The Chinese government is sweeping up vast amounts of data from all around the world to bulwark the nation’s security, but most critically to secure the political future of the Communist party, a new report argues.
Engineering Global Consent, a policy brief by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Dr Samantha Hoffman, argues that the Chinese party-state seeks to influence – and where possible control – global online and political environments so that public sentiment around the world is more favourable towards its interests. China has expanded its operations of influence into organisations such as universities in the UK, the US and Australia.
“This expansion isn’t always distinctly coercive or overtly invasive,” Hoffman argues. “While there’s an important focus on technologies such as 5G, surveillance and cyber-enabled espionage, this narrow focus misses the bigger picture.
“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a much more ambitious vision for harnessing a broad suite of current and emerging technologies in support of its own interests, including devices that might be seen as relatively benign, such as language translation technologies.”
The report says the CCP has established a “massive and global data-collection ecosystem” that uses state-owned enterprises, Chinese technology companies and partnerships with foreign actors and institutions – including western universities – to further its interests.
The report cites the global operations of Chinese company Global Tone Communications Technology Co Ltd (GTCOM), a subsidiary of a state-owned enterprise supervised directly by the Chinese government’s Central Propaganda Department.
GTCOM, declaring itself “the world’s leading company in big data and artificial intelligence”, collects data from around the world in more than 65 languages, and analyses and processes that data for use by the government and corporate clients.
The company harvests massive amounts of data: just one of its platforms, Insidersoft, focused on traditional and social media, collects 10 terabytes a day – the equivalent of 5tn words of typed text. Annually, it harvests between 2 and 3 petabytes – equivalent to 20bn Facebook photos.
It collects information through online translation services, multilingual machine translation, and speech and video recognition software.
GTCOM works in cooperation with other Chinese firms such as Huawei – banned from building Australia’s 5G networks over security and espionage concerns – Alibaba Cloud, and Haiyan Data, which provides technology for the surveillance of minority ethnic Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province. It also has research arrangements with a global network of academics and research institutions to gather further data, some of which “goes directly back to servers that the party-state controls”.
In a 2017 interview the chief executive of GTCOM, Eric Yu, said the company was working with universities across the world and singled out the University of New South Wales, which is using its platforms YEEKIT and YeeSight for its big data projects.
The Guardian has approached UNSW for comment regarding the nature of its collaboration with GTCOM.
The University of Technology, Sydney has a collaboration with Haiyun Data. Begun in 2018, the collaboration investigates the digitisation of hand-written Chinese characters, which are harder for software systems to recognise.
“The research could reasonably be used in many office environments globally,” UTS said.
UTS said there was no joint artificial intelligence lab, as claimed on a Chinese-language website. “The article is inaccurate and is a complete misrepresentation of our collaboration with Haiyun Data.”
The policy brief argues that governments should strengthen data privacy laws and regularly update formal transparency measures such as Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
The paper argues government must also treat countries differently, according to their unique interests and values. “‘Country-agnostic’ policy approaches, for example, may feel politically correct but are detrimental for decision-makers and for publics, as they obscure realities by ill-defining the nature of the problem,” Hoffman argues.
The release of the ASPI report comes at an acutely sensitive time for Australia-China relations, which have steadily worsened over a number of long-running issues, including foreign interference in education and politics, Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, and growing military and aid presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Last week the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, launched an extraordinary broadside at the Chinese Communist party saying while Australia has an “incredibly important” trading relationship with China, “we’re not going to allow university students to be unduly influenced, we’re not going to allow theft of intellectual property and we’re not going to allow our government bodies or non-government bodies to be hacked into”.
The comments inspired a sharp rebuke from China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, who said he hoped “Australia will reject the cold war mentality and bias, and work to advance bilateral relations and mutual trust”.
Despite the increasingly polemic rhetoric on both sides, formal cooperation continues between the nations. Chinese naval officers were invited to, and attended, the 2019 Pacific International Maritime Exposition 2019 in Sydney last weekend.
Australian and Chinese military personnel are also currently engaged on a 10-day bilateral training exercise, Operation Pandaroo, now in its fourth year on the island of Hainan.
The Australian defence department says the exercise is an “example of … constructive military engagement” designed to build “strong people-to-people links” and understanding between junior officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers.
By Ben Doherty