Jessica Chimenti’s Interview after the release of the book « Chine digitale, dragon hacker de puissance »

Since December 2, 2019, Chinese operators are under obligation to use artificial intelligence to ensure the real identity of smartphone users. Understand: all Chinese citizens are going to be filed and registered by the government. Facial recognition is no longer an option, but rather an obligation.

Jean-Baptiste JUSOT: Jessica Chimenti, you just published an essay on the Chinese digital strategy. According to you, China has caught up with the economy thanks to digital capitalism. Did you ever imagine that one day, the Chinese state could file its entire population? And for what purpose, in your opinion?

Jessica CHIMENTI: The Chinese state has always taken great interest in the activities of its citizens. Until the 1960s, it was to detect phenomena such as ideological heterodoxy; today the need for control is illustrated through technology, which is more and more used as a vigilance tool in order to limit corruption, very widespread, especially in the provinces. One of Xi Jinping’s pillars as President is to lead a fight against it, and Artificial Intelligence seems to be one of the most effective means to do so. For example, the Social Credit System is a reputation classification system in which everyone is awarded 1000 points that can be lost in case of dishonest behaviour. As a result, citizens can be blacklisted without notice: for instance, national transport companies can punish violators by preventing them from buying tickets for a period of six to twelve months. This points-based permit lies on the ability to cross information (banks, purchases, administrative procedures, etc.) in order to understand the behavior of the population. Although this system remains an experiment at this stage (2014-2020), its use of facial recognition obviously facilitates the detection of unlawful behavior via camera devices in cities that increasingly incorporate the same recognition technology.

However, we must not forget that the Chinese economic development via the digital sphere is our inspiration for this book[1]. The will to progress relies on the control of technology; Artificial intelligence is the most powerful tool for the Chinese to “go faster”. This means outperforming other countries in the digital field, especially the United States. To give an example, a subsidiary of Alibaba called ANT Financial has integrated facial recognition into the Alipay online payment system, which has more than 1 billion users. Why wait in line at the supermarket when it is possible to pay by showing your face to a camera? Moreover, Alipay is in the process of adding « beauty filters » to respond to some users who complained that the application was distorting their faces.

JB.J. : In your book, you refer to « The 36 Stratagems, a secret treaty of Chinese strategy » written during the Ming dynasty. One trick caught our attention: « Hide a knife behind a smile« . How does this translate into the digital world today?

J.C.: The digital era has enabled China to adopt a circumvention strategy. As highlighted in our book, the keyword is « trust ». China seeks to arouse the interest of the « adversary » to infiltrate him. The strategy is based on a slow and sprawling advancement that takes its time to penetrate the adversary’s universe without the adversary feeling threatened. China does not have an openly aggressive stance aiming at a direct confrontation. On the contrary, China attracts foreign investors and use them as infiltration levers; particularly via the new silk routes. “Mutatis mutandis”, we noted the same attitude with regard to cyber-attacks. China will not implement mass destruction attacks, but rather subtle ones: PTAs (advanced persistent threat) are attacks that are capable of lasting over time and aiming at a specific target which holds information that can be diverted. This is likely to be turned to the Chinese advantage into a made in China output.

JB.J: It is often said that whoever controls the information has the power. What allows you to say that in 2020, the Chinese will control 25% of the world’s data? What are your sources? How did you get this information?

J.C.: We are talking here about global trends drawn from estimates produced by agencies or firms like Synergy Search or McKinsey.

JB.J.: You are from Italy. In your essay, you explain the economic situations of southern European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain or Portugal. When reading your words, one feels like these countries in crisis seem to prefer submitting to Chinese power rather than disappearing. We particularly see this with the establishment of the new silk routes. Why do you think these states are not turning to Europe?

