• Sat. Aug 13th, 2022

Dimancherouge

Technology

US-China Tech Race: brave new world

Byiwano@_84

Apr 26, 2022 , , , ,

This is an audio transcript of the Tech Tonic podcast episode: US-China Tech Race: brave new world

James Kynge
Branko’s Bridge connects the old city and the new city in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and in 2014 that bridge became the scene of an accident that would dramatically alter the course of Serbia’s foreign policy.

Danilo Krivokapic
Over there, where you can see that elevator, somewhere there the incident happened.

James Kynge
That’s Danilo Krivokapic, director at Share Foundation, a human rights and privacy group. Branko’s Bridge is surrounded by brutalist tower blocks and sprawling views of the Serbian capital. And in the summer of 2014, in the dead of night, the bridge was the site of an infamous hit-and-run.

Danilo Krivokapic
Well, this was actually a pretty sad case, you know? There was the car accident during the night. A young man died and actually for days, even weeks, the police didn’t care a lot about this.

James Kynge
Branko’s Bridge is a prominent, well-trafficked route into the capital. But the death of 21-year old Luka Jovanovic went mysteriously unsolved.

Danilo Krivokapic
And only after his father stood on the bridge for days with the sign, “Please explain what’s happened to my son”, police started investigating. And then it became the biggest case in the country.

James Kynge
There was grainy CCTV footage of the accident, but the police had little to go on. Luka’s father wouldn’t give up, though. Day after day he staged a silent protest on the bridge. The story became a tabloid fixture. The car that had struck Luka was a Mini Countryman, and the incident became known as the Countryman case. And although the car was never found, the police did eventually find the driver.

Danilo Krivokapic
They couldn’t find him in Serbia, and after a few months of, you know, searching for him, he was found in China and deported immediately to Serbia, where he later on he had trial and he was convicted.

James Kynge
It’s not clear why the culprit fled to China of all places, but it turned out to be fortuitous in solving the Countryman case because after months of searching, Serbian police had sent a photo of the suspect to authorities in Beijing.

Danilo Krivokapic
He was found in less than three days with usage of facial recognition technology, so they put his picture in the system and it took them two or three days to find him in China. So this is a really significant moment when our police was like, “OK, we need to have this, this type of technology.”

James Kynge
And that’s why today Branko’s Bridge is monitored by cutting-edge Chinese surveillance cameras purchased from the tech company, Huawei. As a result of the Countryman case, Serbia has gone all in on Chinese technology.

Danilo Krivokapic
You can see more of these cameras up there. There is 360 camera in here and also over there on the bridge. There is numerous cameras.

James Kynge
Thousands of surveillance cameras have now been installed across Belgrade using Chinese technology and not just in Serbia. Dozens of countries around the world are adopting Chinese surveillance equipment and with it, some argue, the tools for authoritarian state surveillance.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This is Tech Tonic from the Financial Times, I’m James Kynge, the FT’s global China editor. In this season, we’re examining the rise of China as a global tech superpower and the country’s growing rivalry with the United States. In the last episode, we heard about military tech, hypersonic missiles and a new space race. In this episode, the rise of Chinese surveillance technology. We visit Serbia and ask whether the spread of Chinese technology means the spread of Chinese influence around the world.

First, consider this: China is the world’s most populous nation with 1.4bn people. But you’re never just an anonymous face in the crowd there. There are over 400mn security cameras in the country or about one camera for every three people. The state’s ability to access personal data appears at times unlimited. Anyone who’s lived through one of China’s Covid lockdowns will testify to that.

[AUDIO CLIP IN CHINESE PLAYING]

For a few years now, China’s been building what it calls the world’s largest surveillance network: a web of cameras across the country equipped with facial recognition technology, which explains why Beijing managed to track down the culprit in Belgrade’s Countryman case so quickly.

[INTERVIEW CLIP IN CHINESE WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATION PLAYING]
We can match every face with an ID card and trace all your movements one week back in time.

James Kynge
That’s Yin Jun, president of Dahua’s Advanced Technology Institute, speaking to the BBC back in 2017. Dahua is a Chinese state-owned, publicly traded company based in Hangzhou. It’s among the Chinese companies selling cutting edge video surveillance products and services.

[AUDIO CLIP IN CHINESE WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATION PLAYING]
We can match your face with your car, match you with your relatives and the people you’re in touch with.

