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When Technology Meets Tyranny

By Peter Zhang

Back in May 2014, Stephen Hawking, along with several other scientists, warned the world: “Success in creating AI (artificial intelligence) would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.

“In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets; the U.N. and Human Rights Watch have advocated a treaty banning such weapons.”

Developing High Tech

While the international press is being hyped up these days by the world’s first AI news anchor—a computer-generated host of China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, few are aware of an unnerving AI weapons development program at Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT), one of the top weapons research facilities in China.

According to a recent South China Morning Post report, BIT has chosen 31 of the brightest students under age 18 from a pool of more than 5,000 candidates for its four-year “experimental program for intelligent weapons systems.”

These young talents have also been filtered for their unwavering patriotism or loyalty to the party-state in order to be enrolled in this high-tech field. Nowadays, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) isn’t shy about its intention to dominate the globe both economically and militarily, and technology, stolen mostly from the West, is the necessary means to achieve its objectives.

Since 2014, China has been hosting, each year, the so-called “World Internet Conference,” but this year’s conference fell a bit short in terms of its international impact as only one American executive from the chip maker Qualcomm showed up to speak, compared to last year’s crowded speaker list that included CEOs such as Tim Cook of Apple and Sundar Pichai of Google.

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China has cast a dark shadow over this year’s conference as Western technology companies within China are now seeking a safe exit and new production sites outside China.

For the past three decades, Western companies were hopeful of gaining a profitable market share in China, but that could only happen by paying a high cost in the form of technology transfers under pressure from local authorities.

These forced technology transfers have effectively reduced the competitive advantage of Western companies over time. According to a 2017 report from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Chinese theft of intellectual property of U.S. origin costs some $600 billion annually.

To achieve the strategic plan of “Made in China 2025”—a program for China to take a dominant position in ten high-tech fields—China has launched a series of annual trade fairs, such as the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen and China International Import Expo in Shanghai (both happening in November 2018), to attract major global companies to invest in China. But this year, Western companies are wary of business adventures in China.

Local Area Network

Over the past three years, the “World Internet Conference” has repeatedly drawn sharp criticisms from Chinese netizens who have been complaining that China’s internet is, in reality, an intranet or a local area network, given the notorious Great Firewall system that filters and censors hundreds of “sensitive vocabularies,” including virtually all foreign social networks and media outlets.

Some Chinese netizens have deplored the so-called World Internet Conference, given that their actual cyber world is confined to 9,600,000 square kilometers, the territorial size of China. Now with facial recognition technology and the so-called “social credit systems”—a comprehensive surveillance program that grades and penalizes Chinese citizens on their conduct, thus enforcing loyalty to the regime—Chinese citizens are being closely monitored by Big Brother.

In reality, more than 800 million internet users in China are living in an alternative cyber world in which the CCP controls all information, except for the few who are either technically able, or who resort to paid VPNs, to bypass the firewall.

The two free American circumvention tools, Free Gate and Ultra Surf, are heavily censored in China, but both still manage to help hundreds of thousands of users gain access to overseas websites on a daily basis.

Favoring Tyranny

Why is Beijing so keen on internet censorship? Ai Weiwei, a dissident artist, perhaps explained it best: “Censorship is saying: ‘I am the one who says the last sentence. Whatever you say, the conclusion is mine.’ But the internet is like a tree that is growing. The people will always have the last word—even if someone has a very weak, quiet voice. Such power will collapse because of a whisper.”

The idea that technology will help liberalize closed societies may not appear to be true in every case these days, particularly in China. In the article “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” published in The Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harari offers a detailed narrative of how technology doesn’t necessarily befriend liberal societies and, instead, favors tyrannies when cutting-edge technology becomes increasingly distant from the masses.

While some of Harari’s underlying arguments are subject to debate, he has raised some critical issues about how technology and AI are able to strengthen dictatorships, as well as the danger of the transfer of authority to machines.

In Harari’s view, the weak link of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century, thanks to new technology such as AI.

Harari seems to have a valid point that technology has beefed up the authoritarian control in closed societies these days. For tens of millions of Generation Z, also known as the “Great Firewall Generation” in China, they grow up being accustomed to a different set of cyber reality from those who live in the rest of the world.

As Ma Jian, an exiled novelist, recently put it, George Orwell’s “1984” is “completely and totally” realized in China.

The report by Australian broadcaster ABC, “I don’t know Facebook or Twitter: China’s Great Firewall Generation Z cut off from the West,” presents a chilling reality: the young Chinese internet users reach adulthood with a set of worldviews that differ markedly from those living in the rest of the world. The Great Firewall has apparently created two different parallel worlds on this planet.

Western Companies Pitch In

To make things worse, some Western technology companies have been willing to help sharpen the CCP’s tools of repression, irrespective of internal opposition.

When Pichai, Google’s CEO, professed to the press: “Technology doesn’t solve humanity’s problems,” he seemed to imply that his Google can actually create humanity’s problems, in light of its controversial “Dragonfly Project,” which is aimed at helping the CCP monitor internet users.

“Don’t be evil” had long been a Google’s motto since 2000, but this code of conduct was quietly removed before Google’s parent company, Alphabet, adopted a new motto “do the right thing” in 2015, apparently in an effort to shake off its evil reference. One might ask, “Is Google trying a bit too hard to sell its soul in order to enter China’s market?”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald report “From student to drone swarms: how the Chinese Communist Party trains its cadres in Australia,” some Australian universities, like those in Norway, Britain, and Germany, have been serving as innovation hubs for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) researchers to master AI technology for military and combat purposes.

The open sources of Western universities seem to serve well the PLA in its effort to upgrade its military equipment and scale up its war preparation. At a U.S. Senate hearing in February, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that Chinese “professors, scientists, students” all participated in intelligence gathering.

In 2015, the Obama Administration signed a U.S.-China Cybersecurity Agreement with Beijing, but three years later China is found to have breached almost every item of the agreement and has been relentless in its cyber espionage against U.S. institutions and companies.

Despite ample evidence provided by U.S. intelligence agencies, Washington has yet to counter punch or retaliate against such widespread hacking from China. Critics point out that despite the comprehensive nature of the agreement, this pact is virtually unenforceable. There are no clear methods of inspection or verification. Even if it were a well-articulated agreement, few would hold their breath that Beijing will honor it, given its poor track record in the past.

‘Tear Down This Wall’

Henry David Thoreau cautioned us long ago: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Today, we ought to be particularly alarmed when the tools of technology are in the hand of any authoritarian regime—the new technology, more than ever, would serve to be far more formidable in enslaving humanity as a whole and creating an Orwellian society for all in the end.

Many China watchers often compare China’s Great Firewall with the Berlin Wall during the Cold War era. After all, both aim to keep the people under draconian control inside the walls while preventing them from reaching the outside world.

On the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 2009, German President Horst Köhler spoke out: “The Wall was an edifice of fear. On November 9th, it became a place of joy.”

Now, mankind is eagerly waiting for another world leader, with the same determination and foresight of President Reagan, to say loud and clear of the Great Firewall of China: “Mr. Xi, tear down this wall!”

Peter Zhang contributed this article which was first published on EET. Peter researches on political economy in China and East Asia. He is a graduate of Beijing International Studies University, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and of Harvard Kennedy School as a Mason Fellow.


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