Covid-19 is Proving a Boon for Digital Authoritarianism

By Aidan Powers-Riggs

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging and prospects for a comprehensive vaccine still far off, global leaders are urgently searching for ways to contain the virus—often seeking to emulate proven models of success. 

Somewhat ironically, China has emerged as an attractive model for flattening the infection curve, despite the virus originating from within its borders. Beijing’s public health response—defined by the stewardship of advanced digital technologies to control and monitor the virus’s spread—has drawn international praise from leading health officials for its effectiveness in containing the outbreak. With limited alternatives from Western countries, global leaders have increasingly looked to China for technical guidance and material support, and Beijing has eagerly provided its assistance. 

While China’s surveillance technologies have long been sought after by authoritarian regimes seeking to shore up domestic control, the pandemic has expanded their appeal in the international marketplace. China’s effective response to Covid-19 has amplified global demand for its digital public health toolset, providing a new inroad for its government and technology companies to deepen their international footprint. The resulting proliferation of Chinese surveillance technologies and data collection platforms, under the cover of anti-epidemic cooperation, may be providing China an opportunity to further promote its model of digital governance. Global debates over the norms and standards that govern acceptable use of digital tools by central governments around the world are far from settled, and this new environment risks tilting the balance away from democratic values in the digital world. 

How Covid-19 Attracts Chinese Tech

China’s use of technological tools, from artificial intelligence (AI)-powered public security platforms to cloud-linked medical software, has been integral to its coronavirus response. The Chinese government rapidly mobilized a vast array of surveillance tools, ranging from dense networks of security cameras, advanced facial recognition software, location-tracking apps, and even talking police drones. A smartphone app, piloted in Hangzhou but quickly spreading throughout the country, was developed to track citizens’ history and health conditions, rating their risk for carrying the virus and assigning a correspondingly colored QR code.

China has now largely contained the virus, but there is growing concern that the enhanced surveillance systems it has put in place are becoming permanent. Hangzhou’s Communist Party secretary suggested the city’s health monitoring app should become part of daily life and “loved so much that you cannot bear to part with it.” Although some citizens have demanded the government delete personal health data after the crisis has passed, authorities have put forward no formal plans or mechanisms to ensure those demands will be met.

Having declared victory over the outbreak at home, Beijing is now exporting its anti-epidemic tools and practices to countries around the world—often building upon pre-existing partnerships. In Ecuador, Chinese technology systems, including a Huawei-built AI-powered diagnostic system and a comprehensive public security platform designed by Chinese engineers, have become strategic tools for central authorities in their fight against Covid-19. The Chinese-built security system, called ECU 911, provides police services access to GPS data integrated with feeds from over 5,800 video surveillance cameras blanketing the country. Since the crisis, ECU 911 has reportedly assumed “new responsibilities” to help the country move towards what authorities there are openly calling the “new normal.” 

Huawei has also used the outbreak to pitch its services to the Indian government. The company offered Indian authorities 5G thermal imaging software to help them “apply [Huawei’s] learnings and experience from China to the current situation in India.” In an unusually transparent statement illustrating the company’s broader objectives, Huawei India CEO Jay Chen suggested “the success of 5G applications in the public health domain could also inspire businesses in other sectors to leverage 5G's popularity and explore new applications of the technology.” 

Even where Chinese-built technology has not been actively utilized, countries have emulated Beijing’s anti-epidemic measures. The success that early adopters of smartphone-based epidemiology had against the virus—namely China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore—encouraged a rapid and widespread global diffusion of centralized contact tracing apps. Yet in many countries, these technologies were hurriedly adopted without corresponding assurances of user protection. As of mid-June 2020, at least 47 such apps were active in 28 countries, of which nearly a quarter had no privacy agreement and over half had no clear measures to ensure anonymity.  

In the face of the virus’s mounting toll, calls to put aside privacy concerns in favor of public health have gained ground even in major democracies such as the United Kingdom and the United States. In the United Kingdom, top health experts nearly succeeded in pushing the government to implement a centralized contact tracing app, more akin to the central data-aggregation design of Chinese systems than the decentralized privacy-oriented versions now being implemented in select U.S. cities. Yet across the United States, location-tracking tech firms once scorned by public officials are now being utilized by state and local authorities to monitor hotspots as economic reopening gets underway. 

