Corruption and Coercion on the Digital Silk Road

The squalid conditions of the Xinjiang region of Northwestern China, in which Uighur Muslims, Khazakhs and Uzbeks are forced to surrender DNA and blood samples, remain a stark reminder of the extent to which civil liberties can be assailed in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’. 47-year old Bakitali Nur, a fruit and vegetable exporter from Khargos, told Time magazine that he and seven other inmates were forced to sit still on plastic stools for seventeen consecutive hours as their movements were monitored by security cameras. In Xinjiang, 2.5 million citizens have their whereabouts tracked by CCTV whilst being subjected to a punitive social credit system that discourages behaviour not approved of by the Chinese State.

These dystopian scenes are a microcosm of a much broader and more complex web of technological and economic strategies through which the Chinese State is attempting to construct a digital panopticon that ensnares Central Asia and large parts of Africa and Latin America in its grip. Announced in a 2015 Government White Paper, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) attempts to enhance digital connectivity, impose high-level technologies and Artificial Intelligence on neighbouring countries, and to establish China as a regional hegemon and world leader in physical and digital infrastructure. The Digital Silk Road, which involves State-owned enterprises and private companies developing fiber optic cables that can monitor and divert data traffic, has led to a $79 billion investment in 80 different countries. The implications of fiber optic expansion and data centres are immense: the ability of the CCP to monitor and control foreign citizens, to proliferate State propaganda and quell ideological dissent is augmented through the process of data localisation, which requires foreign corporations to maintain data in China, where the State has access to it.

The collusion between the Chinese State and the technological corporations responsible for accessing civilian data and implementing everything from facial recognition cameras to traffic control devices is most strikingly expressed in the 2017 National Intelligence Law, which promulgated that Chinese corporations had to support the values of Chinese Intelligence Agencies. Within the context of this Law, it seems all the more disturbing that Hikvision, a company whose controlling shares are owned by the Chinese government, has installed facial recognition cameras in Kazakhstan and facilitated surveillance in Uzbekistan’s educational system. In February 2019, the Tajik government announced an identification system requiring phone users to provide fingerprints and privacy-invasive medical information when buying SIM cards. The potential for China to establish itself as a global superpower by harvesting data and establishing e-commerce is limitless, particularly in an era in which our economies are increasingly based around digital information.

Although the rise of China has frequently been touted as an event of epochal significance, which threatens to overthrow the established global order and is driven by an implacable hostility to every aspect of modern economics, the reality is that China seeks to maintain many elements of globalisation and free trade. The regimentation of large corporations behind a bureaucratic state apparatus instead represents the degeneration of modern capitalism: where once it was associated with freedom, liberal democracy and pluralism, and contrasted with ‘authoritarian’ communist regimes, modern capitalism arguably works most effectively and efficiently when under the auspices of a centralised, technocratic state apparatus. That China remains keen to promote areas of digital ‘e-commerce’ and free-trade areas to reduce costs of international shipments and cross-border trade indicates that capitalistic imperatives still govern much of the productive process, in an ostensibly Hegelian synthesis of authoritarian politics and liberal economics.

Furthermore, the imperialistic nature of the Digital Silk Road, which involves putting countries into debt by proliferating infrastructural projects and making them dependent on loans from the Chinese State, mirrors tactics used after the 1970’s Third World debt crisis caused by the World Bank and the IMF. For instance, in 2017, 95% of Sri Lankan government spending went to paying off debt, much of which was issued to China. These foreign loans function as a means of subordinating neighbouring countries economically, facilitating Chinese access to natural resources and opening markets to offset domestic overproduction. The case of Chinese involvement in Africa is another example of how the neo-mercantilist formulations of the modern Chinese economy are not socialistic as some on the hard-right (in addition to a small minority of communists) claim; rather, it is reminiscent of European colonialism. Sino-African trade increased by $169 billion between the 1980’s and 2018, mainly composed of crude oil and agricultural products. Raw materials are converted into finished goods and resold to African nations at high prices, increasing their dependency on China. The monopolisation of data is a major part of this; Huawei opened its first cloud data centre in Egypt in February 2019, and Algeria and Tunisia continue to host Chinese tech firms intent on harvesting consumer data. In Morocco, ‘smart city’ Tangier Tech is soon to host 200 Chinese companies.

