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China Exporting Digital Authoritarianism Across the Indo-Pacific

ARTICLE 19, an international human rights organization based in England, published a report titled The Digital Silk Road: China and the rise of digital repression in the Indo-Pacific which examines China’s digital infrastructure and governance influence in Cambodia, Malaysia, Nepal and Thailand. The report published on April 18, 2024 draws attention on the “the scope of China’s global ambitions to reshape digital governance – away from an open, free and interoperable internet, in favour of a model based on government control and mass surveillance.”

“The report examines the Digital Silk Road (DSR) as a platform for advancing China’s model of digital authoritarianism, and seeks to equip civil society and other stakeholders with the necessary background and context to inform advocacy and policy making. The report outlines internet freedom and human rights concerns associated with the DSR, especially those related to the right to freedom of expression and information and the right to privacy, through cases studies from the Indo-Pacific, where China has prioritised much of its DSR activity.”

“Through its Digital Silk Road partnerships, China is seeking to create a China-centric global alternative to current technological standards and digital governance norms. By expanding its authoritarian model, China aims to ultimately supplant the tenets of internet freedom and rights-based principles of global digital governance,” says Michael Caster of ARTICLE 19.

In its analysis of the four countries, the report states “embracing China-style digital authoritarianism, since 2021 Cambodia has worked to impose its own version of the Great Firewall under a National Internet Gateway. Malaysia has not declined to this level of authoritarianism, but signs point to concerning ongoing partnerships with Chinese firms where policy changes could have serious consequences. In Nepal, development support from China in exchange for cracking down on Tibetan refugees has been ongoing, while recent changes in cybersecurity policy point to flirtations with a Chinese-style firewall. And in Thailand, since a military coup in 2014, the country’s decline into digital dictatorship has been supported by cooperation agreements with China, leading to a range of cybercrime and cybersecurity legislation and interest in a China-style firewall. Uyghur refugees have also been caught in the crosshairs between China and host countries including Thailand.”

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The Digital Silk Road: China and the Rise of Digital Repression in the Indo-Pacific