A large screen displays China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit with United States President Joe Biden, not seen, during the evening CCTV news broadcast outside a shopping mall on November 16, 2021 in Beijing, China.

A large screen displays China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit with United States President Joe Biden, not seen, during the evening CCTV news broadcast outside a shopping mall on November 16, 2021 in Beijing, China. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China Wants to Write the Tech Rules for 5G. Experts Say That’s a Big Problem

Beijing is stacking international standards bodies with factions that care more about national loyalty than sound practice, experts say.

You may not know the International Telecommunication Union or the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, but they and similar bodies set security standards for the internet of today and tomorrow. Experts say Beijing has been stacking the boards of such groups to benefit China and undermine the rest of the world’s data privacy and information security.

That’s not the way those bodies are supposed to work. Their boards are intended to mediate between competing industry proposals in search of the best ideas for everyone. That’s the process that created technical standards for everything from DVDs to WiFi to 2G, 3G, 4G technology and so on. 

“While the process is not completely apolitical, considering the stakes involved, the technical standardization process has been traditionally focused on technical, rather than commercial or political, arguments in debating the merits of a standard,” says a paper from the Asia Policy Institute published on Wednesday. “However, China’s increasing engagement in standards development, particularly given its top-down, state-centric approach to standardization, is changing the status quo.”

What does a changed status quo look like? Laura Bate, senior director at the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, recalled a moment from 2016. Members of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project were deciding between two proposals for encoding data in 5G gear, one from San Diego-based Qualcomm, the other from Huawei—a Chinese company suspected by Western intelligence agencies and others of helping Beijing spy on the world.

The representative from Lenovo, a Chinese maker of laptops, cast a vote for Qualcomm’s proposal—and soon faced an “epic backlash in China for being unpatriotic,” Bate said at a Thursday event hosted by Defense One.

The chastened company rep later changed the vote to Huawei’s proposal, and the company’s co-founder promised never again to vote against China’s preferred standard.

We both agree that Chinese companies should be united and must not be provoked by outsiders,” Liu Chuanzhi wrote. 

In 2018, Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched the China Standards 2035 initiative, which explicitly seeks to dominate standards bodies.

“This approach includes placing Chinese nationals in senior leadership positions within the [standards development organizations]; increasing the representation of Chinese tech companies within these bodies; assuming leadership positions in secretariats, working groups, and technical subcommittees; and pushing Chinese companies to vote for Chinese proposals,” notes the Asia Policy Institute paper. 

Bate said China aims to shape future standards for everything from quantum computing to 6G to even international norms around artificial intelligence along similar lines. 

“When you start to see that desire to vote not necessarily for the most technologically sound solution but for the sake of patriotism, advancing domestic interests, you’re getting into pretty different territory,” she said. China could, for example, “push for a standard that enables greater surveillance.” 

But there’s also an economic threat. By setting standards Chinese companies will have a speed advantage in patenting new technologies to meet those standards, which means more countries and companies paying to use Chinese technology. That money will go back into research and development to develop new technology and score more patents, a cycle that will “drive out firms that place a greater emphasis on security” noted Bate. “You have huge chunks of Africa, East Asia, Central Asia that are relying on these technologies, technologies that are maybe not the most secure.” 

It’s an issue that some U.S. lawmakers are attempting to address through the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which includes provisions to promote training for companies that are stakeholders in standards setting bodies and build the capacity to better influence those bodies. But, said Bate, if the United States works too hard to push companies that value high security standards to play a larger role in standards bodies, the government runs the risk of looking overly political, thus undermining the very neutrality it’s trying to preserve. 

“How do you promote that without seeming to politicize the process? This should be about sound technology, not whose politics win out.”