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Digital Authoritarianism and Technological Cooperation in Sino-Russian Relations: Common Goals and Diverging Standpoints

Part of the Global Power Shift book series (GLOBAL)

Abstract

China and Russia are jointly advancing their shared interests in the international arena and increasing their cooperation in the tech sector. Despite far-reaching plans, the asymmetry of cooperation in favour of China is increasingly at odds with Russia’s national goals in digital technology. Differences in resources and standpoints are also reflected in the implementation of digital surveillance. China’s surveillance system is sophisticated and extensive, whereas Russia’s is still largely inconsistent and emerging, as evidenced by the fact that there was virtually no control of the Internet in Russia until 2012. While advanced surveillance in authoritarian countries is worrying, technology in strategic sectors is also a key field of increasingly disconcerting great power competition. As a result of intensifying competition, the world is faced with the risk of technological decoupling, which would contribute to the further fragmentation of the international community and the deepening of existing rivalries.

Keywords

  • Tech cooperation
  • Digital surveillance
  • Internet control
  • Technological decoupling
  • Sino-Russian relations

1 Introduction

China and Russia have become increasingly authoritarian in recent years, and the ways in which they can use technology to control their own citizens and proliferate new surveillance methods to less developed authoritarian countries have caused concern. In July 2020, the law on mandatory preinstalled applications for smartphones, computers and smart TVs sold in Russia came into force. In March 2021, the government planned to speed up the collection of citizens’ biometric data for the purpose of remote identification through administrative coercion. If a person does not disclose their biometric data, they are denied access to digital state services (Gavrilyuk & Builov, 2021, March 10). These new measures were claimed to give citizens new domestic options and better customer experiences, but critics are worried about information security and potential nonconsensual information gathering. Such concerns have proven to be true when data leaks revealed that a huge amount of information is available to citizens on the black market (Zakharov, 2019, April 25).

China passed a new regulation in December 2019 requiring all new smartphone buyers to scan their face before being able to use the phone. The regulation was framed as a part of a larger effort to ensure cyber safety by making it harder to access the Internet incognito. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic integrated public health into CCP’s surveillance regime (Greitens, 2020). Chinese officials worked together with private companies such as Tencent and Alibaba to develop a health code app using a traffic light system which indicates the risk the user poses to public safety based on their predisposition to the coronavirus. Users were required to enter their personal and health information, and the app tracked their movements, contacts and even body temperature (Tan, 2020, May 4). The apps shared their data with the police and other authorities. These are only some of the recent examples of how authoritarian countries can use technology to monitor their citizens and boost domestic tech companies.

Attitudes and policies towards China and Russia have hardened in many countries in recent years along with China’s and Russia’s increasingly authoritarian governance and aggressive foreign policy. Tensions in China’s and Russia’s bilateral relations with the United States and other democracies are tightly intertwined with global competition in technology. Technological development changes the relationships between economic and military power and will define power hierarchies in the future. This great power rivalry in technology can be seen in US decisions to ban telecom companies Huawei and ZTE from its markets and in pressuring European countries to restrict Huawei’s market access as well. China reacted to this by increasing its budget for the Made in China 2025 program and the China Standards 2035 initiative and by trying to reduce its reliance on US technology suppliers. China is also considering measures against Nokia and Ericsson, two European leaders in telecom networks, in case European Union member states ban Huawei from taking part in building 5G networks in Europe. On 20 October 2020, Sweden announced that it will not allow Huawei or ZTE gear to be used by firms taking part in its 5G spectrum auction. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed its disapproval of Sweden’s decision and urged Sweden to ‘correct its mistake and to avoid [a] negative impact on the Swedish businesses operating in China’ (PRC Foreign Ministry, 2020, October 21). In October 2021, Huawei filed a case against Sweden in the Court of Justice of the European Union, a case that could set a precedent (Cerulus, 2021, October 6).

Meanwhile, the Russian National Technology Initiative 2014 also builds on the idea of competing blocs, and more recent plans aim to elevate Russia’s competence to that of a leading technological power. Echoes of the great power rivalry can also be heard in the context of Internet regulations: Russia and China promote Internet sovereignty and oppose the free flow of information. Many experts have speculated that the Internet will become a ‘splinternet’, a network divided into two spheres with an authoritarian China-led version and a Western version.

It has been clearly visible that increased technological competition between China and Western actors has intensified into competition between liberal and illiberal political ideals. At the same time, Russia has an important, albeit in many respects unstable, role in intensifying technological and political competition. Against this backdrop, this chapter provides an overview of the state of digital surveillance practices in China and Russia, as well as their technological cooperation in the era of an increasing great power rivalry. Instead of inciting a narrative of an authoritarian threat alliance, discussion on technology cooperation between China and Russia should acknowledge differences between the countries and consider other ancillary threats where technological decoupling plays a real and significant role.

