Technology Salon

Washington DC

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How to Counter the Malign Influences of China and Russia in Digital Development

Counter Malign Influences China Russia

The recent Technology Salon on How to Counter Malign Influences in Digital Development was a fascinating discussion that should start with the idea that we are mainly talking about the Chinese and Russian country governments.

These governments may not reflect the will of its citizens, or even a majority of them, and the governments themselves are not monolithic. There can be factions within each (and any) government that work in direct conflict with other factions, and politicians that take every advantage for self-promotion.

Also, one participant quickly pointed out that this Salon was really two separate topics concerning to international development practitioners, and they should not be conflated:

  • China’s surging investment in technology infrastructure projects
  • Russia’s continued use of digital media to disrupt democratic institutions

Hence, we took both ideas in turn and looked at how they impact the continued social and economic development of African countries, and the way Western governments interact with those countries. Our conversation was informed by three great lead discussants:

Chinese Investment Benefits

Let’s start by dispelling the myth that all Chinese investment is “bad”. China now outspends the USA in development, by a 2:1 margin but most of this investment comes in the form of loans at market rates. Loans that sometimes fail to benefit either country.

Regardless, there are several reasons that a sovereign government may welcome Chinese loans. If one is a newly elected leader in a developing country, these attributes can be very enticing:

  • Chinese loans average $120 million, a very significant sum in most smaller developing countries.
  • Chinese projects are 2.5 times faster than World Bank projects, mainly because they aren’t slowed down by environmental or social concerns.
  • Chinese investments come with less requirements, conditions, and other “strings” that are typical of Western-led investments, loans, or grants.
  • Chinese investment agreements are not usually published or otherwise publicly available, allowing governments a rare level of privacy.

The last two aspects of Chinese investment can allow for a level of “optimal corruption” in government procurement and construction projects – an idea put forth at the Salon that proved to be contentious.

Optimal corruption is a level of government staff enrichment that speeds up a project, increasing its net benefits to society, without causing major issues in governance. One could liken it to a “convenience fee” or “priority lanes” that expedites government action at minimal cost, though this does conflict with good governance ideas and can lead to detrimental government malfeasance.

Therefore, China’s investment profile can be welcomed by countries who enter into agreements with the full knowledge that China offers a very different approach than traditional, Western, multilateral and bilateral development actors. We should not think that a government is misled or duped when they accept Chinese investment. They may very well welcome the change in donor mindset.

China’s Technology Challenges

One Salon participant put it best when they said that the Chinese government is promoting technology companies directly, often with direct investments, but the US government typically promotes the technology industry as a whole, vs. a specific company.

This approach denotes the different political ideologies of the two countries. The Chinese government is seen as directing dubious technology activities, while US firms do dubious things in pursuit of profits without government involvement.

That sets up odd debates like US politicians wanting to ban TikTok, a Chinese technology company that ostensibly grants government access to its data streams, while not enacting privacy regulations that would protect US citizens from US companies’ data collection or the US government’s access to private company data on its users. The EU certainly takes exception to both.

Regardless, there are clear international development implications. US funds typically cannot be used to purchase equipment from Chinese suppliers, including Huawei, ZTE, and others. The US government has actively blocked Chinese undersea fiber optic cables. The CHIPS Act expressly prohibits companies receiving its funds from expanding semiconductor factories in China.

As digital development practitioners, we are caught in between Chinese technology that is welcomed by many developing country governments, and the US government that is increasingly antagonistic towards its third largest trading partner.

Russian Malign Influence

When we moved into Russia’s malign influences in digital media, it was clear that multiple Russian government or quasi-government entities are involved in mis, dis, and malinformation activities across all digital media and in many (most?) countries. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to all three as “misinformation” from here on, but the three are real and different.)

Russia’s activities seem to follow the Steve Bannon quote perfectly, “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sh*t…This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation.” Russia’s activities were traced to efforts undermining elections, political leaders, democratic institutions, and all forms of government in an effort to create chaos and exacerbate internal tensions.

Russian misinformation even focuses on humanitarian organizations. Actors like the White Helmets in Syria were accused of instigating attacks, aid groups were accused of leading refugees astray, and of course COVID-19 vaccines and protocols were accused of causing or promoting the virus or civilian control.

Understanding the extent of Russian influence proved to be difficult for Salon participants. We may be able to identify the origin of misinformation with some level of accuracy, but then misinformation is shared by many otherwise ordinary citizens. We all may be complicit – certainly we have family members who are.

This magnification of misinformation does fill a real social need that existed long before digital anything. We called them rumors pre-Internet, and whisper campaigns did their damage over eons of human history. Social media weaponizes this human activity and social media platforms have little to no incentive to expose, much less police misinformation. Worse, some politicians are skilled at using misinformation to their advantage.   And just wait till generative AI, like Deep Fake videos, becomes commonplace.

Once people distrust their government, Russian influences can be leveraged to gain real-world assets.

Impact on African Countries

We should never generalize 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, however Chinese and Russian influences found a very permissive environment in African countries that created clear impacts on a majority of the continent’s residents.

  • There is a general exhaustion with colonial influences across the continent, which includes Western donor countries and their sometimes paternalistic mindsets towards a striving populace. This allows for governments to seek alternative collaborators.
  • Governmental capacity can be limited, creating weak policy and regulatory environments that allow for both state and private sector actors to impose their will on countries from distant bases. Or for countries themselves to adopt regressive tech rules and uses.
  • Human capacity can be limited, with digital and information literacy lagging global norms. Also, the newness of technology adoption doesn’t allow for years of experience or strong mentorship models to form before people are exposed to harmful messaging.

Finally, we should not discount sovereign government agency. For example, while a government may buy Chinese technology that has nefarious uses, it’s the government itself that is spying on its population. In addition, political or military leaders benefit from Russian misinformation.


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