Paul Mason, writing in Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, argued that “today, the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibility of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain, control of over power and information.” The emergence of a bureaucratic, unaccountable Chinese Empire which seeks to monopolise and patent information can therefore be contextualised within a wider phenomenon: the attempts by capitalistic institutions to apply market dynamics to otherwise freely-exchangeable data. Information is a public good: it is non-rival and non-excludable, freely replicable and devoid of the scarcity that enables markets to capture and commodify it in the way that other things can be easily commodified. Therefore, it circumscribes the ability of markets to form prices; infinite supply means that prices will fall close to zero unless giant tech monopolies can maintain patents on information which artificially create scarcity. The function of the Chinese tech monopolies is to do precisely this: Huawei has issued 1,500 5G patents as of 2019, and Chinese companies own 36% of all 5G patents.

This demonstrates what can be referred to in Marxist terms as a contradiction between the forces and relations of production. Karl Marx wrote that “from forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters,” a point clearly demonstrated by observing modern reality; the productive forces have developed to the point where we can share socially-produced information freely, yet market forces capture and privatise this information. The Chinese State’s attempts to combine economic and technological imperialism, shoring up hegemony on the world stage, have also allowed it to save capitalism from its own contradictions.

The expansion of the social credit system, which has seen citizens submit personal data about their personal lives and shopping habits to the Chinese government in an attempt to gain a favourable rating, is emblematic of how the commodification of information entails separating data from people and diminishing the amount of control they have over confidential, personal information. The removal of direct access to information as a pretext to its subjection to market imperatives parallels the way in which 17th Century English peasants were deprived of direct access to their land holdings so that it could be privatised and contractually regulated by entrepreneurial landlords, a point succinctly summarised by Mark Andrejevic, who stated, “If land enclosure helped produce the spatial conditions for the exploitation of wage labor, digital enclosures enable the exploitation of information generated by users as they go about their daily lives.” The enclosure (via digital means) of what legal scholar James Ball refers to as the “intangible commons of the mind” constantly extends the boundaries of what is available for patenting and copywriting, allowing a restrictive legal infrastructure determining “intellectual property rights” to accompany the new forms of alienation engendered by the privatisation and monopolisation of data. While this may seem to be a mere marketing strategy for companies to sell products based on already established information about consumers from their Google searches, the social credit system indicates that the implications are altogether more sinister.

Our present epoch is defined by the waning of the American Empire and the rise of Chinese hegemony, as the two powers compete in an ongoing technological Cold War that accompanies the already existing trade war. In 1980, US share of world income was 24.6%, but had fallen to 19.1% by 2011. China, by contrast, has seen a meteoric rise from 2.2% in 1980 to 14.4% in 2011. The United States, recognising this shift in the balance of power, has attempted to dissuade other countries from using Huawei to develop their 5G networks. Yet the Digital Silk Road has allowed China to establish itself as a world leader in exporting digital infrastructure, attempting to use this as a conduit for the maintenance of ‘sharp’ power, or “manipulation of ideas, political perceptions and electoral processes”.

“Men make history, but not as they choose”, stated Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Underlying forces and wider contexts determine the conditions that allow certain powers to establish geopolitical dominance at certain times. For the American Empire, financial power and military muscle forged a new American century in the aftermath of World War I, the nominally victorious Entente dependent upon American loans for many of the offensives of 1918, lying prostrate before America’s export-driven economic boom. For China, it is the collapse of globalisation, recurring crises of the neoliberal model, and the increasing importance of data that have heralded a new Chinese century, as the Digital Silk Road carves out a new sphere of influence. The pendulum has swung to the Far East, as with opened wallets and closed minds, we may all soon be subjects of Xi Jinping.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

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