China’s technology apparatus is geared to do the very things that alarm western democracies about big tech, former prime minister Stephen Harper told attendees at a defence and security conference on March 12.
“The biggest single concern that Western citizens … have about big tech is about power. It's about privacy, it's about surveillance, it's about the use of personal data,” Harper said, speaking at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute’s Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in a keynote discussion with his former national security adviser Richard Fadden.
“The entire Chinese technology system is designed for that purpose.”
Harper said he’s not against Chinese consumer products, but that Beijing should not be allowed to have its technology at the core of the systems of Western democracies.
He spoke of the double edged sword that tech is: while it increases what humans can achieve in a number of ways, it can also be used as an instrument for authoritarianism.
Harper touted his efforts as prime minister to put in a national security review for foreign investment coming into Canada. He said China’s resource demand has benefited Canada, but warns there are always risks from the “hegemonic side.”
Specifically, the Chinese regime’s interest in data and technology is more problematic than its interest in the oilsands or rare earth minerals, he said.
The two Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE had penetrated Canada long before they caught the attention of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, Harper noted.
“These companies may be private companies in form, but in practice they are extensions of the Chinese state security apparatus. It's that simple,” he said.
Canada is the only member of the Five Eyes to have not yet banned Huawei from its 5G infrastructure, or not have a plan to phase it out, in the case of the UK.
Tech integration with China is incompatible, Harper said.
Regarding China’s perception of the West, Harper said the regime must be “incredulous” that it has been given almost unlimited access to Western markets while effectively constraining reciprocal access—and that this arrangement has been allowed to go on for so long.
Canada’s trade deficit with China has grown consistently since China became a member of the World Trade Organization roughly 20 years ago.
Harper said former U.S. president Donald Trump was “fundamentally right” about losing economic activity to China, not being compensated for it, “and that it took Western leaders too long to figure this out.” But Beijing is also concerned about growing anti-Chinese rhetoric in the West, he added.
‘So-Called China Experts’
Harper criticized China experts who suggest that the state's belligerent nature has just emerged under the leadership of Xi Jinping.
“I think the reading of China was completely wrong by so-called China experts for many years. China is not an insular and passive country—it is a large country with hegemonic ambition,” he said, adding that the pillars of aggression were in place under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, for example.
The difference with Xi is that he is more outspoken about China’s ambitions, Harper added.
Under Xi, there has been more emphasis on state-owned enterprises, according to Harper, and he thinks this will prove problematic.
Harper said the United States still remains the world’s pre-eminent power, but that the world is best described as a “G2++” with the United States and China the two dominant powers. The relationship is not unlike another Cold War, except that the blocs around the two countries are not as well defined this time and the China-U.S. rivalry also has mutual dependencies, he added.
Harper said the China-U.S. relationship is the biggest strategic concern for smaller Asian countries.
“How do you continue to benefit from the Chinese economic relationship while not making yourself vulnerable to China in a security sense and keeping that security relationship with the United States?” he said.
He said Russia is a hacker, a disruptor, a mercenary, and doesn’t do anything to shape the world in a positive sense. Harper was in power when Russia was removed from the G8.
Harper said Canada needs the United States to be an effective multilateral global leader in the world and that U.S. President Joe Biden has two strengths—he’s engaging and easy to dialogue with, and is an expert in foreign and security policy.
However, Harper said he has not been able to discern Biden’s foreign policy or what his strategic philosophy is, noting that Trump understood that a country has friends and foes.
Harper was Canada’s 22nd prime minister and served from 2006 to 2015. He now leads a consulting firm focusing on financial services, technology, and the energy sector.
His 2018 book “Right Here, Right Now: Politics and Leadership in the Age of Disruption” was written to help leaders in the private and public sectors based on his decade of experience as a G7 leader, according to his website.