China takes the high road on global data security
Wamika Kapur

Editor's note: Wamika Kapur is a fellow at international think tank Global Policy Insights and an Indian PhD scholar of international relations at South Korea's Yonsei University. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Many have purported that "data is the new oil of the digital economy" when refined it can become a useful decision-making tool – information. However, unlike oil, when data has a human element to its creation, it requires protection. 

On September 8, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced the "Global Initiative on Data Security" at a Beijing seminar on global digital governance titled "Seizing Digital Opportunities for Cooperation and Development." Wang emphasized the global nature of the threat to data security and the importance of cross-border data flows in an open, fair and impartial business environment.

In the current geopolitical climate, the initiative shows that China is taking the high road and responding by reemphasizing its commitment to multilateralism, cyber sovereignty, data security, attempting to find constructive solutions and enhancing mutual trust and cooperation.

America is currently leading a war against Chinese tech companies with over 300 China-based companies in the U.S. entity list, overseen by the Commerce Department, and a crackdown on apps such as WeChat and TikTok. It is allying democracies to push out Chinese tech, for example, Huawei 5G has been banned in New Zealand, the UK, Australia with shadow bans in countries like Japan, India and Canada.

India has also banned over 118 apps, including TikTok and PUBG, a response to the ongoing military clash at Galwan Valley. While national security concerns have been cited, it signals "jingoism" and gives American tech companies a strong foothold in Indian markets with losses on both Indian and Chinese sides.

Calling the Communist Party of China (CPC) a malign actor, U.S. has launched a five-pronged initiative "Clean Network" aimed at removing Chinese equipment, software and services from the internet infrastructure. 

The initiative has received much criticism for being a witch-hunt, lack of evidence to support allegations of espionage, intellectual property theft or being a threat to national security and, for the hypocrisy of America claiming a moral high ground on data security with programs like PRISM and the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013.

However, the biggest criticism of the initiative has been that it will be a massive waste of public expenditure with no real impact on data privacy or intellectual property theft, a highly irresponsible choice mid-pandemic. 

The Global Data Security Initiative is fundamentally different from the Clean Network initiative as while America is calling countries to exclude technology based on the country of origin, China is promoting universal participation. The initiative respects the interests of all states and calls on them to reaffirm their commitment to combating the risks of data security through bilateral, regional and international agreements.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivers a keynote speech via video at an international seminar on "Seizing digital opportunities for cooperation and development" in Beijing, September 8, 2020. /Global Times

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivers a keynote speech via video at an international seminar on "Seizing digital opportunities for cooperation and development" in Beijing, September 8, 2020. /Global Times

China is addressing the challenge data security presents globally and attempting to find solutions and establish norms for data governance collectively once again re-affirming its commitment to multilateralism and being a responsible stakeholder.

Most debates on the security of Chinese apps come to an impasse when the hypothetical of the Chinese government invoking the 2017 National Security Law is brought up which compels any organization or citizen to "support, assist and co-operate with the state intelligence work".

The initiative calls for states to respect domestic laws of the state and not request domestic companies to store data generated and obtained overseas in their territory or obtain data located in other states through companies or individuals without other states' permission. 

Simply, the Chinese government is restating it won't ask companies to send overseas data to China. Further, it reinforces that states mustn't install backdoors in products and use services to illegally obtain users' data or seek illegitimate interests.

China recognizes the need to boost user confidence and ensure data security to forge a shared future in cyberspace. In this spirit, the initiative makes eight suggestions for states such as, to handle data security in a comprehensive, objective and evidence-based manner, stand against the use of ICTs (information and communications technology) as a tool for unauthorized collection of personal information and mass surveillance of other states. 

It calls for states to take a balanced approach to technological progress, economic development and national, public, economic and social security without politicizing the issue.

Many experts are predicting a splinternet scenario with two separate online ecosystems however, it is evident that China wishes to be a standard-setter for international rules on data security, much like the General Data Protection Regulation in European Union, and counter American bullying aimed at maintaining its techno hegemony. Chinese attempts at trust-building and uniting the world towards a common cause are in stark contrast with American attempts at isolation and exclusion.

While China's attempts may not succeed in changing America's politically motivated and unlawful campaign against China, this initiative will serve to deter other countries from blindly following arbitrary actions under pressure from America.

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