James Kynge
It’s a privacy campaigner’s nightmare, and it’s not limited to just inside China’s borders. Around the world, 64 countries have bought surveillance systems from Chinese tech companies. They include cities in Africa, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and even in Europe. Serbia is among them. Our producer, Josh Gabert-Doyon, travelled to Belgrade to learn more about Serbia’s adoption of Chinese surveillance technology.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Tell me where we are and what we’re looking at.

Danilo Krivokapic
OK, we are currently in the Republic of Square. This is the main square in Belgrade, so the main place for people to gather, where people meet, where people protest.

James Kynge
What did you find, Josh?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Well, it’s a pretty typical European square. There’s some restaurants, there’s a big fountain, open space kind of for gatherings and concerts and whatever, and then dotted throughout the square, there are these kind of high tech, very modern-looking cameras and Danilo who you heard earlier took me on a little walking tour of the area.

Danilo Krivokapic
And I counted 18 of these new tech Huawei high-definition cameras covering this square. So we are currently below four of them. This equipment is installed two years ago and it is state of the art technology. It has 30 times zoom, night vision. It can record audio also . ..

Josh Gabert-Doyon
So these kind of state of the art cameras were installed by the Chinese tech giant Huawei. That started in 2019, and the Serbian government, at least according to reports, had spent kind of several years in secret negotiations with Huawei following that death on the bridge that sparked this big kind of Serbian interest in Chinese surveillance technology, at least on the government’s part. And when the government eventually announced the deal, people like Danilo were really concerned.

Danilo Krivokapic
They were bragging about this. So they were saying, listen, people, we have this great technology from China. We’re going to cover the whole city with these state of the art cameras, and we’re gonna procure facial recognition software and we’re gonna make this city a safer place.

James Kynge
But it’s not unusual to see CCTV cameras in public places in European cities. So what in particular were Danilo and his advocacy group worried about?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
I actually asked to know about this because it has to do with the technology, the use of facial recognition and artificial intelligence.

Danilo Krivokapic
Cameras, no matter how good their resolution is, this is type of traditional video surveillance when you need people to view this footage so you need somebody to monitor. So what’s happening in Belgrade and what we are afraid of is to have the whole city covered with this state of the art technology and then to connect this with the latest software’s analytics and facial recognition software. So this is now automated surveillance. So you’re processing a lot of data and then maybe you want to see where this political opponent or this person that you don’t like, you take his picture, put it in the system and then collect all the data from the cameras.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
So compared to normal CCTV cameras, these cameras recognise your face and then they link it to an AI database and allow for much more advanced real-time monitoring. And the sheer number of cameras that have been installed opens up this pretty real possibility of mass surveillance in Serbia.

Danilo Krivokapic
Cameras on that wall where the traffic sign is. And there are also four more. There are also some cameras there . . .

James Kynge
But the Serbian government is embracing this tech, right?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Right. The countries led by President Alexander Vucic, he was described to me on this trip in various ways as a rightwing nationalist and a populist. He was also previously the propaganda minister under the former president, Slobodan Milosevic. And James, you’ll remember Slobodan Milosevic. He was an authoritarian leader who died awaiting trial at The Hague. He was on trial for war crimes and genocide, and the camera that the Vucic government purchased were part of this package of surveillance hardware and monitoring that Huawei market as a public safety tool.

James Kynge
So this is Huawei’s “Safe City” initiative”?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Yeah, Safe City. It’s one of these many monitoring systems that use artificial intelligence and facial recognition tech. They have to promise to give city officials more of a sense of how crime is happening in their city and how to prevent it. A number of Chinese companies offer similar platforms like ZTE, Hangzhou, Hikvision Digital Technology and Alibaba. So crime prevention might sound like a good thing. But Danilo and civil society activists were worried about how these cameras might be used in practise.

Danilo Krivokapic
Our government started installing these cameras, but they didn’t tell us where they were going to be. I mean, they didn’t tell us basically, basic transparent questions. What, which streets and squares are going to be covered. So we started doing this by ourselves. But Belgrade is a huge city and this is hundreds of places, thousands of cameras. So we invited citizens to join us in mapping these cameras.

[Inaudible] Financial Times! [Inaudible]

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Just as me and Danilo were talking, a man walked by us in the square and a young guy in a suit followed by two assistants.

