Book review: The Digital Silk Road by Jonathan Hillman

Version française ici.

According to a recent article published in The Diplomat1Khorrami Nima, “How China Boosts Iran’s Digital Crackdown”, The Diplomat, October 27th 2022., Iran is seeking to acquire artificial intelligence technologies and has concluded a deal with Beijing to benefit from its digital surveillance technologies. Tehran has been concerned for a long time about the loss of national sovereignty and Western infiltration of Iranian cyberspace, which has been a thriving ground for recent demonstrations. China also stands to gain from this agreement, as it certainly fits with its plans to expand its trade relations. These include the famous “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure project and the “Made in China 2025” plan to put Beijing at the forefront of high-tech manufacturing, but also “China Standards 2035,which would see China setting the world’s digital standards. 

Through his book The Digital Silk Road, published in October 2021 by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jonathan Hillman aims to address the cyber dimension of China’s ambitions. Hillman, who studied at West Point, Brown University and Harvard, is now a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department’s policy planning team. In his book, he discusses China’s journey and ambitions, by questioning international relations and balances. He suggests an action plan for the United States and reminds us of the inescapable physical dimension of cyberspace. For the author, it seems obvious that the competition for the control of information technologies is legitimate, even more so in cyberspace. Information control can be a means of pressure, an advantage due to knowledge of gaps, future economic developments, digital and spatial evaluation of enemy military forces, etc. Moreover, the availability of innovative and powerful technologies makes it possible to directly conduct attacks in cyberspace and to neutralize the enemy’s information systems. Let’s get back to the point of this book, which depicts China’s journey before taking a forward-looking (and Western) view. 

China’s lightning rise in technology and the West’s lack of vigilance

First of all, the author recalls how China has gone from customer to supplier, from spectator to imitator and finally innovator in the field of technology. China has gradually positioned itself strategically to secure significant economic advantages, more or less legally. Thirty years ago, the country was dependent on foreign technologies (communication networks, satellites, optical fiber cables). In order to get out of this dependency, which was quickly identified as a weakness by the CCP, Beijing chose to invest through national companies in the construction of digital infrastructures, which are cheaper and less risky than transport infrastructures2Le dessous des cartes, édition spéciale Chine, October 15th, 2022..

The rise of Huawei Technologies is a perfect example. Founded by Chinese entrepreneur Ren Zhengfei, the company has implemented an unfair and pernicious strategy, like many others accused of plundering the know-how of Western companies under the guise of temporary joint ventures. On the one hand, Huawei’s growth can be explained by the choice of using many foreign “brains”: the company called on the management advice of various American companies and consulting firms, to get modernized. A department of legal copying of foreign technologies had been created in parallel within the Chinese company. On the other hand, Huawei has developed its offer abroad and has connected very sparsely populated areas with low resources, which did not interest Western operators, attracted by more profitable markets. In 2019, 70% of the 4G infrastructure in Africa came from Huawei. The company is now present in Iraq and Cuba, as well as in various countries outlawed by the international community such as Afghanistan, where Huawei installed its equipment during the “surge” period3Period of US troop reinforcement beginning in 2009.. The author also mentions the fall of the American company Nortel, which joined forces with China Unicom (a Chinese tech giant largely supported by the state) and whose purchased technologies were copied via access to internal networks (the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unit 61 398 was allegedly involved). 

However, Jonathan Hillmann insists that China has largely exploited legal loopholes. For him, the notion that China “cheated” is a comforting but truncated view. The United States and the Western world have made various mistakes. First, some companies were too greedy and considered some investments as easy income, while China saw it as an opportunity to appropriate technological know-how: “technology transfers are irreversible while access to economic markets comes and goes like the wind”. Moreover, the United States has hoped for too long that information technology would develop democracy in China and connect its society to the world, while ironically it has instead been used to connect Chinese society to the Communist Party. Finally, Western investment in world connectivity, especially in rural areas, has not been significant enough. Huawei offered an attractive, economically advantageous and rapidly deployable alternative that appealed to many “neglected” areas.

