China thrives on secrecy. Beijing’s approach to governance, which relies on surveillance and control rather than openness and deliberation, requires secrecy. And to sustain it, the Chinese government suppresses independent journalism, censors digital information, and closely guards the kind of information that democracies freely disclose.
This commitment to secrecy and censorship is a long-standing feature of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule. But under President Xi Jinping, whose ideas about governance may shape the world for years to come, the CCP has grown even more furtive. In recent months, the Chinese government has obscured the deaths of as many as one million people after it abruptly abandoned its harsh “zero COVID” policy. It has manipulated and withheld data about the pandemic. And it has broadened its draconian counterespionage laws to assert even greater control over China’s information environment.
Beijing has also emerged as a stealth exporter of secrecy abroad. This was seen most vividly in China’s manipulation of the World Health Organization. Chinese authorities suppressed domestic discussion of the Wuhan outbreak and refused to share information with global health authorities, hobbling the WHO’s response and forcing millions of people beyond China’s borders to pay a terrible price. Later, Beijing tried to manipulate the outcome of WHO inquiries into the origins of COVID-19. More than three years since the onset of the pandemic, Chinese authorities continue to resist WHO requests for data that might shed light on the source of the virus.
But it’s not just international organizations that have been affected by Beijing’s obsession with secrecy. As China projects its political, economic, and technological power globally through big-ticket infrastructure contracts, educational and media partnerships, and agreements to supply surveillance technologies, Beijing’s model of concealment is spreading beyond China’s borders. Countries striking deals with Beijing are discovering that they are expected to follow China’s lead, limiting transparency and accountability just as Chinese leaders do at home. The result of this pattern of engagement is a gradual erosion of global norms of transparency and open government—and the rise of new ones of concealment and opacity.
When Chinese government entities make agreements with foreign governments or businesses, they often demand that the details be kept secret. The Mauritius Safe City Project—under which the Chinese technology giant Huawei partnered with Mauritius Telecom and the Mauritian police to install intrusive surveillance systems, including 4,000 cameras with facial recognition and license plate recording capabilities—is a case in point. The adoption of the project was opaque and proceeded with scant public debate. Despite its enormous $500 million price tag, financed by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, the initiative was casually announced in the Mauritius National Assembly and has since evaded oversight. Mauritian officials even waived a competitive bidding requirement for public procurements in order to select Mauritius Telecom to implement the project. When members of Mauritian civil society raised questions about the initiative, government officials hid behind the confidentiality clauses signed by the Mauritian police, Mauritius Telecom, and Huawei.
A similar scenario played out in Serbia, where the government signed a deal with Huawei to install a comprehensive surveillance system of 8,100 cameras. Citizens were told that these cameras would improve safety and that the technology could not be abused. But as was the case in Mauritius, no meaningful public debate preceded the system’s adoption and citizens were told little about the deal. Where such systems are imposed on uninformed publics, governments can gain effectively unchecked capabilities of surveillance and control.
Given the rapid pace at which advanced digital platforms are being adopted, the risk of entrenching authoritarian norms of surveillance is rising. In many countries, authorities are averse to disclosing information about the contracts through which they procure surveillance technologies. As a result, it can be exceedingly difficult for nongovernmental actors to discern who is actually behind these initiatives. Clarity on this is made more difficult by the overlap between the Chinese government and Chinese companies. In such an environment, China’s penchant for secrecy risks infecting other countries, especially those with weak institutions.
CONTRACT, WHAT CONTRACT?
Resistance to transparency is spreading. In Latin America, the Chinese government makes use of confidential debt contracts, which bar their signatories from disclosing their terms to the public. These deals, which are typically sealed swiftly and in secret, often sideline civil society and even national legislatures. Credit contracts between Chinese banks and the Ecuadorian government, for example, only came to light after the Panama Papers leak in 2016.