2 Digital Surveillance and Censorship in China and Russia

Advances in technology point to more potent surveillance. Today’s surveillance technologies range from cameras, drones and satellites to surveillance systems’ monitoring communications data. The essence of modern surveillance used for communications data is that programs are difficult to detect and easy to use remotely.

Based on data from the Varieties of Democracy and the Mass Mobilization Project, Kendall-Taylor et al. (2020, p. 106 & 112) state that authoritarian regimes that rely on digital repression are identified as being among the most durable. During the last twenty years, the challenge of popular protests has become more consequential for numerous authoritarian regimes around the world. This has increased the need to monitor and suppress opposition via digital means to secure regime survival. Digital technologies allow governments to monitor and track regime opponents, which can give them a head start in eliminating opposition forces before they manage to unite (Dragu & Lupu, 2021, p. 2). Furthermore, the adoption of digital repression has not diminished the use of physical measures, as the new tools are used to identify and control opposition members more effectively (Kendall-Taylor et al., 2020).

China is perhaps a prime example in many respects. The Chinese Communist Party has always taken social unrest seriously. Consequently, it has applied censorship of some sort ever since the Internet became commercially available in the country in the mid-1990s. Internet surveillance is now one among many forms of surveillance and control in a society that is permeated by digitalization and, increasingly, artificial intelligence (AI). Digitalized visual surveillance is one such form. China has invested heavily in CCTV cameras with automated facial recognition programs. In Xinjiang, monitoring includes obligatory DNA sampling used for ethnic profiling (Qiang, 2019). Xi Jinping’s regime has also built the capacity to forecast large-scale popular protests and has adapted its political indoctrination to the era of big data by using AI in surveillance and censorship. US authorities have expressed concerns that China is exporting its facial recognition software and systems abroad (Vergun, 2020, January 24).

In addition, China aims to resolve different societal and economic problems with an emerging social credit system driven by information technology. By collecting data from different sources, the social credit systems can monitor, assess and change the behaviour of both citizens and companies. As state actors could not manage big data collection endeavours on their own, China’s social credit system includes a wide variety of commercial actors. The system was supposed to be ready in 2020, but as there are data sharing problems between different parts of the system and sanctioning mechanisms remain underdeveloped (European Chamber, 2019), the 2020 deadline was not met. However, many parts of the system are operational (Credit China, 2021).

In some regional applications of the social credit system, the borders of public and private actors have been merged. Shanghai’s ‘Honest Shanghai’ app launched in 2016 allows users to check their business and public credit scores. In Rongcheng, local government has used the private commercial score as the basis for its municipal credit score. Blurring the lines of different actors makes it hard for users to know what is accounted for in a score (Bach, 2020, p. 495–497.) In 2021, the social credit system is still inconsistent, and Drinhausen and Brussee (2021, March 3) define it as a framework of initiatives rather than a coherent whole.

Despite the fragmented and opaque nature of China’s social credit system, Kostka (2019) found a surprisingly high degree of support for it among citizens. Particularly unexpected was that wealthier and better educated Chinese residing in urban areas as well as older people reported the highest level of support. In interviews conducted after the online survey, some respondents explained that they are not worried about privacy when it comes to the social credit system. Chinese public actors already have access to all the information collected in the system, which is why respondents thought the social credit system could not worsen their situation (Kostka, 2019). In a follow-up paper, Xu et al. (2021) showed with field survey material that support for the social credit system tends to be linked with respondents’ knowledge of the repressive potential of digital surveillance: a good understanding of the repressive potential of the social credit system was associated with a lower level of support.

In China’s case, we do not have evidence of microtargeting in attitude formation in the style of Cambridge Analytica, which used an analysis of social media behaviour to tailor political messages to individuals according to their psychological and social profiles (Zuiderveen Borgesius et al., 2018). Against the background of relatively influential traditional censorship and propaganda, there is certainly the potential for individualized forms of public opinion management. Studies conducted in China have shown that the media environment influences educated respondents’ views even if they recognize that the media is biased in its reporting (Sinkkonen & Elovainio, 2020).

