It was recently discovered that Zoom is leaking emails and photos to strangers. It didn’t take long for the snowball to roll. Shortly after, SpaceX has banned the use of Zoom for remote operations. So have Google, Apple, NASA, and New York City schools. Earlier this week, the FBI warned about Zoom teleconferences and live classrooms being hacked by trolls; security experts warn that holes in the technology make user data vulnerable to exploitation. Zoom’s CEO, Eric Yuan, publicly admitted that he “messed up” on privacy and security.
Zoom, however, ties into a much larger picture unfolding on the internet right now. It is a picture where China is slowly but surely dominating the internet. DJI, TikTok, Huawei, Zoom, these are just a few examples of a growing list of tech companies backed by China that increasingly powers internet traffic and it’s content.
Chinese Tech Giants
5G is perhaps the most apparent move China is making, to dominate the future of internet connectivity. Huawei has received a lot of pushback for its 5G efforts, but despite multiple concerns of security risk, the company continues to spearhead 5G and sign large-scale government and corporate contracts to roll out 5G to the world.
Another well-known Chinese-backed app is TikTok. TikTok has become the number one social media app in an insanely short period of time. TikTok is owned by Chinese ByteDance, a Beijing-based company founded in 2012 by Zhang Yiming.
While this new top-performing social media app focuses on video, similar to YouTube and Vimeo, TikTok has no navigation, no choice for the user to search and find videos of your preference. The only option a user has to navigate is to click “Next”, and then their algorithm will decide what video to watch next. Many have raised concern over TikTok’s conscience choice of limited navigation, with the potential for echo chambers and large-scale manipulation to be facilitated through apps like TikTok.
When it comes to Zoom, the company received its seed funding from TSVC, which presents as a Los Altos-based venture capital firm but invests with the funds of a Chinese State-owned Enterprise, Tsinghua Holdings. Founded and run by a Chinese entrepreneur, Zoom’s mainline app is developed by China-based subsidiaries. Zoom servers in China appear to be manufacturing its AES-128 encryption keys, including, as a Citizen Labs report documents, some used for meetings among North American participants. Beijing’s privacy laws likely obligate China-manufactured keys to be shared with Chinese authorities.
Zoom is precisely the kind of tool that aligns with Beijing’s strategy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pursues a decades-long grand strategy to develop and capture global networks and platforms. This strategy will lead to the CCP define more and more global standards on the internet. Beijing has officially endorsed this ambition since its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), when it launched the National Standardization Strategy.
From Made In China to Powered by China
Today, the National Standardization Strategy is getting a bit dated, and the CCP is shifting from planning mode to taking their 2001 strategy into action. Beijing is about to launch China Standards 2035, the successor to Made in China 2025; an even bolder plan for the subsequent decade premised not on governing where global goods are made, but rather on setting the standards that define production, exchange, and consumption.
As Beijing sees it, the world is on the verge of a complete digital transformation. “Industry, technology, and innovation are developing rapidly,” explained Dai Hong, Director of the Second Department of Industrial Standards of China’s National Standardization Management Committee in 2018. Dai continues, “Global technical standards are still being formed. This grants China’s industry and standards the opportunity to surpass the world’s.” Dai was speaking at the inauguration of China Standards 2035’s planning phase. He argues that the plan would focus on “integrated circuits, virtual reality, smart health and retirement, 5G key components, the Internet of Things, information technology equipment interconnection, and solar photovoltaics.”
Since 2018, China Standards 2035’s research results reveal how Beijing is turning words into actions. China Standards 2035 is to focus on setting standards in emerging industries: high-end equipment manufacturing, unmanned vehicles, additive manufacturing, new materials, the industrial internet, cyber security, new energy, the ecological industry. These align with the focus areas of the Strategic Emerging Industries initiative — also of Made in China 2025. Having secured its foothold in targeted physical spheres, Beijing is ready to define their rules.
DJI is a great example of this, enjoying near monopoly over commercial drone systems. The National Standardization Administration is now intent on “formulating the international standards for ‘Classification of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ to help the domestic drone industry occupy the technical commanding heights.’”
China Standards 2035 will accelerate Beijing’s proliferation of the virtual systems underlying, and connecting, those industries: the social credit system, the State-controlled National Transportation Logistics Platform (known as LOGINK), and medical and consumer good standards.
China’s standards plan stems from a clear, deliberate strategic progression. Beijing has spent the past two decades establishing influential footholds in multilateral bodies and targeted industrial areas. Now, it is using those footholds to set their own rules – with them, to define the infrastructure of the future world. According to China’s strategic planning, this is what power means in a globalized era: “The strategic game among big powers is no longer limited to market scale competition or that for technological superiority. It is more about competition over system design and rule-making.”
Time to Pay Attention
The tragic thing is that no one seems to pay attention to China’s strategic positioning. Not much pops up when you search for China Standards 2035. The global shutdown due to COVID-19 has created what the CCP calls an opportunity to accelerate its strategic offensive. Our lock-down induced reliance on virtual connections has offered Beijing an unprecedented angle in.
Zoom has come into the spotlight with it’s lack of proper protection of user data. Without this spotlight, few would have spotted Zoom’s ties to China, and the large-scale plan being rolled out. Zoom is just a small piece in that puzzle, there are many more out there, and it is time we all pay attention.