The Digital Silk Road, part III-A Scan of Effects Shows Mixed Signals

Dr. Jean-Marc F. Blanchard's picture

This blog is the last of three on China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative. The 1st gave an overview of the DSR while the 2nd probed some of DSR's features in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) and contracting. This blog considers two potential political effects of the DSR, its effect on participant country relations with China and its effect on participant country political regimes and civil liberties. Regarding the former, there are concerns China’s DSR technologies will ensnare countries partaking of the DSR.

There is no powerful evidence to date that this is the case, which is not surprising given the DSR’s bounded footprint, the fact many countries involved in the DSR also work with other countries and information and communication technology (ICT) companies, and the fact many DSR participants already have rationales for embracing China. As for its effect on political regimes, the worry is that it will promote authoritarianism. With respect to its implications for civil liberties, the worries are that Chinese DSR ICT will increase surveillance, undermine free speech, and weaken data privacy. These anxieties prima facie deserve attention given the potential ways governments can exploit ICT to assert control. It is problematic, however, to assume an automatic correspondence between the DSR and increased authoritarianism or the DSR and reduced civil liberties. After all, legal, regulatory, and political factors can hinder the use of technology for nefarious political purposes. For instance, it is hard to imagine Germany becoming a police state merely because it uses Chinese DSR ICT. Furthermore, governments may not have the human capital to employ AI or big data effectively. Lastly, DSR ICT has the potential to enhance civil liberties, too. Cutting through these mixed signals ultimately demands real research rather than conclusions based on laundry lists of “possibilities” that often are not.