China has a massive blueprint for boosting its economic growth, and part of the project is called the “Digital Silk Road.”
Not to be confused with the online darknet marketplace, China’s “Digital Silk Road” refers to a route that lies alongside the country’s big infrastructure push across continents termed the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) or the New Silk Road deeply integrating it with the rest of the world.
Over the past few years, China has poured billions of dollars into developing its digital capabilities in various ways from fostering homegrown talents like Alibaba and Tencent, to deepening its digital reach with other continents like Europe, ultimately hoping to “generate fresh economic growth, foster effective governance and control, and project global power,” according to a report by Berlin based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).
To be clear, “Digital Silk Road” is only one part of China’s grand plan to achieve those three objectives. And it’s a crucial story of the modern wold that involves players like the Chinese Communist Party, Huawei, and the U.S. government.
Digitisation Helps the CCP Reestablish Legitimacy
With the original BRI, a colossal project in its own right China has pushed billions of dollars into various economies in Asia and Europe through opaque loans to expand influence around the world.
The BRI is envisioned as a revival of an ancient trade route between China and Europe, as well as a vehicle to boost economic growth and re-establish legitimacy among its people.
“The CCP’s legitimacy rests heavily on economic performance; stagnating or even declining growth poses a serious risk to its grip on power,” the MERICS researchers wrote.
As a result, digitisation was considered one of the best ways forward to “upgrading China from the ‘workshop of the world’ into a high-tech leader with globally attractive innovative products and services, and modernised manufacturing processes,” they added.
Digital Silk Road as a National Security Threat
But China’s goals aren’t singularly focused and that economic growth isn’t the only objective, argue experts.
The MERICS researchers say that China’s digital ambitions “combine economic goals with broader normative and security aims.”
The U.S. Government also sees Digital Silk Road projects like the Chinese and Russian tag team that’s building up cable networks connecting Asia and Europe overland to bypass “U.S. controlled data routes,” according to MERICS, or undersea cables laid out or upgraded by Chinese company Huawei as a national security threat.