Danilo Krivokapic
Sorry this is the candidate for mayor. He’s from Ne davimo Beograd. His name is Dobrica Veselinovic, and they are the basically the only political entity that was against these cameras.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
As you know, I recorded this before the major election in Serbia, which took place in April. And as it happened, although Veselinovic did not win, he did win a lot more votes than expected. All this to say, basically, Danilo and his team started a serious campaigning effort to try to push back against the use of facial recognition technology. And although the cameras can detect faces to date, the facial recognition capability has not been activated.

James Kynge
And why is that?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Well, there was a pretty effective backlash against the camera, for one thing, led by Danilo and some others.

Danilo Krivokapic
What they tried to do in September of 2021 is to adopt the new law on police, which would basically legalise using facial recognition software. We were quite ready for this legal battle. We raised some voices. We sent comments to the police, and I have to be honest, we were surprised that only after a few days they revoked this draft law, withdrew it, and even the president said that they are not going to adopt this law before the elections.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
After this back and forth, these concerns about privacy and civil liberties in Serbia won out against the crime bill. But there are suspicions that the government is likely going to reintroduce the law, allowing facial recognition tech very soon, seeing as they just won this April election decisively. Here’s Andrej Petrovski. He also works with Share Foundation and had come on the tour with me and Danilo.

Andrej Petrovski
If we face a situation in which the current government reintroduces the same or slightly modified draft law, which would include biometric mass surveillance in public spaces on our site, what I can say is we will definitely fight it and not allow it to be introduced in Belgrade. We do believe that they will try to reintroduce it. You do not buy that much equipment just to not use it.

James Kynge
This concern that Chinese surveillance technology is being wielded by authoritarian regimes is not limited to Serbia. According to the US non-profit Freedom House, of the 64 countries that have imported Chinese surveillance tech, the vast majority of them are classified as not free or only partially free. But there’s another reason that Huawei cameras have ended up on the streets of Serbia in particular. Serbia is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, as it’s sometimes called. It’s a sprawling international development programme that enables China to wield soft power, mainly through the financing and building of infrastructure projects. It’s meant to grow trade links across the world, and it’s one of President Xi Jinping’s flagship projects. It’s hard to overstate the importance that the Chinese government has placed on the Belt and Road, and Serbia is an important node in that network.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
China’s Belt and Road Initiative is the most expensive infrastructure project in history.

James Kynge
Chinese state-owned companies have built bridges and dams in Mozambique, Uganda and Kenya.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
For example, China built a $3.2 billion railway connecting the port city of Mombasa to the country’s capital, Nairobi.

James Kynge
Closer to home, Chinese companies have built high speed railways and highways into south-east Asia.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
The projects are largely carried out by Chinese state-owned firms. They’ve gained experience with big construction projects during China’s own infrastructure push of the past 40 years.

James Kynge
And other infrastructure across the dusty plains of Central Asia.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
Pakistan is seen as the buckle in the belt. It was reportedly promised . . .

James Kynge
The Belt and Road project has expanded as far as the Port of Piraeus in Greece or Hamburg in Germany.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
China arranged the financing and built what is the start of a rail network that promises to open up the passage of people and goods deep into the heart of the continent.

James Kynge
It’s also gone into South America and the Caribbean.

[NEWS CLIP PLAYING]
On Sunday, Buenos Aires formally joined the Belt and Road Initiative during President Alberto Fernández’s state visit to China.

James Kynge
But it’s more than just bricks and mortar projects. Belt and Road countries are encouraged to adopt China’s so-called safe and smart city tech surveillance systems, as well as other digital technologies and services. As a result, the Belt and Road Initiative has seen the proliferation of Chinese technology abroad.

So, Josh, what do we know about China’s strategy in Serbia? What do they stand to gain from their activities there?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Well, China’s investment in Serbia really exemplifies its soft power in the Balkans. After meeting Danilo, I went to go speak with Stefan Vladisavljev, who works at a Belgrade-based NGO called the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. He’s an expert in China-Serbia relations.

Roger Robinson
Can you tell me what you had for breakfast this morning so I can get the levels correct?

Stefan Vladisavljev
Well, I actually came a little bit earlier to the office, so I had a couple of eggs, a little bit of bacon, some cheese, you know, classic Balkan breakfast, nothing too much.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
I met him at his office, not far from the Republic Square, among these little back alleys in the old part of the city. And he told me that the relationship between China and Serbia really started with heavy industry and steel.

