Activists say China’s new Silk Road equips autocrats with spy tech

China is helping dozens of nations roll out digital surveillance systems that can be used against protests and dissent

  • China is driving the adoption of surveillance technology around the world
  • Government AI-based systems target activists and protesters
  • Authorities say technology is needed for security purposes

By Rina Chandran

PHNOM PENH, Sept 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The drones were hard to avoid: They buzzed low over the crowd of protesters holding banners and shouted slogans outside the NagaWorld casino in the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh, then hovered over each of the speakers as they called for justice.

Armed riot police and surveillance cameras stood guard as hundreds of workers went on strike outside the glass and chrome towers of the company’s hotel and casino complex, demanding the reinstatement of nearly 400 workers who were laid off last year.

“We knew we were being recorded but there was nothing we could do, so we waved to the drones,” said Chhim Sithar, 34, a union leader who was arrested along with more than a dozen others at the January protests, nine weeks in held in prison.

Hong Kong-listed NagaCorp said the strike, which began in December, was illegal and the layoffs were a “mutual separation plan” to cut costs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

City police said the workers’ strike was illegal and a threat to public order and security. Police accused some protesters of “inciting to cause serious social security chaos”.

Chhim Sithar and other Cambodian human rights activists say they are under constant surveillance, their every movement being tracked online and offline by software, cameras and drones.

Much of the technology is being supplied by China, which is selling large digital surveillance packages to governments as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping launched BRI in 2013 with the aim of using China’s strengths in financing and infrastructure construction to build “a broad community of common interests” in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

According to local media reports, China has installed more than 1,000 CCTV cameras as part of a new nationwide surveillance system in Phnom Penh.

Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that the technology was being used against activists and union leaders.

“The CCTVs and other surveillance infrastructure are used for security purposes, fighting crime, traffic violations and other illegal activities,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


While authorities justify surveillance for security reasons, human rights groups have raised concerns about data breaches and the potential for profiling and discrimination, as the technologies are often deployed without public consultation and in the absence of strong privacy laws.

Countries participating in BRI use technologies including artificial intelligence-based facial recognition systems linked to the abuse of Uyghur minorities in China for smart police or smart city programs, and digital tools to monitor social media websites .

“These tools offer new ways to track down and intimidate dissenters, monitor political opponents, and forestall challenges to government,” said Steven Feldstein, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a Washington-based think tank. direct current

“In authoritarian environments, these skills have an obvious potential to deepen oppression,” said Feldstein, who estimates Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance technologies are being adopted in more than 50 BRI countries.

A key part of China’s BRI program is the so-called Digital Silk Road — an initiative aimed at building modern telecommunications and data infrastructure between nations that lie along the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Chinese involvement ranges from their tech firms building underwater internet cables, data centers and cell towers to nations duplicating their cyber laws and internet gateways to control the flow of data and information, according to a recent report the Alliance to Secure Democracy (ASD). a US-based think tank.

“There is a risk that the Chinese state might be able to amass data — whether it’s genetic surveillance information or more traditional information about political opinions or activities — through these systems,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow in emerging technologies at ASD.

“It really begs the question of where the data that powers these surveillance systems is stored, who owns it, and who benefits from it,” she said.

The Chinese Embassy in Cambodia could not be reached for comment. Chinese authorities have said that technical surveillance is vital to fighting crime and preventing the spread of COVID-19, and have denied reports that they are using technology to enable the abuse of Uyghurs.


In Myanmar, where the military overthrew an elected government last year and cracked down on protests and dissidents, Chinese companies are deploying 4G and 5G networks and facial recognition systems in several cities.

The junta has enacted cyber laws modeled after China’s – including limiting internet access to certain websites and banning social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

A spokesman for the junta did not respond to a request for comment. Officials have previously said facial recognition systems are needed to maintain security and “civil peace”.

But reports of CCTV and facial recognition being used against protesters have made Hsu, a lawyer who provides legal counsel to political prisoners in the city of Mandalay, “more scared”.

“Police submit CCTV footage as evidence in court, so we know it’s dangerous for activists,” said Hsu, 26, using a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

“When I went to jail to meet with jailed activists, I wore a mask — not because I was scared of COVID-19, but because I wanted to hide my face.

“We are all afraid of video surveillance.”


Globally, the rise of AI technologies has led to the proliferation of mass surveillance systems, including facial recognition and voice recognition, for a range of applications from tracking criminals to marking the presence of students.

“Technology has changed how governments conduct surveillance and what they choose to monitor,” Feldstein said.

In Cambodia, where authorities are building a national internet gateway — similar to China’s internet firewall that blocks websites and social media platforms — there is little transparency around those systems, said Chak Sopheap of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, one non-profit organization.

“The government has not disclosed any information about what data was collected and how it is used by the authorities. This lack of transparency is highly problematic,” she said.

“The use of such technologies violates the right to privacy of people, particularly those who do not support the government, and provides Cambodian authorities with an additional tool to crack down on critical voices and dissidents.”

In Phnom Penh, union leader Chhim Sithar and her fellow protesters are adapting: they are holding more face-to-face meetings where they turn off their phones, they use virtual private networks (VPNs) and encrypted chat groups, and they refrain from posting on social media.

“That feeling of being watched and followed all the time is exhausting,” she said.

“We can’t do anything without the police knowing – it’s scary.”

Similar posts:

A year after the coup in Myanmar, increasing surveillance is threatening lives

Draconian measures to control the internet are increasing fears of surveillance in Asia

Face recognition goes to court in India’s surveillance hotspot

(Reporting by Rina Chandran, with additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson. Editing by Sonia Elks and Katy Migiro. Please recognize the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who are dying around a fight free life or fight fair visit

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.