China’s Global Data Security Initiative Likely a Propaganda Project: Cyber Expert

September 8, 2020 Updated: September 8, 2020

TAIPEI, Taiwan—Beijing rolled out a global “data security initiative” with much fanfare on Sept. 8, but one local cybersecurity expert explained why Beijing has an ulterior motive behind the move.

The initiative to set data security standards was rolled out by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi while he was addressing an international seminar on Sept. 8. Though he did not detail the nature of the initiative, he said it encompasses eight goals, such as ensuring service providers don’t install backdoors in their products to illegally obtain users’ data, and opposing using information technology as a tool for mass surveillance.

Chinese tech companies have been documented to do both.

“China has three intentions behind this initiative and one of them serves the purpose of external promotion,” said Lin Tsung-nan, a professor who specializes in data science, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity at Taiwan’s National Taiwan University.

“The different claims within the initiative seem very reasonable on the surface, which would allow [Beijing] to say that the United States is being selfish in rolling out its ‘Clean Network’ against China,” Lin said in a phone interview.

The United States’ Clean Network intends to safeguard citizens’ privacy and companies’ trade secrets from intrusions by malign actors, such as the CCP, according to the State Department. It seeks to protect data passing through telecommunications networks, cloud-based systems, and apps from being accessed by Beijing, such as by not using Huawei equipment for 5G networks.

Foreign minister Wang took a swipe at the United States’ initiative during his speech on Tuesday.

“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,” Wang said, without directly naming the United States.

China’s hawkish state-run media Global Times, in an article about Wang’s announcement, also cited a Chinese cybersecurity expert who accused the United States of being a “thief that shouts ‘catch the thief’ in cybersecurity.

Responding to China’s proposal, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said on his Twitter account: “Allowing China to set global data-security rules is like letting the fox guard the hen house.”

Scott added: “Communist China exerts significant controls over how their citizens use the internet and steals data and intellectual property from countries around the globe.”

The seemingly “reasonable” claims in China’s new initiative would also allow the Chinese regime to carry out “internal propaganda,” said Lin, so it could say the United States was “slinging mud” at Chinese technology.

Lin added that Beijing likely seeks to rally its “friends” in order to form an alliance to confront the United States.

Developing countries, particularly those that have signed up for China’s foreign policy project, “Belt and Road,” would likely join the new data security initiative, Lin predicted.

Lin believed Beijing would also promote the initiative through international agencies that it influences, including those affiliated with the United Nations (UN).

In early August, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) introduced a new bill intended to counter China’s influence in the UN system. Currently, Chinese nationals hold the top position at four UN bodies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization. A Chinese judge was also recently elected to a UN-backed judicial body that hears maritime disputes.

The Taiwanese professor also raised doubts that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would stick to its promises in the initiative.

The CCP often “says one thing and does another,” he said, citing the example of Beijing failing to honor the Sino-British Joint Declaration—a legally-binding international treaty signed in 1984 that paved the way for Hong Kong to be handed back to Chinese sovereignty from British rule in 1997.

The treaty guaranteed the city a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years after 1997 under the “one country, two systems” model. But Beijing recently enacted a national security law that has so far ensnared dissidents who oppose Beijing’s encroachment on local affairs, and punished dissenting speech.

In June, the Trump administration revoked Hong Kong’s special trading status, after determining that the city was no longer autonomous from mainland China following the law’s implementation.

“Why would anyone think that the Chinese Communist Party would keep its promises as stated in the data security initiative?” Lin said.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer