China’s tech-authoritarianism: Red flags for the world order


By Olivier Guillard, a specialist in Asian issues, research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).  

How to cite this publication

Olivier Guillard, China's tech-authoritarianism: Red flags for the world order, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, Juine 12, 2024.


The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.

The rise of technology has led to China emerging primary provider of digital infrastructure under the backdrop of seeking commercial and strategic benefits. Its 2021 Five-Year Plan heavily emphasises a range of technology such as quantum computing, new generation AI, integrated chips, brain science, genetics and biotech.

However, the Chinese tech-authoritarian regime has been flagged as an emerging concern by several nations. In recent years, China has aggressively expanded its technological influence globally, leveraging its advancements in artificial intelligence, surveillance technology, and digital infrastructure. This expansion is not merely economic but deeply intertwined with strategic and political ambitions. From influencing elections in major democracies to embedding surveillance systems in developing nations, China's tech-authoritarian model has significant implications for global security and sovereignty. The spread of such technology has garnered fears of influencing hybrid and illiberal democracies, thereby heightening global democratic recession. [1]

China's Tech-Authoritarianism Model

China has been pro-actively exporting its tech-authoritarian model to other countries. Emerging technology has enabled China to influence political and internal discourse of a country and resultantly control and expand on its policies. In April 2024, Microsoft reported China's use of AI to disrupt the elections in India [2] and U.S. this year by way of disinformation about government activities through fake videos and profiles generated by AI. A similar project was beta-tested by China in Taiwan to disrupt its presidential elections. Microsoft stated that the use of AI to disrupt elections was in line with China's strategic interest in the South China Sea region, South Pacific Islands and the US defence industrial base. [3]

The Chinese strategy is also known to capitalise various governments' request for repressive surveillance tools. Primary usage of these surveillance models has been seen in Zimbabwe and Venezuela, who are noted to have received a commercialised version of China's 'Great Firewall'. Initiative like the Digital Silk Road further enable digital authoritarianism by exporting Chinese hardware, software and service for a more controllable, government-led internet. Arabic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Morocco are actively adopting the Chinese tech-authoritarian model. Examples from Egypt [4] show how Chinese surveillance equipment from Dahua and Hikvision were used to monitor and track Uyghurs in the region. In 2019, the Uzbekistan government procured 883 surveillance cameras for the "safe city" in Tashkent to "digitally manage political affairs". [5]

Unfortunately, several tech companies are also complicit in China's push for adaptation of surveillance tools. Up until recently, U.S. based biomedical company Thermo Fisher Scientific supplied genetic surveillance technologies to Chinese police in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in Xinjiang. [6] Between 2006 and 2021, mega Chinese companies like Huawei had concluded 70 cloud infrastructure and e-government transactions with 41 government and state-owned enterprises. While most of these countries were classified as "non-free" or "partially free", these economies allow China to leverage the strong demand, low barriers to entry and fewer scrutinies. [7]

The extensive use of Chinese tech in regions like Cairo (having the Suez Canal), Pakistan (with its close proximity to India), Riyadh (a supporter of China's crackdown on Uyghur Muslims) and African Union notes an intricate expansion based on strategic interests. [8] The misuse of digital technology by China is also seen as a deliberate attempt to mis-influence its perception among global citizens. The US Congress noted that the hashtag #Xinjing on Chinese company TikTok showed many positive videos of Uyghurs dancing but hardly any videos of camps, state surveillance and human rights sufferings. [9]

Increase in Digital Dependency

China's technology advancement coupled with business acumen has increased the digital dependency of several developing and least developed countries. In January 2018, France's Le Monde newspaper reported large volumes of data being transferred from the Chinese-installed servers in African Union's headquarters in Addis Ababa to unknown servers hosted in Shanghai every night between January 2012 to January 2017. [10] While China denied the data theft and surveillance allegations, it is believed that the African Union kept the Chinese surveillance secret for a year after discovering it. Many African policy experts flagged the incident as worrisome; not only did it signify China's shift from a business partner to a political intervener, it highlighted the dependency of African actors on Chinese interest. [11]

Similarly, several officials have identified a rise in China-Pakistan exports pertaining to high tech military equipment, raising specific fears of the implications of such dependency. In March 2024, Indian Officials flagged down a Malta based ship bound for Karachi which was believed to contain a Computer Numerical Control machine ("CNC machine") possibly for Pakistan's nuclear and ballistic missile programme. [12] Interestingly, the CNC machine is part of the Wassenaar Arrangement, a multilateral export control regime aimed at controlling the proliferation of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies. Its inclusion signifies international efforts to curb the destabilizing accumulation and acquisition of such items, which now has been flouted by Beijing. [13] Several other surveillance equipment and supporting technologies have been shared with Pakistan for its "safe cities" under China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), raising fears that Pakistan will likely continue the alignment of its policies with China's strategic interest. [14]

China's tech-authoritarianism is also a way for it to maintain checks on India's growing power in South East Asia. In 2019, China sold a large-scale optical tracking and measurement system to Pakistan for their missile programme two months after India tested its most advanced nuclear ready intercontinental ballistic missile "Agni-V ICBM" making it the first country to export sensitive technology to Pakistan at the time. [15] Additionally, Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky's report titled 'Cyberthreats to Financial Organisations in 2022" flags India as the top five targets for Advanced Persistent Threats (APT) cyber-attacks which are designed to remain undetected for a long time.

