A new US Senate report warned that the US has not done nearly enough to challenge Beijing’s position as a leading tech superpower.
“Three and a half years into the Trump administration, the United States is now on the precipice of losing the future of the cyber domain to China,” said the report, published on Tuesday.
“If China continues to perfect the tools of digital authoritarianism and is able to effectively implement them both domestically and abroad, then China, not the United States and its allies, will shape the digital environment in which most of the world operates.”
The 58-page report, written by the Democratic Party staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the latest glaring sign of the distrust toward China that now runs rampant in Washington, across the entire political spectrum.
New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee who commissioned the report, warned of a “global dystopian future, dominated by a hi-tech, totalitarian state”.
“If the United States fails to rally and lead the international community around our core founding principles, to respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to create a new big brother – as this administration has so far failed to do – I am deeply concerned about what the future may hold,” he said when announcing the report.
The report highlighted China’s use of facial recognition technology, biometric data collection, big data analytics, surveillance of digital communications and internet censorship.
It paid particular attention to Xinjiang, where the report says Uygurs and other Muslim ethnic minority groups have had their movements tracked, their communications monitored, and their genetic data collected by the Chinese state.
Menendez said the Chinese Communist Party has used state-of-the-art technology to turn Xinjiang’s urban areas into “veritable prison cities”.
“Xinjiang is the proving ground for China’s digital authoritarianism model, and it serves as a clear example of how the CCP plans to use the digital domain to maintain and strengthen its authoritarian hold over the entire country,” the report said.
Libby Liu, the former head of Radio Free Asia and the Open Technology Fund – US government-funded entities that broadcast news and help develop surveillance-circumvention technology for use around the world – said the US had to act on what she described as a human rights issue.
“Time is of the essence,” she said during a virtual discussion of the report with Menendez. “The adversary is working in an insidious way. We have to realise what their mindset is. And that has been, I think, to our detriment.”
Liu was fired last month by a new Trump administration appointee.
The report also addressed Chinese efforts to convince other governments to use its digital tools and methods, both through the market and through various international organisations.
“By building out so much of the digital infrastructure in the developing world, China could end up dominating a large portion of the global communications market, positioning it to potentially pressure other governments or conduct espionage,” the report said.
“However, many countries – both developing and developed – calculate that access to low-cost, good-quality data networks and hardware outweighs the potential risks,” it added.
Among other recommendations, the report concluded that the US should open a federally funded research and development centre on 5G, the technology that has been at the center of many recent tech-disputes between Washington and Beijing.
It also advised Congress to create a new independent corporation that would help finance foreign governments’ purchases of American “digital infrastructure”.
“China’s leadership is increasingly confident that its governing model for the digital space represents the future of the domain and is doing its best to convince governments around the world that this is the case,” the report said.
“If the United States does not develop and implement an all-encompassing strategy for combating China and its cyber efforts, the United States will cede the global cyber domain to our Pacific adversary and open up a future in which digital authoritarianism becomes the global norm, leaving the United States and its allies vulnerable and placing countless more individuals under the thumb of digital authoritarianism.”