J.C.: The Belt and Road Initiative can be understood as the practical translation of the bypass strategy. China is settling in an already divided Europe. On the one hand, China is spreading Confucius Institutes, which are a mean of influence to disseminate the Chinese culture. And on the other, China is seeking to establish trade agreements to settle into the system by instilling a logic of dependence. The countries most affected by this Chinese strategy are those whose systems are already weakened. Portugal, in which China’s presence strengthened after the crisis, was recently the first country in the euro zone to issue « Panda Bonds », a debt in Chinese currency. In fact, China already owns 23% of the Energias De Portugal and is preparing for its takeover. In the beginning of November, Greece signed a 16-points protocol with China which promotes access to its energy infrastructures in return for the export of Chinese agricultural products and for the promotion of tourism in China. This agreement gives China access to the country’s strategic sectors. As for Italy, in the end of November, there were 12 agreements signed between technological research centers and Sino-Italian universities, with the aim of cooperating in technological advancement. What will be the value of the expertise which is directly transferred to the Chinese? In this context, the internal divisions of Europe allowed China to become indispensable and attractive, particularly thanks to the promise of shared benefits and win-win operations. But promises only bind those who listen to them.

JB.J.: Digital technology seems to have enabled China to achieve the perfect alliance between liberal capitalism and communism. Thanks to digital technology, the Chinese are even strengthening their political system while taking advantage of globalization. Do you think that the opening of markets and the multiplication of exchanges thanks to the digital will end up weakening the Chinese regime, just as it happened previously to the Soviet regime?

J.C.: The conditions leading to the fall of the Soviet regime are not to be attributed exclusively to the opening of the country and the perestroika policy. Indeed, the economic choices, closely linked to the achievement of military objectives, resulted -unintentionally- in the devastation of the Soviet economy. China, on the contrary, turns out to be a developing country, capable of protecting itself while opening up on the international stage. Obviously, such an opening is risky, but the Great Firewall control systems provide interior stability. Within the Chinese culture, the strength of principles like order and stability are not questioned; it is the State Party that guarantees their maintenance. For example, in the 2019 summer, China launched a second “clean-up internet” campaign after the first one in 2015: by strengthening control measures, this campaign successfully closed VPNs that allowed the access to Facebook or Google.

JB.J.: You’re depicting a situation in which China has an advantage in a globalized world. Do you think that Chinese domination is inevitable? What could hold back Chinese hegemonic projects?

J.C.: The economic war obliges us to take into account that the world barycenter shifted. The political theories of the hegemonic order (R. Gilpin and G. Modelski) tell us that the evolution of a system is characterized by the emergence of new states that are now powerful and capable of establishing new international models. As how new rules can change the established balance, China wants to position itself as a pilot state. In the 5G realm, the Chinese have gotten so far ahead that future standards cannot be set without them. In terms of digitalization standards, China has thus become a key player that can no longer be excluded from international consultations. The outbreak of the China-US economic war raised a collective Western awareness about the objectives of Beijing’s bypass strategy. However, this war also represents a tool that weakens the progress of such a strategy. Closing access to strategic markets and breaking this trend of “agreement at all costs” is the first step to protect our information and strategic heritage.

JB.J.: You are currently CORPGUARD’s Operations manager. How is this Chinese threat concretely observable at your clients’ level? Is France one of the targets of this « power dragon hacker »?

J.C.: In terms of knowledge and expertise, France and all European countries are the targets of Chinese ambition. It is therefore very important to position ourselves in an educational approach towards our clients who have an international posture. We must advise them to anticipate the risk and implement preventive measures. We help them in implementing training activities.

JB.J.: Which advices could you give to French entrepreneurs or SMEs directors who often think that it “only happens to other people”?

J.C.: Zero-risk situations do not exist, and a computer attack can be as harmful to a company as a physical attack; both can jeopardize its security. To protect your company, you also need to protect your data and train your employees.

J.B.J: Finally, congratulations for obtaining the ISO 18788 certification, and for getting your director elected at the ICoCA board.

 

[1] Chine Digitale – Dragon hacker de puissance, Agnès BOSCHET, Jessica CHIMENTI, Nicolas MERA LEAL et Thomas DUVAL, VA Éditions, 2019.

 

Jean-Baptiste Jusot is consultant in the field of influence; he is a former journalist and Grand reporter.

Born in Italy, Jessica Chimenti began her studies at the University of Bologna where she completed a Bachelor of Political Science and a Master 2 in International Relations. She moved to France in 2017 and obtained the MBA from EGE in 2019 « risk management, international security and cybersecurity ». Today, Jessica Chimenti is Operations manager for the CORPGUARD Group. In 2019, she participated in the writing of a collective work with Agnès BOSCHET, Nicolas MERA LEAL and Thomas DUVAL, graduates of the EGE, entitled  » Chine digitale – Dragon hacker de puissance  » (VA éditions).