China exports its high-tech authoritarianism to Venezuela. It must be stopped

An identification card was checked at a "red point" in Caracas to verify people voted during the last presidential election in May. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
An identification card was checked at a “red point” in Caracas to verify people voted during the last presidential election in May. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

For fans of “Black Mirror,” Charlie Brooker’s dark dystopian fantasy on Netflix, the news out of China recently had been disconcerting. Through its Social Credit System, the Chinese Communist Party is apparently determined to build out a real-world version of the streaming nightmare: a pervasive, highly intrusive AI-enabled surveillance system that tracks you all day every day and that largely determines all of your life chances.

Social Credit is creepy enough in its own terms, but the real question is whether it will remain quarantined in China’s huge walled garden, or whether it will spread, becoming a model for repressive regimes worldwide. A Reuters story published last month suggests China will indeed move to export Social Credit — and has already begun doing so.

According to the report, Venezuela signed a multimillion-dollar contract with ZTE Corp, the Chinese telecom giant, to build a kind of Caribbean version of Social Credit. In Venezuela, the system pivots off of the “carnet de la patria” (fatherland card) — a smart-chip-enabled ID card that Venezuelans increasingly need to access any state service. ZTE provides the servers to store the data and personnel embedded within Venezuela’s state telecom to manage the program.

You’ve heard of “software as a service”? This is dictatorship as a service.

For years, Venezuelans have been scratching their heads about what the real end-game to the ID card is. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has made it clear that he expects Venezuelans to show the card when they make their day-to-day transactions. He has said the card will be used to ration subsidized gasoline and track food purchases, which is why many at first saw it as a 21st-century ration card. Others took it as just a bit of mindless bureaucracy, or as a way to pressure Venezuelans into continuing to vote for the regime. Indeed, the Maduro political machine used the card to monitor whether the poor turned out in the fraud-ridden presidential elections earlier this year, according to Reuters. Those who didn’t vote were threatened with losing access to state resources, including the subsidized food parcels that are all that’s keeping many from starving.

But the revelations about ZTE’s involvement in developing and deploying the system put an entirely different hue on it. The “carnet de la patria” isn’t just a means of railroading dependent voters into backing a calamitous regime at the polls. It goes further than that.

It represents an early experiment in exporting China’s model for high-tech authoritarianism, with powerful computer algorithms calculating individualized loyalty scores to dole out or withhold privileges and life chances accordingly.

It turns out that China’s digital panopticon is an export product. In Venezuela, Beijing is using the technology it has developed at home to help sustain a notoriously unstable client state’s leadership in place.

The United States can’t allow China to export the technology of 21st-century dictatorship around the world. Under existing U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, companies are banned from providing technological support for serious human rights abuses and the repression of protesters. ZTE’s role in the ID card scheme should certainly qualify as technological support of repression. It should lead to additional sanctions on the company in Europe and Canada.

Unfortunately, for reasons that have remained murky, ZTE has an ally in the White House. Last May, in a hard-to-parse moment, President Trump began tweeting specifically in support of ZTE. But the president also has a long record as a harsh critic of the Maduro regime. Congress should act to ensure that Trump’s sympathy for ZTE does not outweigh his antipathy toward the Maduro regime, and to make sure China pays a price for exporting dictatorship as a service.

Francisco Toro is chief content officer of the Group of 50 and a contributing columnist for Post Opinions. James Bosworth is the founder of the political risk analysis firm Hxagon.

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