While the U.S. is trying to limit data flows to Beijing, the United Nations Secretariat in New York is working with Beijing to set up joint global data hubs based in China. Plans include a research center for crunching data from U.N. member states and a geospatial center to enlist China’s prowess with satellite surveillance.
Officially, the aim is to streamline and enhance the U.N.’s increasingly data-driven projects. This China-U.N. complex would be integrated into the U.N.’s master plan for global development, Agenda 2030. This entails 17 broad “sustainable development goals,” such as ending poverty and achieving “peace and justice.” Having run into difficulties collecting the desired data, the U.N. is on a campaign to boost reporting and unify standards across its 193 member states and throughout its sprawling agencies, departments and initiatives.
China, the world’s leading high-tech surveillance state, is happy to help. Arrangements for a China-U.N. big-data partnership are being finalized. The leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, announced it in his speech on Sept. 22 to the U.N. General Assembly’s (virtual) 75th annual opening debate, promising to “support the U.N. in playing its central role in international affairs.” Mr. Xi asserted that “China will set up a U.N. Global Geospatial Knowledge and Innovation Center,” accompanied by “an International Research Center of Big Data for Sustainable Development Goals to facilitate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.”
U.N. records show that the locations have been chosen. Memorandums of intent have been signed between the Chinese government and the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which serves as the secretariat for the sustainable development goals. The department reports to the secretary-general but has been run since 2007 by China, so the officials signing these agreements on behalf of China and the U.N. were both Chinese.
The geospatial center will be based in Deqing County, in Zhejiang province, home to a geospatial industrial park and host in 2018 of a U.N. World Geospatial Information Congress. The Big Data institute will be less than an hour’s drive away, in Hangzhou. That’s also the home of the tech giant Alibaba Group, whose co-founder and former executive chairman, Jack Ma, co-chaired with Melinda Gates a 2018 panel on “Digital Cooperation” organized by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The deepening relationship between the U.N. and billionaires in the U.S. and China is serving the Chinese Communist Party’s aspirations for global dominance.
In June 2019 the heads of China’s National Bureau of Statistics and the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Ning Jizhe and Under-Secretary-General Liu Zhenmin, met in Shanghai. There they signed a memorandum of understanding titled “United Nations—National Bureau of Statistics Institute of Big Data.” It aims to take advantage of China’s methods and expertise in technology, “in collaboration with the public and private sector in China.” The setup could easily become a global intelligence network for China.
Already, China has co-opted the U.N. as a vehicle for Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, with its debt-trap diplomacy, investments engineered for potential military projection, and extension of China’s despotic methods and influence. Last year U.N. Secretary-General Guterres lauded Belt and Road as “intrinsically linked” to the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. U.N. documents show that dozens of U.N. branches have signed agreements to support this Chinese initiative, including all 15 of the U.N.’s specialized agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and four of which are currently run by China.
At home, China’s regime deploys its high-tech skills to control domestic internet access via its Great Firewall, bans the use of U.S. social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (with exemptions for officials to purvey propaganda abroad), and makes prolific use of data-driven technologies for monitoring, controlling and censoring the Chinese population. The effects were illustrated earlier this year with the silencing and detention of Wuhan’s Li Wenliang, the physician who tried to sound an early warning about the coronavirus before dying of Covid-19 in February.
Mr. Xi’s promised U.N.-China geospatial and big-data complex would allow for detailed mapping of everything from topography and infrastructure to human behavior, across time and around the globe. China under its own steam is already collecting and in some cases pilfering troves of data world-wide. But the U.N. badge of legitimacy would make it easier for Beijing to secure flows of data from member states, influence U.N. standards and norms for such data collection, shape the results, feed them into the U.N. system—and project the Chinese Communist Party’s techno-tyranny around the world.