Stefan Vladisavljev
The phrase “steel friendship” is often used as a reference to the relationship between Belgrade and Beijing. And actually, it is also the reference to the first major foreign direct investments made by the Chinese in Serbia.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Back in 2016, a Chinese state-owned steel company bought a socialist-era steel mill not far from Belgrade. China’s president visited Serbia for the first time that year and held a joint event with the Serbian president. The diplomatic relationship between the two of them became known as this very masculine steel friendship.

Stefan Vladisavljev
It is also de facto being successful in Europe. In the eyes of European Union, Serbia has often been neglected as a part of the European community and European family. But in the eyes of China, Serbia is a European country, and when you are successful in a country like Serbia, that means that you are successful in Europe. It is good PR for you and it brings you the leverage that you can say, OK, well, we have friends in Europe.

James Kynge
Right, so basically, China gains access to a European market and the legitimacy of working in Europe.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Yeah. And in Serbia at least, it seems to be going pretty well.

Stefan Vladisavljev
If you look at the opinion polls and there are quite a number of them, the overall perception of China and Chinese companies in Serbia has been overwhelmingly positive, meaning that 70 to 80 per cent are perceiving, Serbian citizens are perceiving China as a beneficial partner for Serbia. Serbia has become one of the poster childs (sic) of Belt and Road Initiative.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
China provides infrastructure to Serbia and Serbians, as well as the politicians who govern the country, benefit a lot from it. And more recently, it’s been broadband infrastructure, 5G, even drones and cloud computing services that make up the spoils of the Belt and Road. And the one company leading the tech partnership is Huawei.

Stefan Vladisavljev
So from co-operation in telecommunication infrastructure, like the broadband internet, landline across Serbia, to surveillance systems but also some software, some platforms for the local governance and local self-governance in Serbia, Huawei has become probably the foreign tech company with the highest level of co-operation with the official Serbian institutions.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
So along with surveillance tech, 5G infrastructure was the other contentious area where Huawei was involved in Serbia. Huawei was set to win the contract for the rollout of Serbia’s 5G network. But in 2020, Serbia came under serious pressure from the US government about this. So they were caught in the middle of US-China tensions, basically, and Serbia has actually postponed the 5G upgrade altogether as a result.

James Kynge
The US has been warning countries around the world for years now to avoid Huawei’s 5G technology. It claims installing Huawei’s 5G network exposes countries to espionage. This is a claim that Huawei denies. But the questions are persistent. Does the example of Serbia show that China is equipping countries with the means to emulate Beijing’s authoritarian governance model? It’s a question I put to Wang Huiyao of the China Centre for Globalisation, a think-tank in Beijing.

Wang Huiyao
I think that China never said they’re going to export its model or anything. China has not done that. For example, China has never colonised any place. China has never sent troops stationed in any other countries. So China, even though they launched the Belt and Road Initiative, it’s merely, I think, largely economic. And it’s really connectivity-focused. There’s no political attachment on that. I think that’s really why the African countries, Asean countries, Latin American countries, welcome Belt and Road because there are no strings attached. There’s no “you have to reform your country” or “you have to have the one man, one vote” before we give you a project. No, I mean, China has actually just want to make the world more prosperous.

James Kynge
Others are not so magnanimous about China’s motives. Josh, this is the kind of scepticism that you came across in Belgrade, too, right?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Yeah. The concern is that there are strings attached to Chinese investment and co-operation on the Belt and Road. So Chinese companies are gaining a lot of economic and political influence and really shifting their weight around. I spoke to Wawa Wang, who works at a European NGO called Just Finance. She and her team have done a lot of fieldwork in the Balkans, visiting Chinese state-owned mines and other heavy industry sites in Serbia.

Wawa Wang
Having engaged with Chinese companies active in the western Balkans in Serbia specifically, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they have an open disregard for impacts to human lives as a result of their operations.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
According to Wawa, there’s been some pretty serious cases of environmental mismanagement, including at a major resource extraction project that’s owned by a Chinese company and labour abuses at another Chinese-owned industrial site in Serbia. And how do Chinese companies manage to operate like this? That was basically what I put to Wawa. And for her, it’s because the Serbian government is being less strict with enforcing laws when it comes to Chinese companies. And there is a similar concern about surveillance tech like Huawei and facial recognition capabilities in the country.

