By Tala Kasih Bates ’19
China is building mass surveillance technology that is being used to monitor their population as a whole to deter political dissent and tracks their citizen’s behaviors. According to the New York Times, they first debuted this technology at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. While millions of people were enjoying the sports competition on television, Xi Jinping was quietly showcasing his powerful new technology to other leaders who were in Beijing. One such country that came to an agreement with China is Ecuador who has since seen hundreds of cameras being installed throughout the country with the footage feeding to their Central Intelligence Agency. Whether China believes that their mass surveillance technology is used to protect citizens or advance their political agenda, I believe that China is spreading its authoritarian vision of governance by developing strategic trade partnerships with developing countries such as Ecuador and exporting their mass surveillance technology for Ecuador’s leaders to use to stay in power by shutting down any potential political dissent using the mass surveillance technology made in China.
China’s mass surveillance technology is sold to the world as being used solely to protect citizens and advance their political freedom by making sure they are safe and healthy. Using the mass surveillance technology made in China, Ecuador is able to protect their citizens with this new technology, which they otherwise would not have and not be able to do if not for China’s investment. Francisco Robayo, the director-general of ECU 911 said that, “we’ve been able to avert many incidents by identifying and profiling possible delinquents who are ambushing people, who we can observe in the exits of shopping malls, educational institutions.” While this technology might help protect individual citizens from dangerous political dissent, the long-term impacts of this relationship with China and what this means for Ecuadorian people is not yet clear and might have dire consequences.
China is pushing its political agenda by developing strategic partnerships with economically weak countries such as Ecuador to export their technology. Ecuador is one of the economically weak countries in Latin America that relies on Chinese foreign investments to stimulate their economy and decrease their significant debt. According to 2014’s Ecuador’s vice president, Ecuador aimed to strengthen their relations with China so they benefit from their technology for their future economic developments while China enjoys Ecuador’s provision of oil reserves (Aidoo et al., 2017). Ecuador’s government was impressed by China’s mass surveillance technology when they were shown during the Olympics in China how it is used there to keep tabs on at least 17 million people (Chan et al., 2019). According to Chan et al., 2019, the general director of ECU-911, Ecuador’s mass surveillance technology, said in an interview last year that Ecuador’s authorities “saw these as ideal to bring to Ecuador.” Since then, Ecuador has installed China’s mass surveillance technology with the help of China’s $240 million loan (Burgers & Romaniuk, 2018). It has become clear that China took advantage of Ecuador’s economic weakness to create these partnerships that influence Ecuador’s use of technology in a way that mirrors China’s authoritarian leaning government. With that being said, China is not only taking advantage of their large economy by giving out loans to make the surveillance technology available to governments that could not afford it otherwise (Chan et al., 2019), but they are also exporting their political ideology.
In China, mass surveillance technology is being used to track people and intimate political dissidents, however, whether or not China is directly influencing Ecuador to use their mass surveillance technology in line with the Chinese Government’s goals, Ecuador has been given the tools to use it for the same political gain that the Chinese use it for on their own citizens. Because of China’s strong trade relations with Ecuador, Ecuador is now deploying a surveillance system against political opposition using China’s technology under Chinese training and direction. Ecuador was able to attain “progressive modernity” (Ana Lucía Salinas de Dosch, 2012) technology from China and abuse it the way China is using innovative technology for social control (Human Rights Watch Report, 2019). In Ecuador, the technology is being used to intimidate political dissidents, for example, by installing cameras right outside their house. In China, the technology is being used to detain millions of Muslim minorities. Therefore, one can see how China did not only export the technology, but they trained Ecuadorians how to use it for political suppression purposes, the way it is used in China. If the mass surveillance technology was not made in China and trained by Chinese officials, Ecuador might not have had access to such technology that they are now using in line with the Chinese Government’s goals.
While China’s investment might seem like a positive way to protect citizens, their money does not come without strings attached. As Christian Saá evaluates Ecuador-China relationship, he argues that, “China’s government has demonstrated interest in strengthening Ecuador’s research capacities through training sessions, technology transfer, and technological development (Araujo, 2016).” Because China selects democratically weak countries to invest in and then educate, it is clear that they intend to impose their own political agenda and use authoritarian leaders around the world to strengthen their global hegemony. China specifically wants to be the one to install the surveillance technology and train other intelligence agencies how to use it to ensure that they both stimulate their labor force and ensure their technology is in the hands of people who know how to use it the same way they do. Not only this, but China has made it very clear how they intend to use this technology which sends a strong message to their allies (especially the ones that owe them money from foreign investment).
In conclusion, China’s foreign investment in infrastructure and technology in economically less developed countries to strengthen their global political power has been well documented. Now, it is clear that this export can also directly empower Chinese political control abroad as they are helping authoritarian governments build the infrastructure they need to maintain control over their own citizens. While the surveillance technology might do some good, the fact that China is selectively giving such powerful tools to countries with un-democratic governments is worrisome for the citizens of these countries as their leaders are receiving new tools with immense power to use against them. It is impossible to say exactly what might happen from a long-term relationship with China, but it seems clear that their influence comes as a direct opposition to democracy and should be viewed as such by the citizens of countries who have received such foreign investment.