|The PRC responds to the U.S.’ Clean Networks with call for international, multilateral standards|
In a speech given by the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the PRC proposed international, multilateral cooperation in addressing data security around the globe. In doing, Wang took some obvious shots at recent policies announced by the United States (U.S.) and longer term actions such as surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA). The PRC floated a “Global Initiative on Data Security” that would, on its face, seem to argue against actions being undertaken by Beijing against the U.S. and some of its allies. For example, this initiative would bar the stealing of “important data,” yet the PRC stands accused of hacking Australia’s Parliament. Nonetheless, the PRC is likely seeking to position itself as more internationalist than the U.S., which under President Donald Trump has become more isolationist and unilateralist in its policies. The PRC is also calling for the rule of law, especially around “security issues,” most likely a reference to the ongoing trade/national security dispute between the two nations playing out largely in their technology sectors.
Wang’s speech came roughly a month after the U.S. Department of State unveiled its Clean Networks program, an initiative aimed at countering the national security risks posed by PRC technology companies, hardware, software, and apps (see here for more analysis.) He even went so far as to condemn unilateral actions by one nation in particular looking to institute a “clean” networks program. Wang framed this program as aiming to blunt the PRC’s competitive advantage by playing on national security fears. The Trump Administration has sought to persuade, cajole, and lean on other nations to forgo use of Huawei equipment and services in building their next generation 5G networks with some success.
And yet, since the Clean Networks program lacks much in the way of apparent enforcement mechanisms, the Department of States’s announcement may have had more to do with optics as the Trump Administration and many of its Republican allies in Congress have pinned the blame on COVID-19 on the PRC and cast the country as the primary threat to the U.S. This has played out as the Trump Administration has been choking off access to advanced semiconductors and chips to PRC firms, banned TikTok and WeChat, and order ByteDance to sell musical.ly, the app and platform that served as the fulcrum by which TikTok was launched in the U.S.
Wang asserted the PRC “believes that to effectively address the risks and challenges to data security, the following principles must be observed:
- First, uphold multilateralism. Pursuing extensive consultation and joint contribution for shared benefits is the right way forward for addressing the deficit in global digital governance. It is important to develop a set of international rules on data security that reflect the will and respect the interests of all countries through broad-based participation. Bent on unilateral acts, a certain country keeps making groundless accusations against others in the name of “clean” network and used security as a pretext to prey on enterprises of other countries who have a competitive edge. Such blatant acts of bullying must be opposed and rejected.
- Second, balance security and development. Protecting data security is essential for the sound growth of digital economy. Countries have the right to protect data security according to law. That said, they are also duty-bound to provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for all businesses. Protectionism in the digital domain runs counter to the laws of economic development and the trend of globalization. Protectionist practices undermine the right of global consumers to equally access digital services and will eventually hold back the country’s own development.
- Third, ensure fairness and justice. Protection of digital security should be based on facts and the law. Politicization of security issues, double standards and slandering others violate the basic norms governing international relations, and seriously disrupt and hamper global digital cooperation and development.
Wang continued, “[i]n view of the new issues and challenges emerging in this field, China would like to propose a Global Initiative on Data Security, and looks forward to the active participation of all parties…[and] [l]et me briefly share with you the key points of our Initiative:
- First, approach data security with an objective and rational attitude, and maintain an open, secure and stable global supply chain.
- Second, oppose using ICT activities to impair other States’ critical infrastructure or steal important data.
- Third, take actions to prevent and put an end to activities that infringe upon personal information, oppose abusing ICT to conduct mass surveillance against other States or engage in unauthorized collection of personal information of other States.
- Fourth, ask companies to respect the laws of host countries, desist from coercing domestic companies into storing data generated and obtained overseas in one’s own territory.
- Fifth, respect the sovereignty, jurisdiction and governance of data of other States, avoid asking companies or individuals to provide data located in other States without the latter’s permission.
- Sixth, meet law enforcement needs for overseas data through judicial assistance or other appropriate channels.
- Seventh, ICT products and services providers should not install backdoors in their products and services to illegally obtain user data.
- Eighth, ICT companies should not seek illegitimate interests by taking advantage of users’ dependence on their products.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article, the U.S. and many of its allies and partners would argue the PRC has transgressed a number of these proposed rules. However, the Foreign Ministry was very clever in how they drafted and translated these principles, for in the second key principle, the PRC is proposing that no country should use “ICT activities to impair other States’ critical infrastructure.” And yet, two international media outlets reported that the African Union’s (AU) computers were transmitting reams of sensitive data to Shanghai daily between 2012 and 2017. If this claim is true, and the PRC’s government was behind the exfiltration, is it fair to say the AU’s critical infrastructure was impaired? One could argue the infrastructure was not even though there was apparently massive data exfiltration. Likewise, in the third key principle, the PRC appears to be condemning mass surveillance of other states, but just this week a PRC company was accused of compiling the personal information of more than 2.4 million worldwide, many of them in influential positions like the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Australia. And yet, if this is the extent of the surveillance, it is not of the same magnitude as U.S. surveillance over the better part of the last two decades. Moreover, the PRC is not opposing a country using mass surveillance of its own people as the PRC is regularly accused of doing, especially against its Uighur minority.
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