This week, a fortnight after he mysteriously vanished, Beijing confirmed that it has detained Meng Hongwei, the President of Interpol. The move, which Human Rights Watch says shows that “no one’s immune from enforced disappearances,” marks a new phase in the country’s disrespect towards supranational bodies, and international diplomacy.
That Hongwei’s detainment comes simultaneous with the Super Micro Computer scandal, in which the San Jose, Ca-based chipmaker, better known as Supermicro, was found to have infiltrated the computer networks of almost 30 American corporations, is no coincidence. While China cracks down on domestic political dissent, efforts like Supermicro are skewing tech and trade in its favor.
Amazon and Apple were both snared by Supermicro, showing that no company is safe from state-sponsored cyber attacks. It came from a company based inside the US, too. That confirms how American lawmakers and tech firms must be far more vigilant of Chinese spycraft – at a time when investments, while hampered by President Donald Trump’s trade war, are still high.
Chinese investment in the US has dropped 92% to just $1.8 billion in the first five months of 2018. But it will soon rebound. China-Europe investment has soared by almost 100% this year, to around $40bn. Not all of this is tech but a large amount is. And while money from China is no evil, European and American tech leaders must be aware that M&A activity through Beijing comes with considerable strings, that go far beyond business.
Across central and eastern Europe China has bought the fealty of political leaders willing to turn a blind eye to human rights and privacy abuses, in return for cash. Hungary and Greece recently vetoed an EU ruling against Chinese imperialism in the South China Sea. If politicians can be bought, so can the backdoors to their leading corporations’ software.
Dystopian programs like the Social Credit System, and levels of surveillance that would make Philip K. Dick blush, are already tightening the screws on China’s population. Supermicro shows how that screw can be transferred elsewhere with relative ease. It may sound very SJW-like to draw a line between tech deals and human rights. But our connected world is increasingly narrowing that connection. If America and Europe derelict their duties towards freedom, expect more Meng Hongweis, and Supermicros, to follow.