9 May

Map of the Week: Digital Silk Road

By Phoebe Hill

For centuries, the Silk Road, a complicated network of overland trade routes, connected the farthest reaches of Europe and Asia. China’s latest Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative evokes similar narratives of connectivity, championing digital cooperation and information and communication technology exchanges between China and various developing nations. Announced in 2015 as a component of China’s ambitious external infrastructure investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), more than 40 countries have signed bilateral agreements with China for digital cooperation and cyber infrastructure investments. While the DSR project meets desperate need for critical digital infrastructure amongst developing nations, critics worry it may export China’s unique brand of technology-enabled authoritarianism, fracturing the unified global cyber community. 

The Digital Silk Road, announced in 2015 by Chinese officials, refers to high-tech projects completed as part of the BRI initiative. Unlike many standard BRI projects which are clearly labeled and often involve brick and mortar infrastructure, DSR projects are harder to pin down. They may involve both physical infrastructure, such as the laying of undersea cable, and less-visible exchanges of software and technological knowledge, including the latest in AI or smart city technology. The DSR involves investment both by private Chinese companies and state enterprises in developing countries. While investment has been strongest in the Asia-Pacific, a key strategic region for China, the initiative has expanded into Europe, Latin America, and Africa. 

While the initiative has been helpful in meeting the need for critical infrastructure across the developing world, it has the potential to fuel surveillance and the rise of digital authoritarianism. Many of the Chinese companies involved in DSR investment are only nominally private as they are mandated by Chinese cybersecurity law to store information on Chinese servers and submit themselves to regular checks by authorities. With Chinese companies involved in a growing number of countries, the pool of data available to the state will only grow, leading to concerns regarding privacy and surveillance. Moreover, initiatives such as Smart City projects which can enhance domestic governance also increase the chance of surveillance by local governments, feeding authoritarian tendencies. Therefore, as the DSR expands, China is increasingly poised to export its unique brand of technology-enabled authoritarianism. 

The DSR reflects not only the rise of a powerful China on the global stage but also a more fundamental change to the cyber world. Not only can Chinese digital infrastructure fuel authoritarianism through surveillance, but it can also encourage a Chinese model of state centric internet governance. Such a model prioritizes greater national control of the internet and a rejection of the multi-stakeholder western approach. This new approach to cyber governance is poised to fracture the single cyber community envisioned by the founders of the internet.  As the West fails to produce an equally compelling alternative for closing the digital gap, the influence of China’s DSR is only expected to grow, and with it, concerns regarding the future of the internet and the free and fair flows of information upon which the modern world is so reliant.