Implications of China's push for technology has shifted form economic considerations to strategic and security considerations within India after its "Make in India" campaign along with a crackdown on Chinese technology and gadgets. China's 'self-strengthening' goals have been pursued at the cost of its partners. [16] China aims to circumvent Indian restriction with its collaboration with Pakistan. The aforementioned Pakistan-China collaboration in this regard has been noted as a part of the digital and cyber operations under the Long-term Plan for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC; 2017-2030). [17]

The collaboration between China and Pakistan in cyber activities is strategically advantageous for both nations. China, restricted by bans on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and limited English and Hindi proficiency among its populace, leverages Pakistan to avoid direct attribution for anti-India activities. For Pakistan, this partnership strengthens its strategic relationship with China and provides access to advanced cyber capabilities otherwise unattainable. This cooperation possibly extends to malicious cyber activities, such as APT attacks, aimed at acquiring valuable geopolitical, business, and military data. Indian cybersecurity researchers have suspected Chinese support in Pakistani cyber campaigns like APT36's 'Operation Sidecopy,' which has targeted Indian defense networks with phishing attacks since 2016. [18]

China's role as a pervasive technology power is further evidenced by several Science and Technology Agreements (STAs) that it has signed with various countries. At present, it has signed approximately 114 intergovernmental STAs and 161 co-operative ties with countries on matters pertaining to science and technology. Additionally, there are about 73 agreements for "safe city" projects spread over 52 countries, most of which have been signed by Pakistan. China is also the world's largest manufacturer and supplier of the underlying semiconductors critical for surveillance technology.

These agreements have increased over time as China sought more access to science and technological development from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in addition to countries where BRI projects are in force. However, a comparison between STAs with high-income countries against middle and low-income countries highlighted the lack of specificity seen in the agreements with high income nations. The agreements with middle and lower income countries are also less formal; it was noted that the titles of some agreements were not indicative of an STA since the nature of the relationship could not be identified. [19] Additionally, out of the 34 middle-income countries, only 7 are non-BRI participants. Interestingly, these 7 countries will be or are likely to co-operate with China's BRI, Silk Road and other strategic initiatives.

China's strategic deployment of technology extends beyond mere economic outreach, embedding itself into the political and security frameworks of numerous nations. By fostering dependencies through digital infrastructure, surveillance systems, and strategic partnerships, China is actively reshaping global power dynamics to its unfair advantage. The implications of this shift are profound, raising critical questions about sovereignty, security, and the ethical use of technology. The world order will require conventional and non-conventional checks and balances to insure against China and other nations following its textbook engaging in proxy attacks against sovereign states in a clandestine manner.


[2] "China may use AI anchors, memes to disrupt polls in India: Microsoft report", India Today, 6 April 2024

[3] "China may use AI generated content to influence Lok Sabha election, warns Microsoft Report", Hindustan Times, 6 April 2024

[4] "China, Egypt sign strategic partnership agreement", The Economic Times, 24 December 2014

[5] "China's Surveillance State has Eyes on Central Asia", Foreign Policy, 15 November 2019

[6]"US Company must stop supplying China's regime with DNA surveillance tech", Human Rights Watch, 30 January 2024

[7] "Chinese Digital Authoritarianism and its Global Impact" University of California at Berkley, Project on Middle East Political Studies,

[8] "The Growth of Chinese Influence in Egypt: Signs and Consequences", Fikra Forum, Washington Institute, 27 April 2023

[9] Joint Committee Meeting of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, "Techno-Authoritarianism: Platform for Repression in China and Abroad", 17 November 2021

[10] "The African Union headquarters hack and Australia's 5G network", The Strategist, The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 13 July 2018,

[11] "African Union bugged by China: Cyber Espionage as Evidence of Strategic Shift", Net Politics under Council on Foreign Relations, 7 March 2018

[12] "China provides tracking system for Pakistan's missile programme", South China Morning Post, 22 March 2018,


[14] "Live in Pak or China? Big Brother is watching you", The Sunday Guardian, 19 January 2019

[15] "China provides tracking system for Pakistan's missile programme", South China Morning Post, 22 March 2018

[16] "India's Technology Competition with China", Podcast series, Brookings, 29 November 2023

[17] "Cyber Attacks | Pakistan emerges as China's proxy against India", Observer Research Foundation, 15 February 2022

[18] "The Arab world isn't just silent on China's Crackdown on Uighurs. It's Complicit", Time, 24 March 2022

[19] ''China's use of formal science and technology agreements as a tool of diplomacy'', Science and Public Policy, Volume 50, Issue 4, August 2023, Pages 807–817,