Beyond China’s unfair and dishonest strategy, it is obvious to Jonathan Hillman that its use of information technologies seems problematic from an ethical point of view and that the West must oppose it. The author evokes the use of technologies in the treatment of Uyghurs: interned in re-education camps in Xinjiang, the members of this ethnic group have been tracked by the innumerable surveillance cameras present in China, their cell phones are traced and abounded with Chinese propaganda. In addition, China exploits tools to influence public opinion. For example, the country has an army of fictitious “trolls”, which would simulate each year about 448 million comments, tweets4King Gary, Pan Jennifer et Roberts Margaret, How the Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for Strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument, Presse de l’université de Cambridge, July 27th 2017., etc. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these trolls would have distilled lies on Chinese social networks, taking part in an influence strategy aimed at diminishing the importance of Covid and glorifying the actions of CCP members. 

The remaining weaknesses of the Red Dragon

If China seems to represent a threat to its “partners” and to human rights, its capabilities should not be overestimated. First, the technical and security reliability of Chinese equipment is questionable. For example, in Pakistan, the city of Lahore has been equipped with Chinese smart city technologies. The project relied on advanced artificial intelligence technology, used for facial recognition, vehicle license plate tracking, traffic management and is fully integrated with the Punjab Police Force. Apparently, 35% of the cameras did not work in 2021, preventing the surveillance of many roads and entire parts of the city. In addition, the closed nature of the Chinese internet appears to be a major weakness. A fortress protected by a “digital Great Wall of China”, China’s infrastructure has difficulty connecting to the global internet due to the limited number of “gateways” to the outside world. This is the “Autonomous Systems” (AS), a set of Internet Protocol (IP) computer networks integrated to the Internet, which master the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), that allow internet connections5Sheldon Robert, Definition of autonomous system (AS), Tech target Network, August 2021.. China has only 2 of the 30 most important ones in the world, able to intercept 90% of the world traffic towards the country (some contents are thus filtered and blocked). Moreover, China is also lagging behind in several areas that could prove critical in the future: submarine cables, semiconductors, clouds and servers, and low earth orbit satellites. Factors holding back progress in these areas include the exorbitant costs of installing these technologies and the costs of transitioning from one infrastructure system to another. 

What reactions from the United States and the Western world? 

For the author, it is not too late to react. The United States must not allow China to impose itself in the field of digital technologies. The author proposes a Coalition of Open and Resilient Economies (The CORE), composed of Australia, France, Canada, South Korea, Japan, Germany and the UK. Often allied through varied treaties, these countries are united by the democratic aspect of their political system. Two major issues must guide the relations between these states: 

  • The development of transatlantic relations and the harmonization of legal and ethical frameworks for the use of technologies (taxes, data protection, etc.);
  • The development of relations with India and the desire to include it as a stakeholder in the Western world. 

However, various difficulties persist and remind us of the difficulty for such an alliance to emerge. Regarding Europe, the Snowden affair has cooled France and Germany’s cooperation with the Anglo-Saxon states. Donald Trump’s acts of breaking away from multilateralism (withdrawal from the Paris agreements on the environment and from the Iran nuclear deal) have also contributed to the climate of mistrust that prevails towards the United States. Moreover, the ethical framework and regulations regarding personal data are not the same in Europe and the United States and the divide seems deep. The perception of the Chinese threat also varies within this group of countries. Regarding India, the country will have to clarify its position and its relationship with authoritarianism. Its data protection regulations are quite authoritarian and the country has already cut off the internet to the Jammu and Kashmir regions for more than six months during a very tense political context.


In conclusion, “the CORE” and the United States must find the right balance between action and overreaction because of the paranoia and fear surrounding Chinese power. The author concludes by recommending that citizens hold their governments accountable, that companies remain vigilant, and that states embrace the subject of new technologies. This book depicts a very dark picture for Europe and convincingly warns against Chinese progress. However, there are some shortcomings. The author only conveys a low level of information about China’s offensive strategy in cyberspace and the means engaged by the Chinese political authority in this matter. This is probably due to the difficulty of obtaining such information. Moreover, the point of view of the book is excessively Western and even American-centric, and the threat posed by China seems to lead inevitably to a confrontation between China and the “Western camp” aligned with the United States. The author thus does not seem to imagine any other path than confrontation. This realistic approach can nevertheless be understood when one considers how wrong the liberal belief in the democratizing effect of technology was and how “locked” and disconnected from the world the country seems to be.


By Simon Zucho

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