Defining the new digital world order

The Digital Silk Road – China’s programme to catalyse telecom connectivity worldwide – envisions a global digital infrastructure that relies on Chinese suppliers and Chinese-influenced technical standards. This could make China the leader in a digital new world order – and cyberspace would become less free.
Huawei managers at an event to promote a new mobile device in Nairobi in 2019 picture-alliance/Photoshot Huawei managers at an event to promote a new mobile device in Nairobi in 2019

Donor countries often include particular technologies in their international development programmes to help their own industries. China is now doing this with internet technologies. In 2015, China launched the Digital Silk Road – a massive project to drive digitalisation worldwide – as a component of its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Under the Digital Silk Road programme, Chinese internet infrastructure firms, in particular Huawei, are expanding their already strong global presence.

In a related move, China recently released a white paper signalling its interest in shaping the rules and norms of internet protocol – the rules that define how data should be delivered over the internet. Together with the spread of Chinese technologies, a greater Chinese influence on technical standards could shape the rules of internet access and use for years to come.

It is nothing new for donors to use development aid to further their own interests. One example is the US government’s export of genetically-modified crops and yield-boosting seed as part of a 2002 food aid programme. While the crops were intended to relieve hunger, these exports also benefited US developers of the related bio-technologies. China is doing something similar for its digital technology industries under the Digital Silk Road project (see box “Food aid with a catch”).

Favouring domestic industries in development programmes is not inherently a bad thing. However, the element of donor self-interest should be clear and transparent. Such clarity can help all sides involved to align interests fairly. That includes multilateral institutions, private businesses and civil society.

The current battle for dominance in global telecoms goes well beyond economic advantage, however. The outcome will determine how cyberspace itself is governed. It will shape the “rules of the road” for internet traffic, including the regulations governing internet access and protection of data privacy. As political theorist Langdon Winner explained (1980), the choice of a particular technology has political consequences and is often driven by political motivations. In his view, technological “artifacts” thus have political relevance.

Battle for markets

The technology artifacts involved in the Digital Silk Road carry a political message about outcomes as well. The choice of software programmes and hardware components has an impact on who leads the telecoms market. If enough countries use Chinese internet technologies, that benefits providers of ancillary equipment using the same standards, to the detriment of suppliers using different technical standards. By increasing its control over the infrastructure, China creates new global markets for its software and e-commerce firms. The beneficiaries include:

  • the internet conglomerate Tencent,
  • the e-commerce giant Alibaba,
  • the digital infrastructure and devices manufacturer Huawei and
  • the global satellite system BeiDou.

Indeed, several African and Southeast Asian countries have already adopted BeiDou as an alternative to the US Global Positioning System. Further, Chinese giant Huawei has built 70 % of Africa’s 4G mobile telecoms networks and will supply a stand-alone 5G system to Rain, South Africa’s mobile data-only network. Huawei has more 5G contracts than any other telecoms company. Indeed, half of them are in Europe.

In all, exports under the Digital Silk Road project have boosted Huawei’s share of the global telecom equipment market by 40 % since the Belt and Road Initiative began, according to David Sacks (2021) of the Council on Foreign Relations. He adds that, once Huawei builds a country’s 5G network, that country is likely to choose Huawei to upgrade those systems when newer technologies become available. This effect could shut out western competitors for decades to come.

Follow the data

Beyond conferring commercial advantages, gaining control over other countries’ internet infrastructure may also give China direct access to that country’s data streams, such as those generated by sensors in “smart city” networks and in online communication of all types.

Accordingly, privacy and security issues are red flags for some western nations as well as Belt and Road partner countries. The concerns include losing control of systems to hackers, inadvertently losing data due to technical problems and enabling commercial espionage and spying on political opponents. Based on such fears, several countries, including many NATO members, have either banned the use of Huawei’s 5G technology or limited the scope of its use in their national cellular phone systems.

“While China’s Digital Silk Road has the potential to enhance digital connectivity in developing economies, it simultaneously has the capacity to spread authoritarianism, curtail democracy and curb fundamental human rights,” writes Clayton Cheney of the Pacific Forum, a US-based foreign policy research institute.

Yet China is not the only country willing to use its telecoms technology to gather data from network users. US technology giants such as Google and Facebook do the same on a massive scale, stating they do so for commercial purposes. China makes telecoms equipment available to governments that abuse human rights, but the US government invests in companies whose equipment could be misused the same way.

One example is Palantir Technologies, a US-based software firm that specialises in big-data analytics. Its early funding came from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s venture capital fund. Since its founding in 2003, the firm has expanded beyond its core market of intelligence and law enforcement and has started providing data services to the development and humanitarian sector.

Setting standards

Another source of concern for western countries is China’s increasingly active role in setting global technical standards for data transmission. Chinese activity in standards-setting fora and its growing worldwide commercial presence in internet systems are fuelling these concerns. Together these factors could put China in a position to exert greater control over access to the World Wide Web, thereby challenging the very basis on which cyberspace has been governed.

China’s implicit goal is to reduce global dependence on US-based tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Intel and Amazon—and, at the same time, to change the Silicon-Valley-influenced rules of internet use. Richard Ghiasy, a policy advisor on Asian geopolitics, and Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy of India’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies state (2021): “For China, the Digital Silk Road … engenders a less US-centric and a more Sino-centric Asian and global digital order.”

While China’s government has been clear that it wants to expand the reach of its internet technologies and standards, western countries have been less forthright. Instead, they have repeated the mantra that the internet must remain a free, ungoverned space. However, civil liberties online are increasingly challenged even under the US-led dominance of cyberspace. Half of the world’s data traffic is moved by large US-based companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. The internet is rife with commercial surveillance, and it is hard to tell what exactly western spy agencies are doing. The Chinese alternative would likely add more surveillance by state agencies.

The challenge is to find an alternative that does not involve surveillance at all. China may be guilty of using state-owned enterprises like Huawei to expand its sphere of digital influence. However, until western donor countries are honest about their own interests in promoting their technologies abroad, the global south might be left with two equally unpalatable options: An internet of exploitative commercial surveillance, or an internet of civil liberties-curtailing state surveillance.

A third, better option may be possible. If donor countries start from a resolve to ensure civil liberties and transparency, they could insist on data protections and 5G standards that fulfil those requirements. They could provide incentives for hardware firms to avoid putting spyware in transmission devices and for data analytics firms to take privacy and data protection seriously.

The internet can be a powerful force for public good. But for it to fulfil that goal, donor countries must commit to deploying digital technology to achieve a greater goal than promoting their own political and commercial interests.


Richard Ghiasy, R., and Krishnamurthy, R., 2021: China’s Digital Silk Road and the global digital order. In: The Diplomat, April 2021.

Sacks, D., 2021: China’s Huawei is winning the 5G race. Council on Foreign Relations.

Winner, L., 1980: Do artifacts have politics?

Charles Martin-Shields is a senior researcher at the German Development Institute in Bonn.

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