In Russia, the results are contradictory in this respect. On the one hand, it has long been seen in surveys that a majority of citizens have followed the line taken by the Kremlin when it comes to, for example, foreign policy news coverage or support of political alternatives for the current political leadership (‘Vybory i protesty v Belarusi’, 2020, August 27; ‘The return of Alexei Navalny, 2021, February 8). On the other hand, the structural change in the media field, above all the growing role of the Internet at the expense of state television, poses ongoing challenges to the Kremlin’s information control (‘Istochniki informatsii’, 2020, September 28). There is a deepening generational gap in media consumption. In particular, the attitudes of younger Russians towards the system suggest that the regime’s ability to control and manipulate information is at least as dependent on the attitudes of more conformist older Russians as its ability to bridge the widening gap with its technological capability. Overall, Russia’s developments, combined with the nature of Russia’s personalist authoritarian regime and modest resources compared to China’s decades-old one-party dictatorship and far greater resources, are in many ways reflected in the use, development and growing cooperation of the two authoritarian states’ control mechanisms.

In post-Soviet Russia, the legal (or illegal) foundations of the stateʼs surveillance practices were formed in the 1990s when the System for Operative Investigative Activities (Sistema operativno-rozysknykh meropriyatiy, SORM) was introduced. SORM comprised the technical specifications for the lawful interception of telecommunications and telephone networks. It obliges all telecom operators to install hardware specified by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which enables the comprehensive monitoring of communications. Although the original idea of using SORM was in line with Western practices in terms of legal control over the security services, its further use in the twenty-first century, also comprising the Internet, has shown that, in general, the rule of law poses no impediment to the powers of the FSB and intelligence services. The aim is to keep all communications under surveillance by using, for instance, so-called deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, which seeks to map the content of conversations over the Internet in great detail.

However, regardless of well-established foundations for the stateʼs mass surveillance, SORM has faced financial and technological difficulties. In the absence of a single, state-controlled telecom operator, most independent operators have managed to ‘shirk’ the requirements while formally appearing to be following them almost to the letter. As one specialist pointed out: ‘It’s like a kind of Italian strike, where documents get passed back and forth for years but no one actually does anything’ (Kolomychenko & Lindell, 2017, November 9). A common technological challenge stems from the fact that networks built in the past are simply incompatible with the hardware that the authorities would like to use.

Regardless of numerous shutdowns of allegedly harmful websites and acts of pressuring their authors, signs of the Kremlinʼs extensive capacity to control the information space are nebulous. Indeed, the importance of the Internet has grown at the expense of traditional state-controlled media, above all TV, despite ever-tightening Internet legislation (‘Taking Control? Internet censorship’, 2019, November 27). Through the Internet, Russian citizens are fully aware of protests, the elite’s corruption and ecological disasters around the country. Internet shutdowns do not solve the problem of free information flows either, as they are very expensive. According to a study by the Russian NGO, Internet Protection Society (Obshchestvo zashchity Interneta), a one-day shutdown of the Internet as a whole would cost the country more than $442 million, whereas shutting down only mobile connections would cost more than $221 million. These calculations were based on coefficients of GDP and Internet penetration in different regions of Russia. Not surprisingly, the largest losses in the daily shutdown would occur in Moscow (4.8 billion roubles or $65 million) and the smallest in the Altai Republic (13.7 million roubles, $185,000) (‘Analiz stoimosti internet-shatdaunov’, 2020, December 22).

In short, the state’s increasing investments in developing mass surveillance have not resolved the fundamental problem of the free flow of information. In this regard, the Kremlin’s main strength in controlling citizens is based on the deterrence provided by punishment and physical control over the offline space rather than on comprehensive digital surveillance (Polyakova & Meserole, 2019). For instance, following the report on the freedom of the Internet in Russia in 2020 by the project ‘Setevye Svobody’ (Net Freedoms), physical violence increased significantly in relation to violations of freedom on the Internet. While 53 of such cases were registered in 2019, in 2020 the figure was 103. Correspondingly, the number of criminal charges, as well as pressure on IT business and programmers, increased in 2020 compared to previous years. Instead, website closures or administrative pressure decreased from previous years. In sum, this dynamic reinforces the picture that in the control over the Internet, various repressive offline methods are largely used or even preferred to more sophisticated online practices (‘Svoboda interneta 2020: vtoraya vona repressii’, 2021).

Russia is a latecomer to Internet repression. Whereas there are credible national equivalents for Western technology in China, and the use of the Internet by citizens has always been under state control, there was virtually no control over the Internet in Russia until 2012. When the wave of restrictive measures began that year, the proliferation of smartphones and the nationwide penetration of the Internet forced the regime to adapt to ever-faster connections and the Western technology available to citizens. In other words, Russiaʼs long-term integration into the global Internet and the lack of functional and attractive national solutions have made Russia dependent on Western technology and platforms (Apple and Google in particular). In order to efficiently control Russian information space, the regime has researched the possibility to create a sovereign Internet, Runet, by 2024 (Kukkola et al., 2017, 2019), for which China has been an important point of reference. However, as it has been the case with SORM, administrative, resource-laden and societal challenges have been obvious with the Runet project as well.

