniffers to intrude on wireless networks, and DNA profiling to keep a database of all inhabitants. Those who don’t comply, go to ‘re-education camps’, where many disappear never to be seen again.
Technology giants, such as Huawei, are crucial in these efforts, and for this reason, Chinese government keeps them close to its chest.
As President Xi’s government enters into deals with nation-states through the Belt and Road initiative, one of the obvious resources it can export in return for the market positioning, natural resources, and advancing its influence, are the digital technologies and surveillance — attractive assets for authoritarian regimes. This has been marketed as digital Belt and Road.
In much of Africa, for instance, China is enabling internet for the first time: with internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa below the global average, this is welcomed news for many. Market leader on the continent, Huawei is investing $1 billion in digital infrastructure in several African countries, while there are more than 90 connectivity projects covering 31,000 miles of China’s investments across Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Middle East and Africa. What is concerning is that the mindset of oppression follows these projects. Reportedly, China has held seminars with media and government officials in Africa named “Cyberspace Management for Officials of Countries along the Belt and Road Initiative,” followed by an introduction of cybersecurity laws that resemble China’s.
My concern doesn’t end here.
Chinese government, by way of its technology companies, has been accused of spying and surveilling foreign government and citizens. In 2017, Le Monde reported that the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, fully funded and outfitted (including the computer system) by China, was being spied on: every night data was being transferred from the computer systems in the building to servers in Shanghai, for five years. Servers have since been removed, alongside the microphones found in building’s walls and desks.
More recently, Huawei, alongside its rival ZTE, has come under international scrutiny. A number of countries have flagged Chinese digital infrastructure manufacturers, including Huawei, as national security risk; New Zealand, Japan and France have banned or have come close to banning Huawei from participating in its 5G development; the Czech Republic authorities have warned their citizens against using Huawei equipment, and the Polish government arrested the company’s employee on spying charges in January of this year.
Safer cities, anyone?
Surveillance is “any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purposes of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” — David Lyon
Smart city is an umbrella term for data-enhanced monitoring, analysis and response to the dynamics of urban areas, the people and resources within it. While not a novel idea, improvements in digital technologies, data gathering, and artificial intelligence have opened new ways to capture and analyze footage from CCTV cameras, sensors, drones, as well as to deploy facial recognition and sentiment analysis to access data about individuals, the mood of the crowds, and movements city-wide.
Smart cities are hold a promise of efficiency, but threaten with large-scale surveillance, loss of privacy and freedoms.
Since 2015, Serbia has signed few dozen deals with Chinese companies and the Chinese government — primarily in infrastructure, energy, and telecommunications. One of the earliest large projects in telecommunications started in 2016, when Huawei led the transition of all landlines to the IP technology; on that occasion, then Prime Minister (now President) Aleksandar Vucic, proclaimed that “Serbia could use the company’s knowledge to reach great “heights” in the region”.
The first instance of Huawei’s involvement with public services in cities in Serbia that I can find is that of the 2014 Safe City Strategic Cooperation Agreement signed with the Ministry of Interior [if you know of any other instances, please do let me know]. Reportedly, the first phase of the project “involved enhancing the Command Center and Data Center in Belgrade and the deployment of a video content management system. Since its implementation five months ago, the project has helped the police department solve several major criminal cases and ensured the safety and security of major sports events.” There is no other information on the project, nor any evidence that the video surveillance has really benefitted the citizens safety. We don’t know how many cameras have been installed, in what locations, who has access to the data, and what it’s being used for other than emergency response. The Huawei page dedicated to this is no longer live.
Recent investigation by the New York Times into ECU-911, Ecuadorian emergency response system built by the state-controlled C.E.I.E.C. and Huawei, portrays what could very well be a similar setup to the one in Serbia. The investigation revealed that the system, while not contributing to fighting crime in the streets, was being used by Ecuadorian Intelligence bureau to keep track of social and political actors, in particular those criticizing the government. Furthermore, the system was purchased through the Chinese loans and writing off Ecuador’s oil reserves — a cycle of indebtedness for the purchaser, and wealth flowing back to China.
On the last day of the Belt and Road Summit, Serbian Minister of Tourism and Telecommunications confirmed the enthusiasm for Huawei to lead in developing 5G in Serbia and announced a EUR150 million project to enable optical fibre infrastructure for 750,000 households (about 30% of all households). At the same time, he boasted with the chance for Serbia to enter the 4th Industrial Revolution with China’s help.
The first technical team for smart city assessment is expected to visit Serbia during May. It is yet unclear what stakeholders will be involved in this process, and how influential the citizens’ voice will be.
This is where the core of my concern lies. We’re witnessing a harsh decline in free speech, independent media, and a continuous decline in trust towards institutions and government. With almost non-existent communication channels between the Serbian government and citizens, we have no say in decisions the government makes for us. Furthermore, governments change, but once installed, Huawei’s surveillance system will keep on serving the next Big Brother. This is why I call on my fellow citizens, activists, NGOs and local technology companies, to demand transparency as our government moves forward with the smart city project planning. We need to understand the financing, the companies involved, technology being implemented, the data flows and data owners. We, as citizens, need to demand to be part of this project coming to life.