In the final thematic report of the Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience series, Dr. Samantha Hoffman describes how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) leverages emerging technologies to undercut democracies’ stability and legitimacy while expanding its own influence. The PRC’s development and global export of “smart cities” technology, for example, showcases the character of tech-enhanced sharp power and authoritarianism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does not distinguish basic public goods, like traffic safety or the prevention of violent crime, from the authoritarian suppression of pluralism and dissent. Instead, it blends the two together. The PRC prioritizes regime security over essential rights, and uses these technologies to monitor its populace and control society. Beijing’s active role in international standards-setting enables the PRC to exploit emerging technologies to enhance its sharp power capabilities. If PRC-originated technical standards are adopted internationally, PRC-made systems will enjoy greater interoperability and market access around the world in ways that erode democratic integrity.
Emerging technologies offer numerous conveniences and capabilities, benefitting consumers and governments alike; however, they also carry inherent risks that can threaten liberal democracies when leveraged by powerful dictatorships that wish to reinforce and spread their authoritarianism.
key ideas for nongovernmental responses:
- Encourage public discourse on liberal democratic values and technology. Civil society organizations should be trained on issues related to emerging technologies, allowing them to help deliver educational programming on best practices for data security. For instance, digital literacy programs could be designed to go beyond basic personal and corporate data-management practices, to include discussion on the geopolitical dimension of the issues and the ways in which seemingly harmless data collection can be abused.
- Civil society groups must actively participate in international standards-setting bodies, such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). They must help shape standards for technologies like 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) devices and counter illiberal PRC standard-setting efforts. Civil society organizations should push for transparency around the development of technical standards for technologies that may negatively affect civil liberties, like facial- or voice-recognition systems.
- Media and civil society organizations should coordinate to expose and amplify indicators of tech-enabled sharp power in their countries, which would contribute to broader public awareness of the issues, encourage debate on what should be done, and pressure governments to take protective action.