The story is the same elsewhere. In Canada, universities that wish to sign contracts with Huawei for research initiatives have been prohibited from discussing them publicly. The same is true in Kenya. The country’s $5 billion standard-gauge railroad, which was completed in 2017, is its most expensive infrastructure project, and it has been plagued by accusations of corruption. Local activists seeking information on the project petitioned the courts to release loan contracts signed by Chinese and Kenyan authorities. But once again, these agreements’ confidentiality clauses were invoked as a way of rebuffing the activists’ request for transparency.
China’s insistence on secrecy is reversing decades of progress toward greater transparency.
Again and again, countries that do business with the Chinese government or its affiliated companies are required not to disclose the terms of their agreements. In some cases, they are required to keep secret the very existence of contracts. According to a 2021 study of 100 debt contracts between Chinese state-owned entities and government borrowers in 24 countries, China’s unusual lending terms were highly standardized and did not differ significantly by geographic region, hinting at the globalized nature of Beijing’s secrecy push.
In instances when activists or elected legislators have requested more information about these projects, governments have repeatedly invoked the confidentiality clauses in their agreements with Chinese companies. Where information has come to light, it has been unearthed by journalists and civil society activists, not disclosed by governments. This insistence on secrecy is reversing decades of progress toward greater transparency and openness and encouraging governments to resist accountability. With each deal done in the darkness, Beijing pushes countries toward less transparent and less accountable governance standards.
China’s emphasis on secrecy is especially corrosive in fragile, at-risk countries whose roots of institutional governance are shallow. This has real implications for institutions such as the Open Government Partnership and Millennium Challenge Corporation that have sought to encourage the adoption of openness and transparency as governance norms. China’s approach is disincentivizing such norms.
In short, China’s global secrecy drive is exacting economic as well as noneconomic costs. Opaque government processes and the high levels of corruption that often go with them can take a toll on economic productivity, reducing countries’ attractiveness to foreign investors. These qualities can also erode the integrity and sustainability of independent institutions, thereby undermining standards and practices of accountable governance. Finally, secrecy threatens the nongovernmental sphere, including the media, universities, and technology firms. To the extent that Beijing succeeds through the exertion of sharp power in weakening the ability of such institutions to scrutinize and interrogate its deals, the cycle of secrecy is bound to intensify.
LET IN THE LIGHT
Open societies should respond to these challenges by strongly privileging transparency and reaffirming principles and practices of openness. Secrecy is a competitive advantage for China, whose leadership has fine-tuned governance by concealment at home, and which is unaffected abroad by legislation forbidding foreign bribery. Democracies, however, have their own competitive advantage: openness. They should use it to expose the practices of Beijing and its proxies, including the serial writing of secrecy clauses into agreements. Democratic countries should also sharpen the distinction between their approach to governance and China’s by strengthening their transparency efforts.
Democratic governments and nongovernmental organizations must also do a better job of explaining the problems that result from Beijing’s secretive and often corrupting practices. A clearer understanding of the downsides of engagement with China will help countries avoid making choices that compromise democratic integrity, thereby reducing Beijing’s competitive advantage.
Democracies must be far more proactive in their public defense of openness. Chinese authorities are making an argument, often dressed up in grandiose language, about the ostensible benefits of their development approach. As Xi put it at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, this approach offers a “new option for nations that want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” It is a message that China’s global propaganda machine relentlessly pushes—and that democratic governments must aggressively counter. As part of their communication strategy, democracies should highlight Beijing’s use of secrecy to dominate and exploit other countries. At the same time, they should challenge Chinese companies to make all of their contracts transparent.
Finally, open societies will need to develop the structures and instruments to deal with the unique challenges presented by the Chinese party state. When negotiating bilaterally with other countries, China is usually able to get its way because it is invariably the stronger party. That is why Beijing works so hard to prioritize bilateral relationships over multilateral ones. To address this challenge, open societies will need to form new and adaptable coalitions to negotiate with China from a position of greater strength.
Beijing’s drive to export secrecy is an underappreciated dimension of its foreign power projection. China’s emerging global secrecy regime represents a systemic threat to open and accountable governance—and will require a purposeful and sustained response from democracies to expose and neutralize it.