Russian opposition has also challenged its leadership with the help of technology, but so far the Kremlin has stayed on top of things. The network of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny initiated so-called ‘smart voting’ applications containing tactical voting instructions to concentrate votes for an opposition candidate in order to defeat a Kremlin candidate in single-mandate election districts. What is noteworthy in terms of digital authoritarianism was the September 2021 Duma election that saw the victory of Kremlin candidates in Moscow’s opposition-minded single-mandate districts achieved with the help of electronic voting. Opposition candidates instructed by Navalny’s smart voting were winning in these districts before the electronic votes were announced, and after their announcement, all lost to the Kremlin candidates (Sokolyanskaya et al., 2021, September 21). Efforts have been made to expand electronic voting for some time, but now it has achieved a result that the Kremlin was pleased with. Immediately after the election, the Kremlin announced that the presidential election in 2024 will be conducted as widely as possible using electronic voting (‘Peskov: praktiku elektronnogo golosovaniya’, 2021, September 23). It fits perfectly with the needs of an authoritarian regime that utilizes formal democratic procedures. Formally, it facilitates citizensʼ political participation. In reality, it makes independent election observation almost impossible and gives the regime new ways to stay in power.

3 Dilemmas for Western Tech Companies

As China and Russia become more authoritarian, foreign tech companies face hard dilemmas with increasingly repressive legislation making the companies participate in actions that are against company values and might backfire in Western market environments. China has been a difficult space for decades. Google’s somewhat censored search engine operated in China between 2006 and 2010 and reached a significant market share of around a third of the total. In 2010, Google retreated to Hong Kong mainly due to a large-scale hacking attack and announced that it would not censor its search tool any longer. The Chinese Communist Party took a risk when expelling Google, as functioning information flows are important for any system hoping to nurture innovation and economic growth. Yet even without Google, the Chinese system developed, and innovative solutions such as WeChat emerged (Sheehan, 2018, December 19).

Over the years, Google has planned to return to China. It quietly designed the Dragonfly, a new censored search engine for the Chinese market, which caused outrage even among Google’s own employees and was never launched (Gallagher, 2018, August 1). Google has not returned, although its AI expertise might be lucrative in the eyes of the Chinese leadership (Sheehan, 2018, December 19). The latest wave of companies leaving China includes LinkedIn and Yahoo, who were reacting to the even more difficult market environment due to the new Personal Data Protection Law, in effect since 1 November 2021 (Burgess, 2021, November 5). Apple remains one of the very few Western tech companies still operating in China.

In Russia, measures to shut down allegedly harmful apps and pressure on Western Internet giants have proved largely ineffective. The most famous episode was an attempt to shut down the instant messaging service Telegram in 2018, which did not prevent the service from functioning but ended up paralyzing millions of IP addresses, including governmental ones. In the summer of 2020, the blocking was officially stopped. Plans to prohibit the usage of the widely applied encryption technologies between user and site followed, as well as threats to slow down Facebook and Twitter in Russia after these companies refused to hand over data on Russian users to the authorities (Kolomychenko, 2020, September 21; Smirnov, 2020, September 29).

In March 2021, state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor slowed Twitter’s operation after it had ‘failed to remove prohibited content’ (‘Russia slows down Twitter’, 2021, March 10). At the same time, numerous government sites no longer opened, the Internet slowed down everywhere, and yet the authorities denied that these difficulties were linked to the slowdown of Twitter. However, it is very possible that the targeted sanctions of the authorities simply did not work as intended and the same difficulties as in the case of Telegram in 2018 were repeated (Kodachigov, 2021, March 10). Immediately after the slowdown operation, Roskomnadzor issued an ultimatum to the effect that it would close Twitter in mid-April 2021 if the banned content had not been removed by then (Efimova, 2021, March 16). At the time of this writing, in mid-November 2021, Roskomnadzor had so far abandoned its intention to shut down Twitter.

