Testimony to Congressional-Executive Commission on China
Shanthi Kalathil, Director, International Forum for Democratic Studies
December 13, 2017
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Chairman Rubio, Chairman Smith, distinguished Members of the Commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak to this important topic today. It is an honor to testify before this Commission alongside such expert colleagues.
Today I will address China’s outwardly directed efforts to shape expression and communication globally, and the negative implications this poses for democratic expression and discourse, even within democracies. In particular, I will discuss how the Chinese government directs and harnesses private sector activity in the Internet and technology space, as well its efforts to reshape global narratives through a range of influence activities that have typically been categorized as “soft power.”
To begin with, consider a metaphor sometimes invoked to explain China’s domestic approach to the Internet, namely, that of the “walled garden.” The garden is not devoid of color: indeed, certain flowers are cultivated and allowed to bloom profusely, while those plants deemed weeds are yanked out by the root. In this way is the space pruned to fit the preferences of the master gardener.
While metaphors are always imperfect, this one does convey important ideas about how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches China’s information, media and technology sector, ideas that also have relevance for its international approach. Three key aspects of its domestic “walled garden” approach are relevant here.
First, the CCP has put the technology it needs into place. The so-called “Great Firewall” is dependent on an elaborately layered system of control, beginning with the technological and communications “pipes” themselves and extending to what is an increasingly advanced system of not just censorship but comprehensive surveillance. A recent BBC story noted that there are 170 million CCTV cameras in place, many enhanced with facial recognition technology, and an estimated 400 million new cameras coming online in the next three years. The Wall Street Journal reported last week about a man detained for a stray wisecrack made on a private chat on the WeChat messaging platform; government authorities can now identify citizens on the street through facial recognition, monitor all online behavior, and identify potential (or even future) dissenters and “troublemakers”. For an example of this dystopian model taken to an extreme, look no further than the Chinese province of Xinjiang, where the government tests tools like iris recognition, and constant surveillance is a fact of daily life.
Second, it is not simply about the technology. Beijing relies on individuals, corporations and institutions for not just censorship and self-censorship but the proactive shaping of norms, narratives and attitudes. For instance, the Chinese government places the responsibility on private sector companies as gatekeepers to monitor and circumscribe online activity, as well as on individual users to self-censor. In addition, as a recent study noted, the government fabricates roughly 448 million social media comments a year, injecting certain narrative elements into online chatter to distract or cheerlead in order to stop the spread of information that may spur collective action. One of the study’s authors has described the overall approach as the three Fs: fear that induces self-censorship, friction that makes true information hard to find, and flooding of the information space with distraction or chaos…
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