A promotional image in local media to highlight Iranian-Chinese cooperation.

Digital Oppression- China’s Playbook For Iran

Saturday, 02/12/2022
Ghazal Vaisi


China’s large-scale efforts to control the Internet has become a viable conceptual and technical model for authoritarian regimes, like Iran's Islamic Republic.

China has combined legislative actions and technological enforcement to regulate the Internet domestically, deeming it “The Great Firewall” of China. Cybersecurity expert, Robert Potter, has said in a joint report, "China is known to be building a techno-surveillance authoritarian state domestically."

The Islamic Republic of Iran follows China’s lead in systematic oppression techniques. Shargh newspaper, a moderate publication by Iran’s authoritarian standards reported, Iran’s parliament is in the final stages of passing a bill called the ‘Cyberspace Users Rights Protection and Regulation of Key Online Services Bill’. Contrary to its name, this bill will restrict the internet and allow the Islamic Republic to gather and store citizens’ data. Under this legislation, Iran’s intelligence services and military will have authorized access to user’s data.

The Chinese Communist Party’s pursuit of surveillance is no secret. China is creating a global communications network to track and store sensitive security data. Business, intelligence, and military communications will increasingly go through an interconnected Chinese-built system. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment maker, has deep ties to China’s government.

China’s second-largest telecom equipment maker, ZTE, sells to more than 500 carriers in more than 160 countries, 60 of which have questionable human rights records. In addition to selling services, China provides training programs that include subjects like ‘manipulating public opinion.’ One could China is strengthening authoritarianism in the digital age.

A meeting of Iranian and Chinese representatives for digital cooperation, in May 2015.

During a briefing at an annual security conference in Munich, United States’ officials have warned that China will use Huawei’s presence in future communication networks to steal corporate secrets, censor content, and track dissidents. Critics of China say the rapid rise of these tech companies stems from the theft of intellectual property. Huawei has done business with North Korea, helped Iran spy on their citizens, and created ‘back doors’ for easier intellectual property theft.

According to Zhenhua data leak, Chinese companies have harvested information from millions of foreigners on behalf of Beijing’s intelligence services. Having access to and embedding their equipment in Iran’s communication infrastructure allows China to intercept information, putting Iran’s security at risk. Data can be extremely valuable, as it lays the grounds for a country’s intelligence services’ decision-making. Chinese technology companies have reassured the public on multiple occasions that they would never share the data with the Chinese government. They may not have a choice in the matter. Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law requires organizations and citizens to, “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” This law gives the Chinese government unauthorized access to data, undermining whatever assurance Chinese tech companies may make.

Iranian and Chinese military leaders meeting on September 12, 2019

While some countries have erected barriers to contain China’s security threat and ‘hybrid warfare, Iran’s regime has opened its arms to Chinese technology and embraced China’s utilization of technology against citizens. Chinese technology will bring more digital forms of oppression and surveillance to Iran, further worsening human rights issues.

China has been enabling heavier digital oppression in Iran since 2010. The timing was no coincidence. Following the 2009 disputed elections in Iran, widespread anti-government protests threatened to overthrow Iran’s regime. China’s assistance helped the Islamic Republic double down against dissent. Suppression of an ever-increasing number of critics is at the center of Iran’s domestic policies and the regime’s very survival. Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guard in cooperation with the clergy have turned the country into a military-religious state determined to keep the ruling elite in power, looking to combine its system of oppression with technology.

Enter China. Iran’s regime looks up to China as the perfect prototype. China saw the opportunity in 2010 to provide a solution. A report by Reuters shows ZTE, sold Iran’s largest telecoms firm (TCI)a “powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile, and internet communications.” Iran’s regime has used these technologies on numerous occasions. The internet was shut down during a water crisis in Khuzestan and Esfahan. Internet shutdowns will limit the population’s ability to express discontent or communicate with each other and the outside world.

ZTE’s marketing team refers to this spying as a “turnkey solution for lawful interception.” A new system called ZXMT was installed into ZTE’s network, which helps utilize a “deep packet inspection”—a powerful and intrusive technology that can be used to track internet users, search for, and reconstruct email messages, block types of traffic, and even deliver web pages to users. In a 91-page document called, “Talking to the Future”, ZTE notes ZXMT systems can be utilized for military and national security agencies, adding that it would also be, “invisible to targets.” In other words, the Iranian government can trace every online request to blocked websites back to the user, without the user’s knowledge. Andrew Lewman, the executive director of The Tor Project, which helps dissidents in countries like Iran and China surf the internet undetected said, “Iran has been using deep packet inspection since 2010 to monitor and block internet traffic.”

China's leader Xi Jinping one of the few world leaders who visited Iran and met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2016.

