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Assessing the Global Impact of Chinese Surveillance Technology

Assessing the Global Impact of Chinese Surveillance Technology

Countries and cities around the world now increasingly employ public security and surveillance technology platforms from China. In previous research, I examined the drivers of this trend, which stem from expansion of China’s geopolitical interests, the increasing market power of its technology companies, and the conditions in recipient states that make Chinese technology an attractive choice despite security and privacy concerns.  Both “push” and “pull” factors have contributed to the growing use of Chinese surveillance technology: countries that are strategically important to the PRC are comparatively more likely to adopt it, but so are countries with high crime rates. 

Major questions remain, however, about the effects of China’s export of surveillance technology to countries around the world, and therefore about the implications for American national security and foreign policy.  Recipient countries commonly adopt surveillance and policing technologies from China in the belief that they have potential to solve urgent public policy problems, such as violent crime, but little is known about these platforms’ actual efficacy in terms of improving public safety.  There is relatively little correlation between the level of democracy in a country and its likelihood of adopting Chinese surveillance and policing technology, but we do not yet know whether introduction of that technology will lead to a subsequent corrosion of civil liberties, human rights, and democracy. We also do not know whether PRC dominance in this sector, the ability to provide these platforms to third countries, or access to the data and insights that the platforms could generate that may shape the contours of US-China strategic competition or global approaches to the regulation and proliferation of surveillance technology. 

This project, therefore, examines the effect of China’s surveillance technology exports on a range of outcomes: public safety, human rights violations, democratic backsliding, and alignment with the PRC both bilaterally and in international organizations.  Understanding the answers to these questions will improve American national security and foreign policy toward China and the world. 

Sheena Chestnut Greitens

Sheena Chestnut Greitens is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri.  She is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an adjunct fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an associate in research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, and a member of the Digital Freedom Forum at the Center for a New American Security. Greitens' work on China and North Korea has appeared in academic journals and edited volumes in English, Chinese, and Korean, and in major media outlets, and she has previously testified to Congress on security issues in the Indo-Pacific. Her first book, Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence (Cambridge, 2016) received the 2017 Best Book Award from both the International Studies Association and the Comparative Democratization section of the American Political Science Association. 

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