China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative: A Boon for Developing Countries or a Danger to Freedom?

China’s Digital Silk Road Initiative: A Boon for Developing Countries or a Danger to Freedom?

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As part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing launched the Digital Silk Road (DSR) in 2015 with a loose mandate. It has since become a significant part of Beijing’s overall BRI strategy, under which China provides aid, political support, and other assistance to recipient states. DSR also offers support to Chinese exporters, including many well-known Chinese technology companies. The DSR assistance goes toward improving recipients’ telecommunications networks, artificial intelligence capabilities, cloud computing, e-commerce and mobile payment systems, surveillance technology, smart cities, and other high-tech areas.

China has already signed agreements on DSR cooperation with, or provided DSR-related investment to, at least sixteen countries. But the true number of agreements and investments is likely much larger, because many of these go unreported: memoranda of understanding (MOUs) do not necessarily show whether China and another country have embarked upon close cooperation in the digital sphere. Some estimates suggest that one-third of the countries participating in BRI — 138 at this point — are cooperating on DSR projects.