This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China on Friday hit out at a speech by billionnaire investor George Soros in which he referred to President Xi Jinping as “the most dangerous enemy” of free societies.
Soros told a fringe event at the Davos economic forum on Thursday that the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s high-tech surveillance regime constituted a threat to liberty.
“China is not the only authoritarian regime in the world but it is the wealthiest, strongest, and technologically most advanced,” Soros said, adding that he also had concerns about Russia under Vladimir Putin.
“This makes Xi Jinping the most dangerous opponent of open societies,” he said, adding that U.S. tech giants like Facebook should also be reined in so as to protect democracies.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed his remarks.
“In today’s world, it is clear who is opening doors and building roads, and who is closing doors and building walls,” Hua said, in an apparent side-swipe at U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for a wall along the border with Mexico.
“We hope that the relevant people on the U.S. side can… take an objective, rational, and correct attitude towards China’s development,” she told a regular news conference in Beijing.
Soros also warned of “mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.”
He also called on Washington to crack down on Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE.
“If these companies came to dominate the 5G market, they would present an unacceptable security risk for the rest of the world,” Soros said.
He warned that China’s increasing use of artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, to keep tabs on citizens and predict their behavior could give the government “total control” over its people.
“Since Xi is the most dangerous enemy of the open society, we must pin our hopes on the Chinese people, and especially on the business community,” he said.
“The reality is that we are in a Cold War that threatens to turn into a hot one.”
Arthur Ding of the Institute of International Relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University said Soros’ concerns are a natural by-product of different political systems in China and the West.
“China does use a lot of technology to implement these kinds of social control,” he said. “But the problem here is that China’s entire political system is different from the Western political system.”
China’s social credit system is due to launch next year, but elements of it are already in place, and include train and flight bans for people who have defaulted on a court judgement,
According to Jeremy Daum of the China Law Translate blog, the system is part of China’s growing surveillance apparatus.
“Social credit is about using real-name registration systems and big data management to create records of our digital conduct,” Daum wrote in a December 2017 summary of the topic based on the laws and regulations that underpin the scheme.
“All aspects of our lives – transactional, educational, medical, legal, recreational, and consumer- leave a digital footprint, and social credit is about integrating and mobilizing that data to increase social and economic stability,” he wrote.
“Of course, it is the Party-State that maintains and mediates access to this data.”
Chinese citizens are already monitored by more than 20 million surveillance cameras as they go about their daily business in public places, according to a recent documentary by state broadcaster CCTV.
Now, artificial intelligence can identify and “tag” individual cars, cyclists, and pedestrians with distinguishing information that can be stored and searched for descriptions of wanted individuals.
The smart video tool correctly identifies the gender, age, and clothing descriptions of passersby, as well as distinguishing between motorized and non-motorized vehicles, recent media reports say.
The technology comes amid a growing trend towards using facial recognition as a secure form of ID, including to identify rail and airline passengers, physical and e-commerce customers, and missing persons cases.
Facial recognition technology is also being used in city subway systems, and in ride-sharing and robotic package delivery apps, airport and college dorm security, and social credit schemes, as well as to guard against jaywalkers.