ANALYSIS: Tech Firms Are Boosting China’s Cyber Power

Cooperation, often mandatory, carries risks as well as benefits.

By Sarah Cook

This photo-shopped image of Chinese president Xi Jinping holding a yellow umbrella, a reference to Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protests, is among several images thoroughly censored on Tencent’s WeChat application via blacklist and artificial intelligence, according to a recent study by the Toronto-based Citizen Lab.

Last fall, the Chinese Communist Party declared its goal of turning China into a “cyber superpower,” with improved capabilities and influence in areas ranging from domestic censorship to global internet governance. The regime has made important progress since then, often with the help of Chinese and foreign corporations. But these gains come with a cost, not only to human rights and internet freedom, but also to the cooperating technology firms’ profits and reputations.

Cutting-edge censorship and surveillance

Some aspects of the government’s innovation drive have clear public benefits. In August, for example, state-owned China Unicom successfully launched and tested its first high-speed 5G mobile network in Beijing, which it plans to roll out across the city by next summer.

But other advances are more problematic. An August 14 report by the Toronto-based Citizen Lab revealed two forms of image censorship being deployed by the mobile application WeChat: One tool filters images containing sensitive text, and the other snags those that are visually similar to images already on a blacklist. Social media users have long posted…