In September 2021, on the eve of the Russian Duma election, Google, Apple and Telegram bowed to demands of the Russian authorities to censor the ‘smart voting’ applications on their platforms (Feldstein & Weiss, 2021, September 23). The demand is also very likely to be accompanied by an increasingly determined implementation of the ‘Sovereign Internet Law’, which entered into force at the beginning of November 2019, with increased demands and pressure on Russian Internet operators (Gavrilyuk, 2021, August 31; ‘Zablokirovatʼ vse’, 2021, September 17). It is possible that previously failed attempts to shut down individual Western Internet platforms by the authorities (see the episodes with Telegram and Twitter above) have motivated the authorities to increase financial threats to Western Internet companies, which in their commercial calculations have deemed it necessary to comply with the requirements of censorship. Nonetheless, the demands of the Russian authorities to give the Kremlinʼs main propaganda channel abroad, RT, free visibility on YouTube are also essential. After warnings and temporary blocking, RT was censored throughout from the German language YouTube in September–October 2021, and this has increased the Kremlin’s censorship requirements for channels it deems critical. This episode was also behind the initiative in the Russian Duma in October 2021 to demand that Google mark the Crimean Peninsula and the Kuril Islands entirely as belonging to Russia in its map services (‘Deputaty Gosdumy potrebovali’, 2021, October 25).

4 Technology, Decoupling and Chinese and Russian Investment Strategies

At the same time as China conducted increasingly powerful surveillance, it tried to develop internationally competitive high-tech companies. China’s industrial policy emphasized support for innovation in strategically important sectors where certain companies receive preferential treatment and state subsidies. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2019 that between 2008 and 2018, Huawei received 17 times more state assistance than Nokia, the number two provider of telecom equipment (Yap, 2019, December 25). ‘Innovation-driven development’ has become a key priority in the Xi era, demonstrated, for example, in the Made in China 2025 plan launched in 2015. The plan highlighted ten priority sectors, including robotics, information technology, aircraft, aerospace technology and pharmaceuticals, in which China is aiming for global dominance by 2025 using a strategy combining import substitution and generous state financing (National Manufacturing Strategy Advisory Committee, 2015.) In a speech given at the Scientists’ Forum in September 2020, Xi Jinping emphasized the need for scientific innovations to help China survive international competition (‘Xi Jinping: Zai kexuejia zuotanhui’, 2020, September 11).

Another important aspect of the innovation-driven development is the export of Chinese products and services with the goal of not only gaining a market share but also trying to define technological standards through infrastructure investments. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes a project called the Digital Silk Road, which aims to propel China closer to the above-mentioned goals. In the age of increasing great power competition, technical standards have become a way to promote industrial and geopolitical agendas (Rühlig, 2021). Technical standards refer to processes of technical specification to ensure the compatibility of various goods and services, as well as to set criteria for the quality and security of various products.

Some even argue that the Chinese measures of defining and exporting technological standards alter the global competitive landscape (Zhao, 2020, p. 324). Through the BRI, for example, China promotes its satellite navigation system BeiDou, which reached global coverage in June 2020. China and Russia have been working together to ensure that Russia’s GLONASS system is compatible with BeiDou (Muravyeva & Lemutov, 2021, January 11). At the 2017 Belt and Road Forum, China signed framework agreements on the mutual recognition of standards with 12 countries, including Russia, and in 2019 the number of countries with such agreements had risen to 49 (Seaman, 2020, p. 26). China Standards 2035 suggests that China intends to unite its various bilateral agreements on standardization cooperation into a regional organization, the BRI Standards Forum, which could potentially further fragment the existing international standardization infrastructure (Rühlig, 2021, p. 8). Along with China’s increasing innovation capacity in fields such as ICT, AI or quantum communication, its ability to shape international standards in these emerging fields will strengthen (Seaman, 2020, p. 10).

Technical standards, BRI funding instruments and the rise of Chinese tech companies are helping China build entire technological ecosystems which can both help China evade integration into US-dominated technological systems and sell Chinese products abroad. China’s priorities for 2021 include building technological strength, a new type of ‘whole-of-nation’ system and creating less interdependent industrial supply chains (‘Zhongyang jingji gongzuo’, 2020, December 18). Thailand serves as a good example of how the Chinese sell their complete technological ecosystems abroad. Thailand has adopted Chinese 5G infrastructure, satellite networks and surveillance systems and deepened research cooperation with China. The comparatively low prices of Chinese products play a role, and Belt and Road infrastructure projects often come with financial assistance earmarked for tech investments (Weber, 2020).

Xi’s industrial policy has not always been well received abroad, as can be seen in China’s ongoing trade war with the United States and the suspicions many Western actors harbour about allowing Huawei to construct parts of their 5G networks. Rühlig and Björk (2020) have analysed the 5G issue in Europe and Huawei’s role in it. They divide 5G risks into network security risks and technological dependency, of which the latter is perhaps more significant, as Europe’s technological dependence on China is already high.

