Given the hype surrounding China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one feature of the massive global infrastructure project has garnered less attention. Beijing aims to create a “digital Silk Road” that will allow it to shape the future of the global internet—and reinforce the Chinese Communist Party leadership at home for decades to come. Under the guise of BRI, China is seeking to export its policy of authoritarian cyber controls, giving countries the right to regulate and censor their own internet. China has already tightened control over its domestic internet, including through the Great Firewall and its Cybersecurity Law. It is now seeking to globalize that approach, while also inserting backdoor mechanisms that could increase its intelligence and propaganda operations in BRI partner countries. China’s plans—running directly counter to U.S. aspirations for a free and open global internet—should be deeply alarming to the United States.
In March 2015, China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce jointly released the Belt and Road white paper, calling not only for improving infrastructure construction and technical standard systems, but also for “jointly improving the transparency of technical trade measures” and creating an “Information Silk Road,” or a digital Silk Road.