Iran and China renewed their ties in 2022 by signing a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement. China plans to invest $400B in Iran, which includes a 4G-5G network, most likely provided by Huawei. Saeid Golkar, an expert on Iranian security, points out that Iran will either duplicate or buy these systems from China. He adds “As Iran becomes more digitized, I’m sure that we will see more digital forms of oppression and surveillance.”

China’s tech companies have targeted dictatorships and democracies alike. Britain has taken the financial bait, undermining its national security by trying to save money on a less expensive Chinese infrastructure. Thousands of public institutions in Britain currently have Chinese-owned security systems, like camera surveillance, watching students, government workers, and citizens. Britain’s Metropolitan Police, hospitals, and universities use Hikvision cameras—the same company enabling police agencies in Xinjiang to detain an estimated 3 million Muslim Uyghurs. A Chinese official anonymously leaked a 403-page set of internal papers to The New York Times hoping that it spreads the word. China runs over 1,000 concentration camps in Xinjiang, as part of a “People’s War on Terror,” where they have been accused of torture, sexual abuse, widespread sterilization, and the killing of detainees. Leaked files show that in one town alone, more than 400 children have lost one or both parents to some form of internment. China has denied all accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and insists the detainees are in “vocational training” facilities. British officials and human rights campaigners say Chinese state-owned companies such as Hikvision and Dahua provide the “technological infrastructure” for the oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in China.

IPVM, the world's leading surveillance information source, reports Tiandy, another massive Chinese tech company linked to the oppression of Uyghurs, sells surveillance equipment to Iran’s government to be used in its military and law enforcement. Tiandy cameras are equipped with “facial recognition” as well as “ethnicity tracking” technology. The infamous “tiger chair,” a documented torture device, has been linked to Tiandy’s “smart” interrogation technology. The device is widely used on Uyghur detainees in Xinjiang. Uyghur survivors have confirmed these allegations in British courts. Families of those who speak on these crimes soon vanish or are apprehended. Authoritarian countries use these fear techniques to harass activists and stop the tales of their tyranny from being broadcasted to the world.

These surveillance systems are usually framed as necessary for combating rising crime and terrorism to keep citizens safe. However, these technological advancements are more often used to empower state crime and terror against citizens. The step-by-step guide to an authoritarian regime’s survival in the 21st century is to spy on, gather data from, censor and control knowledge of, and ultimately score citizens. Censorship and surveillance are not the Islamic Republic’s only two technological aspects of interest. Iran’s regime has implemented the Chinese “social credit” system, which is used to rate citizens based on their behavior, activities, and finances. China uses this system to blacklist millions of its own citizens and take away rights from citizens as they please. Individuals can be banned from flying, getting health insurance, and in some cases, getting fined to the point of financial ruin.Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, says, “The social credit system gives a very powerful weapon to officials, in a country with very unbalanced relations between citizens and the government.” Iran’s regime shares this characteristic with China. The Islamic Republic’s record of crimes against humanity raises concerns, as China continues to enable them to rule with impunity.

To vividly illustrate how the Islamic Republic operates domestically, compare the severity of different types of crimes in the eyes of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to a women’s rights NGO in Ahvaz, 60 women have fallen victim to ‘honor killings’ in the past two years in Iran. None of the perpetrators have been brought to justice, as most honor killings go unpunished. Rokna, the website that reported a recent honor killing of a 17-year-old in Ahvaz, was taken down by the government due to “publishing images and issues that violated public decency.” While the killers of the victims roam free, three Iranian women are serving 55-year sentences for disobeying the Islamic Republic’s dress code. They were charged for, "disrespecting compulsory hijab… assembly and collusion to act against national security… [and] encouraging and preparing the grounds for corruption and prostitution." In another case, a mother and daughter were jailed for 9 years for giving out flowers without headcovers as a form of peaceful protest to compulsory hijab. Providing a regime that implicitly condones ‘honor killings’, and peaceful protests as “crime” with the latest technology will only lead to catastrophe for their people.

There is no arguing technological advancements are extraordinary and humans have come a long way, but our future is in danger of being hijacked. China’s methods are spreading around the world and their propaganda machine is going to be embedded in democracies as well as dictatorships. China has already meddled in both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. Presidential elections. Facial recognition technology helps authoritarian leaders identify and prevent the organization of protests, and blacklist protestors. Authoritarian regimes will censor information, and brainwash citizens. Reporting on humanitarian issues in these countries will no longer be possible. Information will be controlled, and reality skewed. Authoritarians are using this technology to wage a war on our very basic freedoms. These leaders are behind disinformation campaigns that distract from the underlying truth that they see their people as an expendable human stock. Yeonmi Park, a North Korean survivor explains how China has enabled North Korea’s crimes for years in her book, In Order to Live. When she finally escaped North Korea, she said, “It amazed me how quickly a lie loses its power in the face of truth.”

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