The US campaign against Huawei manifests fears that China will turn the Huawei-built telecommunication system into a surveillance network, which would bring it strategic advantages. Farrell and Newman (2019) argue that complex systems tend to form asymmetric network structures giving disproportionate power to actors in control of critical network hubs, making it possible to weaponize interdependence on the systemic level. The argument about weaponized interdependence is broader than that of network security per se as it relates to the longer-term characteristics of complex network structures. Chinese efforts to create their own technological ecosystems have been seen as threatening in the US, partly because they would undermine US ecosystems and the advantages they provide (Segal, 2021). Consequently, the US goal has been to strongly diminish its dependence on Chinese tech, with some success. The chances are that the Biden administration will continue, at least in some form, the Trump administration’s Clean Network Initiative, which is aimed at removing everything sourced from China from US telecommunications and network systems. Biden has given an executive order to strengthen domestic ‘supply chains for critical sectors and subsectors of the information and communications technology (ICT) industrial base, including the industrial base for the development of ICT software, data, and associated services’ (The White House, 2021, February 24). The Kearney Reshoring Index reports that in 2019, there was a significant increase in the reshoring of US manufacturing away from China and, more broadly, Asia (Kearney, 2019). Intel, for example, has reportedly considered reshoring its production (Johnson & Gramer, 2020, May 14).

Yet in some sectors, such as semiconductors, supply chains are so complex and companies so specialized that no country can expect to reach ‘strategic autonomy’ in production (Kleinhans & Baisakova, 2020). China is heavily dependent on US-origin semiconductor technology and is trying hard to decrease its reliance on US components by investing more in domestic suppliers and trying to find alternative producers. The United States is doing the same, and as both countries are trying to decrease mutual dependence where they can, third countries hosting replacement suppliers will face pressure from both great powers.

China may be dependent on US semiconductor technology, but the United States needs rare earths in its tech industry, and China is the largest producer of many important minerals (China Power Team, 2021, May 12). There have been concerns that China might weaponize its position as the largest producer by limiting exports. Yet, Beijing is also increasingly concerned about the depletion of its own critical earth reserves (Cotting et al., 2019, July 3). Russia, for its part, is estimated to have the fourth largest reserves of rare earths, but its share of the world output in 2017 and 2018 was about 2%. To reach the 10% target, the country has announced that by 2025, Russia needs investment and technology to exploit its resources (Lyrchikova & Stolyarov, 2020, August 12). In the context of the ongoing Russia-West conflict, the only major player in this respect is China.

Compared with China’s expansive commercial strategies in tech, Russia relies on an explicitly more inward-looking and confrontational approach. The Russian National Technology Initiative, launched by President Putin in his speech to the Federal Assembly in December 2014, draws on the idea of global competing blocs in trade, technology and politics. This document has since undergone numerous updates and roadmaps with which Russia intends to become ‘one of the three major technological states (along with the USA and China) by 2035’ (Natsional’naya tekhnologicheskaya initsiativa, 2019). Due to a fundamental break with the West since 2014, the most natural partner has been China. However, this does not mean that Russia will in principle position itself as a solid partner of China. It will instead strive to be a leading player in the field of new technology from its own national starting points. The presidentʼs decree on the development of artificial intelligence in the Russian Federation, published in 2019, sees the future of artificial intelligence as a global struggle. The document points out that ‘the few leading players [not mentioned by name] in the global market for artificial intelligence are taking active steps to ensure their dominance in this market […], creating significant barriers for other market participants to achieve competitive positions’. Russia’s failure to do so is perceived to lead to economic and technological backwardness (Ukaz Prezidenta RF, 2019, October 14).

The digitalization of governmental services has progressed relatively quickly. In 2020, according to official Russian data, the state’s digital services were used 175 million times. However, these government projects are regularly characterized by listing quantitative objectives instead of opening up a qualitative assessment of services, such as their functionality or regional coverage. Various goals and roadmaps are drawn up, for example, in the development and use of artificial intelligence and applications. In this respect, even the officially announced targets are very modest compared to China. In February 2021, economic development minister Mikhail Reshetnikov announced a plan to invest 31.5 billion roubles ($426 million) in the development of artificial intelligence by 2024, with non-state funding amounting to about 7 billion roubles. The goal is, among other things, to provide 90,000 schoolchildren and students with the opportunity to participate in artificial intelligence-related projects and more than 6000 people in in-service training in the field of artificial intelligence (Kostyleva, 2021, February 5).

Russia also harbours successful players, such as NTechLab, which does facial recognition; Yandex.ru, the country’s largest Internet search engine and its closest equivalent to Google; and Zyfra, a provider of data analysis solutions to the extractive industries. On the other hand, the strong role of the state is not limited to funding but above all also to the inevitable political control of innovations. This does not provide strong incentives for the formation of nongovernmental start-ups but rather for the rent-seeking of top bureaucrats. Almost all actors in AI are directly dependent on government funding (Bendett, 2019, November 25). Furthermore, an important indicator of the discrepancy between the state’s official goals and actual state of affairs is the low number of patents in relation to competitor countries. According to European Patent Office data, in 2018, Russia was not in any of the top 10 rankings concerning the fastest growing technological areas (Kurakov, 2018). This backwardness is not only related to the weakness of Russian business, let alone the lack of expertise, but also to the poor understanding of the importance of patents in international technological competition and, consequently, to the weak patent administration in Russia (Kurakov, 2018).