Wawa Wang
Essentially, advancements in technologies have allowed China to more efficiently promote the BRI, and especially in countries where the governance and values have mirrored that of China more than the so-called traditional western institutions and western democracies.

James Kynge
But the fact of the matter remains, right, that without China’s facial recognition technology, that infamous hit-and-run Countryman case on Branko’s Bridge, that would not have been solved, right?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Yeah, absolutely. This technology did actually help solve a crime that police in Serbia were unable to crack. And that’s also a line that Huawei was keen to push at one point, it was actually part of their marketing pitch for their surveillance tech. Here’s Danilo again from Share Foundation.

Danilo Krivokapic
It took us like four or five years later to find out what actually happened, because on this case study of Belgrade, which was published on the Huawei’s official website, they were claiming that when Serbian police contacted police in China . . . 

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Danilo and his team ended up uncovering this crucial information about the cameras that were being installed in Serbia because of a post on Huawei’s website, basically. And that’s how it came out that the Serbian government and Huawei were working so closely together.

Danilo Krivokapic
All our Freedom of Information request were denied, and then on their official website, they were, Huawei was bragging, OK, we made this deal with Belgrade. We use this software, this analytics and things like that. And we finally said, OK, here we have some information. We translated this in Serbia and published this article. And in less than 10 hours, this article was removed from official Huawei website.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Clearly, Huawei realised that there was going to be a backlash and that people were uncomfortable about the relationship between Huawei and the Serbian government. Stefan, who works on Chinese-Serbian relations, you’ve heard him before, told me a little bit about this.

Stefan Vladisavljev
In the case of Huawei, the narrative has changed really fast. When the project was first announced, who is the provider of the equipment really did not matter to the general Serbian public. What has happened is that narrative swiftly changed to the question of privacy of the citizens. Whether our own Ministry of Interior will have any opportunity to misuse the provided technology, who will have the accessibility to that collected data and what will be the effect of the overall increased level of control over Serbian citizens.

James Kynge
Do we know what the technology has actually been used for since it’s been installed?

Josh Gabert-Doyon
Well, some Serbians are wondering if it’s being used to sort of herd them into an Orwellian future because there were some major anti-government protests recently over the past year or so. And the Serbian authorities came away with an almost spooky amount of information about who had taken part.

Stefan Vladisavljev
Government had really good insight of who is protesting, who is leading the protest, who is there, who is going with their child. Is there a whole family or is it just, you know, one student from university? That would not be possible without the technology provided by Ministry of Interior, meaning technology provided by Huawei to Ministry of Interior.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
There is a real worry from people I spoke to who took part in these protests that happened over the last year or so, that this technology is putting them at risk. And given Serbia’s position as a European outpost on the Belt and Road, this opposition could signal a real shift, I guess, in perceptions about China.

James Kynge
It’s really great to be able to get such a detailed story from on the ground in Belgrade. Seems to me that what’s really important about your reporting is that this is not just a case of Serbia. China’s export of surveillance technology to scores of countries around the world shows the creeping reach of China’s techno authoritarianism. So this is not a story only about equipment, it’s also a story about values. Thanks very much, Josh, for talking to us.

Josh Gabert-Doyon
My pleasure.

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

James Kynge
Next time on the last episode in this season of Tech Tonic: The great decoupling — will the tech rivalry between the US and China end in two separate technological worlds?

Unidentified speaker
We’re talking about decades now of our prevailing philosophy that if we had enough commercial interaction and bridge-building with the Chinese, that we would bring them around to a more pluralistic society. And now there is increasingly the view that we have a fundamental incompatibility.

James Kynge
You’ve been listening to Tech Tonic. I’m the FT’s global China editor James Kynge. Our senior producer is Edwin Lane and our producer is Josh Gabert-Doyon. Manuela Saragosa is our executive producer. Special thanks to Marton Dunai in Budapest and Bojan Radic, our fixer in Belgrade. Our head of audio is Cheryl Brumley and our sound engineer is Breen Turner. Music on this episode by Metaphor Music. If you like the series, do leave us a review. It helps other people get to know about our show. And for more stories about technology from the FT, head to the link in the show notes. Also there is a discounted FT subscription offer. I’ll be back with a final episode in our six-part series on May the 2nd. Make sure you don’t miss it by subscribing now to Tech Tonic wherever you get your podcasts.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.