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18 Nov 2019 11:47
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  •   Home > News > International

    China trumpets tech power at 6th World Internet Conference, signalling a 'digital arms race'

    China is racing to surpass the West's historical dominance of the tech sector, and this year's World Internet Conference shows just how much Beijing has caught up.


    At the turn of the millennium, former US president Bill Clinton declared that China's effort to censor the internet was akin to "nailing jello to the wall".

    "China has been trying to crack down on the internet — good luck!" Mr Clinton said to cackles and laughter while celebrating the potential ofwhat was then a nascent internet.

    But in the 19 years since that speech, the internet hasn't exactly developed in the ways Mr Clinton envisioned: its potential to influence political emancipation has been demonstrably limited, while Beijing has managed to pull off one of the largest internet censorship regimes on the planet.

    This week, at an annual showcase run by the Cyberspace Administration of China — the body responsible for Beijing's censorship apparatus — various elements of China's booming digital power were on show.

    At this year's World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, a raft of Chinese tech giants like Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent were in attendance, while 15 "cutting edge scientific and technological achievements" — spanning research in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and 5G technology — were highlighted by a team of 300 local and foreign experts.

    However, a few developments of note came to light: one being the presentation of a new computer processor that could support China's ambitious 2020 Social Credit System.

    Another was Beijing's increasing success at exporting its censored vision of the internet around the world.

    "New technologies, new applications and new forms of business such as artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things are just unfolding," Chinese President Xi Jinping told conference delegates.

    "Countries should follow the trend of the times, shoulder the responsibility for development, meet the challenges and risks, jointly promote global governance in cyberspace and strive to build a community of shared future in cyberspace."

    China has made the world's fastest computer processor

    At the conference, Huawei — whose 5G network is banned in Australia — presented the world's fastest computer processor, the Kunpeng 920.

    The company claims that testing proves it is 25 per cent faster than its competitors, and that its energy use is 30 per cent more efficient.

    This could allow for more computational power in a world where artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms necessitate faster processes of larger amounts of data.

    For example, processors like Huawei's might be used in an algorithm designed to identify a face within a moving crowd of tens of thousands of people within a matter of seconds.

    Developments such as these could no doubt help Beijing realise its planned nationwide social credit system next year, which will see the Government attempt to digitally score 1.4 billion citizens in real-time, based on a variety of metrics related to social behaviour and fidelity to China's political regime.

    Central to the system are some 200 million CCTV cameras nationwide which feed data into a surveillance network supported by artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms.

    Critics of the policy call the system a "digital dictatorship", while some Australian universities have conducted reviews into links with Chinese companies who have been accused of developing technology used to carry out mass human rights abuses in the predominantly-Muslim region of Xinjiang.

    However, Huang Kunming, the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda head, told the conference that global concern about China's digital path signified a "Cold War mentality".

    "The Cold War thinking and zero-sum game, this has stopped and hindered exchanges in cyberspace," he said.

    "By using national security as an excuse, some countries have attacked some countries and enterprises. This has increased the uncertainty, opposition and negativity in cyberspace."

    Beijing's export of 'cyber sovereignty' on the rise

    In recent years, Beijing offered massive amounts of funds to assist infrastructure around the globe under a policy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

    That now encompasses aid for digital projects, which could see iterations of a Chinese-style internet replicated in other countries.

    Forsignatories to China's digital aid, this could lead foreign governments to employ "Chinese-style censorship of public opinion", a telecommunications executive told the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the conference.

    This new paradigm is officially referred to as "cyber sovereignty", where the state assumes control of what is shown on a country's internet and keeps citizens partially cut off from a global internet.

    This has led to a starkly different world for younger generations of Chinese internet users, where knowledge of Facebook, Google — and even the Tiananmen Square massacre's tank man image — is scant,while the ABC website is also banned in China.

    Countries looking to crackdown on dissent and the spread of information — like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Laos, Serbia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — have already signed up to China's "digital silk road".

    This year, countries such as Pakistan, Portugal and Rwanda are recent additions to the BRI's digital opportunities.

    Digital surveillance analyst Michael Richardson told the ABC that opting for Chinese digital infrastructure wasn't a "one size fits all situation", as countries may pick and choose what aspects of China's internet system they want to replicate.

    "Some countries might be very keen for Chinese-style surveillance cameras, facial recognition and image processing tools … but they might not have any interest in social media monitoring," he said.

    "Any country with a relatively restless population or with particular security concerns and a growing shift towards authoritarianism would be interested.

    Looking at Beijing's efforts on the whole, Dr Richardson said this was evidence of the globe being in "a digital arms race of some intensity".

    "China has a huge amount of money and it has the weight of the state to put behind projects," he said.

    In 2018, $513 billion was tipped into China's state-owned enterprises, while investment in the telecommunication sector rose by 39.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2019.

    At the conference, it was revealed that China's digital economy is worth 3.13 trillion yuan ($644 billion), though it still falls far behind the value of that of America's, which was valued at $US1.4 trillion ($2.04 trillion) in 2017, according to data released in April.

    Dr Richardson said Beijing's new digital power could be seen in its "huge" investment in algorithmic and computing technologies.

    "In certain ways, we're a long way behind on things like automation and artificial intelligence, but in other ways, we're doing just fine," he said

    He added that Australia's relative lack of a "cohesive" technology and automation strategy was worrying.

    But while it remains to be seen whether China can socially engineer its populace through technology, or export its vision of the digital future, what is certain is that former president Clinton's vision of a truly global, open internet isn't as strong as it once was.

    "The internet [of most] people's imagination was always very small and in some ways never really existed on a global scale," Dr Richardson said, in reference to the internet of the 1990s.

    "This early model of the internet was very ad hoc and emerged out of a particular cultural setting driven by what we might call cyber utopians, who [saw it] free of state intervention.

    "Sovereign internets were perhaps one inevitable response to a globalised, very general and open internet."

    The World Internet Conference and the Cyberspace Administration of China have been contacted for comment.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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