Empowering Authoritarian Governance

While China’s anti-epidemic technologies may be helping some countries curb the immediate threat of the virus, they also carry an inherent risk of co-optation by authoritarian regimes seeking to consolidate authority. As China’s sophisticated public surveillance platforms—enhanced with AI technology, location-tracking software, and personal data integration techniques—diffuse around the globe, recipient governments gain access to a readily-used authoritarian toolkit that can be easily retooled from its original public health purpose. This technology poses a particular risk to fragile democracies and countries in the developing world, where civil society is weak but Chinese influence is growing

Recent events have demonstrated that this co-optation risk is not limited to authoritarian regimes. U.S. analysts need not look far for cautionary tales. In the United States, as demonstrations swept through some of Minnesota’s largest cities as a result of the police killing of George Floyd, state law enforcement officials openly refashioned the epidemiological paradigm of “contact tracing” to track the origins of protestors. 

It should be noted that, on its own, the use of advanced technologies in public health does not pose an inherent threat to democratic governance. Ultimately, the actors leveraging the technology are the ones who determine how it will be used. Yet in countries without robust democratic institutions that provide checks on authority, the risk of misuse is elevated. Even South Korea, a strong democracy whose Covid-19 response has been hailed as a model of digital public health, was shown to have failed to adequately protect the personal data of thousands of people using its mandatory quarantine app. Public blowback forced accountable elected officials there to address the app’s vulnerabilities, but in countries without institutional balances or open civic discourse, such oversights likely go systematically unchecked. 

Beyond easing and encouraging authoritarian inclinations worldwide, the spread of China’s technology-focused Covid-19 response has accelerated the normative challenge that China’s governance model poses to the underlying values of today’s liberal international order. As China’s surveillance technologies and data-collection protocols prove effective at stemming the spread of disease, their broader application may gain global legitimacy. This will boost an ongoing effort by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to shift prevailing global narratives on governance away from a preference for liberal democracy toward an international order that is friendly to autocracy. The CCP has and needs no better narrative instrument than a highly visible demonstration of its model’s success, particularly when compared to the foundering responses of many Western democracies. 

Technology’s central role in this defining narrative moment for China cannot be overlooked. In the United States and many European countries, where privacy protections are strictest and public appetite for widespread surveillance is minimal, authorities were slow to harness technology to limit the virus’s spread. Although factors beyond the underuse of technological tools were undoubtedly at play in those countries, their comparative failure to curb the virus nonetheless only boosts the attractiveness of China’s tech-focused model, where civic and digital freedoms are readily sacrificed for the “greater good” of public health.

Setting Standards for the “New Normal”

Recognizing an opportunity to further consolidate global leadership, Beijing has actively used health cooperation to promote a “global community of health for all,” with China at the center. Despite resolutely denying any intention of exporting a Chinese Covid-19 response model, leaders in Beijing have encouraged the narrative that China’s health response is one to be praised and replicated by the international community. In conversations with world leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly invoked the concept of a “Health Silk Road,” seeking to revive a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-linked project aimed at promoting global health cooperation centered around Beijing’s high-tech framework. By the end of May, China had sent medical teams to at least 27 countries, focusing largely on its strategic BRI partners in the developing world such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and countries across Africa.

CCP leaders have also called for China to seize the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to advance a sweeping strategy to set the global standards for next-generation technologies. The plan, called China Standards 2035, seeks to internationalize Beijing’s preferred standards for emerging tech like AI, blockchain, and 5G. Government documents show the Covid-19 crisis is set to play a major role. A work report released by China’s National Standardization Committee in early March calls for China to “strengthen the construction of the relevant standard system for the prevention and control of Covid-19,” and promote its “standards for emergency response, social prevention and control.” If China’s domestically cultivated digital governance toolset continues to gain global popularity and legitimacy through the pandemic’s spread, Western governments and companies will face an uphill battle competing against China’s standards-setting agenda.

As the world limps toward recovery, observers should carefully watch the continued spread of China’s anti-epidemic technologies and methods and their knock-on impacts on principles of digital freedom and civic rights. To be an effective counterweight against the shifting balance towards authoritarian principles in the digital world, the United States and other like-minded democracies would be best served by presenting an attractive alternative to China’s technology and limiting the appeal of Beijing’s intrusive response model. Washington’s chance to lead by example has long since passed; however, by uplifting successful democratic governments like those in Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand as the gold standard for responsible use of epidemiological technology, perhaps the United States can play a role in ensuring that the future of fighting disease does not come at the expense of civic and digital freedoms.

Aidan Powers-Riggs is a former research intern with the China Power Project at CSIS.