5 Sino-Russian Cooperation and Its Limits

Although China has been viewed as an important partner by the Kremlin since the early 2000s, a major rapprochement has taken place within the context of the ‘authoritarian turn’ in Russia since 2012. Now, China and Russia are jointly advancing shared interests in the international arena and are building up cooperation in the tech sector. Although both countries are lagging behind the United States in most sectors of AI, China is catching up and aggressively recruiting new talent. Furthermore, there are certain sectors in which China and Russia are global technological leaders and can both benefit if cooperation deepens in the future. To give a few examples, a Chinese research team has made significant advances in developing entanglement-based quantum encryption in satellite communication (Yin et al., 2020), and Russia has advanced with regard to hypersonic weapons (Gady, 2020, February 25). Aircraft and aerospace technology are listed as key areas of the Chinese investment strategy, and there are some ongoing joint projects with Russia, such as building heavy-lift helicopters. In March 2021, China and Russia signed a memorandum on the building of a joint lunar station (‘Rossiya i Kitay postroyat’, 2021, March 9).

2020 and 2021 have been designated as years for Russian-Chinese science cooperation with a focus on communications, AI and the Internet of Things. While the nature of the cooperation has been largely symbolic, some tangible elements have started to accumulate over time. For example, a Sino-Russian joint innovation investment fund was established in July 2019, and various research and development projects have been launched. These include a project dedicated to sharing big data (Sino-Russian Big Data Headquarters Base Project), as well as projects using AI to facilitate cross-border commercial activities. In May 2019, the Huawei Innovation Research Program was launched in Russia, and Russian institutions have received 140 technological requests from the company in various areas of scientific cooperation. The involvement of Huawei can be considered by far the most significant demonstration of the technological cooperation declared between the two countries in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics and big data processing. The most significant dimension of Huawei’s Russia collaboration is related to the potential implementation of the Russian Aurora operating system as a replacement for Android (Bendett & Kania, 2019).Footnote 1

The Internet and its governance present another potential area for further cooperation. Internet regulation has been a subject of debate between private actors and states. Most governments agree that the current model of Internet governance is far from ideal, as it is largely based on self-regulation of American companies. In 2012, at the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications convened by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Western countries lost out to authoritarian and developing countries that posited that regulation should be grounded in state-based politics at the UN specialized agency ITU rather than in the more private Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) (Nye, 2014, p. 7; Creutz et al., 2019, p. 54).Footnote 2 China and Russia predictably supported the ITU leadership. More broadly, they also support the sovereignty principle in Internet governance, which they have promoted through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and at the United Nations (UN). Their jointly drafted International Code of Conduct for Information Security was circulated at the UN General Assembly in 2015. China became the second largest contributor to the UN general budget for the 2019–2021 period, which increases its power within the UN subagencies dealing with Internet regulation.

China’s approach to Internet governance has gradually changed from a defensive position concentrating on its domestic Internet control into a more assertive strategy, in which China openly advocates others follow its lead. At a 2019 ITU meeting, China made a proposal for a new Internet infrastructure called New IP, which according to China would allow faster communication and larger data flows. Huawei was planning to oversee the building of the new infrastructure, which received little support among Western countries (Madhumita & Gross, 2020, March 27).

Overall, despite the cooperation, the asymmetry of the technological partnership in China’s favour is causing increasing concern in Russia. Dependence on China in the high-tech sector does not serve Russia’s efforts to develop its own digital technologies. There is already mounting concern in Russia that it will lose key talent to Chinese players. There is also a fear—common in Western countries—that China has the ability to steal foreign innovations and integrate them into its own production. In this context, there are plans to oblige Russian telecom operators to use domestic technology in the construction of the 5G network which, however, is not currently available (Bendett & Kania, 2020, August 12; Kiniakina et al., 2020, September 20).

