China Tightens Its Grip on Data and Narrative

By Cathalijne Adams
May 08 2023 |
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The move suggests China may be feeling the burn of being under the world’s magnifying glass.

Beijing is restricting access to Chinese databases available for “foreign think tanks, research firms and other nonfinancial entities” in an effort to “ensure the party-state’s control over narratives about China,” senior Chinese officials told The Wall Street Journal. The crackdown on overseas access to the databases reportedly comes as think tanks use open-source data from Chinese government and university websites to uncover the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in industry, such as its civil-military fusion initiatives.

The Wall Street Journal cites several examples of think tank research that has especially alarmed Chinese officials, such as a Center for Security and Emerging Technology report on how the Chinese military accesses artificial intelligence (AI) semiconductors that are designed in the United States

Though China is already infamous for obscuring and withholding information, the CCP’s most recent efforts to guard itself from outside scrutiny are further alienating possible investors at a time when they are sorely needed. In April, Beijing ordered a cybersecurity review of U.S. chip manufacturer Micron Technology. Shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities questioned staff at global consulting firm Bain & Company in Shanghai and detained Beijing-based staff from Mintz Group, a U.S. corporate investigations firm.

It comes as no shock that these counterespionage measures have chilled the business community’s interest in establishing roots in China. Business leaders, diplomats and policymakers alike have expressed concern that China’s expanded anti-espionage laws are a serious risk for foreign companies and have triggered an exit from China for some businesses.  

Here’s one excerpt from a New York Times report:

Dan Harris, a Seattle-based lawyer who works with foreign companies in China, said that in the past week he had heard from at least two American companies looking to leave the country, having seen the signs that the Chinese Communist Party appears to be sending with the recent scrutiny.

“The message is: ‘We don’t care that much about the economy. What we care about is keeping you in line,’” Mr. Harris said. “‘And if you don’t do what we want you to do, we will come after you.’”

And in response to Beijing’s latest effort to restrict data, The Wall Street Journal noted further anxiety:

Intensified information restrictions have analysts and investors fretting over a lack of official clarity on what types of data will be off limits—at a time of greater uncertainty over China’s economic and policy direction.

The lack of clarity “gives the government ample latitude in determining the companies and activities that would be subject to mandatory disclosure or security reviews,” said a new report by the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center, a Washington think tank, and Rhodium Group, a New York-based economic-research partnership.

Amidst this news, we’re keeping a close eye on U.S.-China engagement. This Monday, Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to China, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. The ambassador reported discussing “the necessity of stabilizing ties and expanding high-level communication.”

Notably, the meeting represents one of the highest-level conferences between American and Chinese officials following Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s decision to cancel his trip to Beijing in the aftermath of the spy balloon controversy.

As more and more corporations awaken to the hazards and murk of doing business in China, champions for China’s messaging dwindle and future talks become ever-more complex.