The G7 must address China’s digital authoritarianism

This weekend’s annual G7 summit sees the UK host the leaders of the US, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada in Cornwall. When the grouping was founded in 1975 it consisted of the world’s ‘seven largest economies’. With its ongoing exclusion of China, that is certainly no longer true.

Today one might more accurately call the group the world’s most influential democracies – it might also be thought of as the West’s steering committee – and there are good reasons for such a group to exist. There are many topics relevant to the world’s rising autocratic power on which the world’s leading democratic nations should be eager to swap notes.

When it comes to trade with China, for too long the West has been unable to draw a firm line between economic self-interest and the West’s core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Most of the countries in the G7 are dependent on China for a wide variety of essential goods, from rare earth materials, batteries, computers and mobile phones, to name just a few. In the UK, one third of electricity generation is reliant on firms owned by China. This interdependence is now perhaps too deep to uproot.

One of the items that will be on the agenda this weekend however concerns one sector of crucial importance in which the West can and must avoid dependence on China – that of ‘smart’ technology and cyber security (otherwise known as surveillance technology).

In the lead up to a G7 conference in which the issue of countering China is likely to dominate, President Biden last week signed a presidential order blacklisting Chinese firms linked to mass surveillance, including of citizens in Hong Kong and millions of Uyghur Muslims. The White House banned Americans from investing in 59 Chinese companies which it said were linked to technology used to “facilitate repression or serious human rights abuse”.

The resistence to Chinese influence in this sphere is not just a matter of self-interest for the West, it is also of symbolic importance. Surveillance technology is the principal means through which the CCP seeks to retain control over its population. In recent years the country has overseen a crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists while increasing investment in censorship and surveillance.

China is known to use technology, including facial-recognition software, to spy on its 1.4 billion citizens. President Biden’s new order however applies to firms which engage surveillance technology both inside and outside of China. This is just as well – Chinese activity in this sphere has a known history of encroaching into Western territory.

Activist Wang Dan has previously warned of the growing influence of the CCP on university campuses in the United States via student groups such as the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, known to have ties with the government.

A more prominent case is that of Miles Kwok, an exiled Chinese dissident, who has attempted to broadcast claims about CCP corruption from his residence in New York through an iPhone app that would be made available in China. Soon after Mr. Kwok applied to the App Store, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the government’s internet regulator, told Apple it wanted the app rejected. Though it remains a ‘mystery’ how officials even knew about it, it is not difficult to hazard a guess.

Now is the time for the West to stand up for itself. China has already won over the rest of the world through their exported technologies. It is clear that US warnings of espionage by Huawei are failing to dissuade governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America from hiring the Chinese tech group for cloud infrastructure and e-government services.

A report by the Washington-based think-tank CSIS has identified 70 deals in 41 countries between Huawei and governments or state-owned enterprises for these services from 2006 to April this year.

Europe is slowly being taken hold of already. The Republic Square in Belgrade, one of Serbia’s cultural and social hubs, is under constant observation by equipment made in China. A surveillance camera system installed by Huawei has the capacity to monitor the behaviour of people in the square and elsewhere in the city, recognise their faces, identify their vehicle number plates and make judgments on whether suspicious activities are afoot.

Biden’s move is likely to further strain relations between Beijing and Washington and could well result in a tit-for-tat Chinese ban on US companies. However this is simply part and parcel of the necessary recognition that China is an adversary in many more spheres than it can be deemed a mere ‘strategic competitor’ – as the EU has termed its own approach to the problem.

This is precisely why the G7 should be putting its full weight behind the American President’s latest move, and outlining joint measures this weekend to counter the export of Chinese surveillance technology.

What is the point, after all, of a steering committee for Western democracies, if they cannot agree on their own right not be spied upon, let alone in agreeing on a common destination.