Sino-Russian cooperation is based on shared interests rather than ideology or shared values. Sometimes authoritarian countries have shared interests that lead to cooperation. In discussions in the West, the Sino-Russian relationship is often seen only from a negative perspective as an authoritarian alliance and as an opportunistic response to deteriorating relations between the West and the two countries. Kaczmarski (2020, p. 200) argues that Western observers tend to exaggerate the negative implications of China-Russia cooperation for the West ‘as well as the West’s ability to weaken this relationship or reverse its course’. Similar to the authors of this paper, Kaczmarski points out that diverging standpoints in different issues limit the level of coordination across issues. Wishnick (2020, March 1, p. 2) notes that many forms of Sino-Russian cooperation have formed gradually during the past decade, demonstrating that the rapprochement is not a mere reaction to external factors. All in all, Sino-Russian cooperation covers areas that do not fit into the frame of geopolitical considerations, and some forms of cooperation are neutral with regard to Europe and the US, such as parts of their cooperation in the agricultural and energy sectors (Kaczmarski, 2020; Wishnick, 2020, March 1). While there is an overall trend towards increased cooperation in Sino-Russian relations, Russia’s struggle to avoid becoming overly dependent on China creates barriers for further development.

6 Conclusion

Technology plays an important role in authoritarian resilience and great power competition. Moreover, the ways in which technological development changes relationships between economic and military power are in a constant state of flux. It can be argued that the diffusion of strictly military-relevant technologies has become more difficult in recent years (Gilli & Gilli, 2019). The more commercial application a technology has, the more diffusive it is. AI, robotics and quantum computing have multiple applications both in private and military sectors, making it easier for China to benefit from innovation in these areas. If key military technologies of the future belong to the family of dual-use technologies, it is easier for China to catch up with the United States (Horowitz et al., 2019). This broader context also frames the future of Sino-Russian cooperation.

It is difficult to find clear long-term synergistic outcomes for Sino-Russian cooperation due to the asymmetry in the relationship in China’s favour. China’s de facto economic power underpinning its superpower status poses a key challenge to Russia’s role in the potential technological decoupling between China and the West. Russia’s own technology programs and knowledge base are aimed at developing credible national solutions, whereas China is export-oriented in striving to acquire know-how, conquer the market and set standards for Russia as well. In this respect, for Russia, China has begun to look more like a threat than an opportunity.

At the same time, due to the widespread usage and popularity of Western technology in Russia and the lack of national technology in the market, the country’s vulnerability is mainly related to tensions between China and the United States. In a situation where Russia still lacks credible national solutions, while technological decoupling is deepening between China and the United States, the rift between Russia and the West will inevitably drive Russia to adopt Chinese technology. Under these circumstances, Western tech companies only have bad options. If they stay out of China and Russia, they lose these markets. On the other hand, staying in China and Russia requires adaptation to authoritarian practices, as examples of Google’s project Dragonfly and the censorship of smart voting apps in Russia showcase.

When it comes to problematic behaviour in the tech sector and surveillance, Russia and China are not alone. Western countries sometimes sell surveillance equipment to authoritarian states, and Western advertising companies help to build country brands for authoritarian countries. In most countries, new technologies are largely developed by private firms, making those with dual-use potential a grey zone in terms of regulation. The private surveillance industry sells surveillance technologies to governments who use them against private citizens. The non-binding Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies added network communications’ surveillance systems and ‘intrusion software’ to the list of dual-use technologies in 2013, but this has not significantly limited the sales of surveillance technologies for repressive purposes (‘A/HRC/41/35 Surveillance and Human Rights’, 2019, June 25). With new technologies acquired from Western markets, authoritarian states have committed human rights abuses against opposition members. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has cases pending related to Western states’ mass surveillance.

This is not to deny Chinese and Russian human rights abuses or other kinds of nefarious intrusions but to point out that projecting fears about new technologies solely onto authoritarian states creates a distorted picture of current realities. From the EU’s perspective, technological decoupling and trade wars are also threatening. It is somewhat debatable whether the Trump administration’s confrontational strategy in its relations with China was beneficial for US interests, as anti-China rhetoric does not resonate equally among all allies, not to mention the rest of the world. Some experts find that many US security interests in the tech sector could be achieved through negotiating global-level tech standards and making sure tech transfer policies are up to date in allied countries (Kuo, 2021, March 1). Confrontation has divided the West even further, opening more space for China to march forward with its expansionist industrial policy. Public discourse on great power competition and technological development should integrate all of these elements and avoid painting a black and white picture, which could serve to deepen existing grievances even further.

Notes

  1. 1.

    See also https://career.huawei.ru/rri/en/.

  2. 2.

    ICANN allows participation by non-state actors.

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Sinkkonen, E., Lassila, J. (2022). Digital Authoritarianism and Technological Cooperation in Sino-Russian Relations: Common Goals and Diverging Standpoints. In: Kirchberger, S., Sinjen, S., Wörmer, N. (eds) Russia-China Relations. Global Power Shift. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-97012-3_9

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