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International relations

Japan grows wary of China's smart-city global standards

Competition and national security concerns arise if Beijing takes the lead

Surveillance cameras overlook a street in Beijing. China plans to construct more than 100 smart cities across the country, replete with facial recognition cameras and drones.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has grown increasingly concerned about China's proposed international standards for smart cities, worried about a competitive disadvantage as companies vie for business.

China has already submitted smart-city proposals to both the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, and the International Electrotechnical Commission, according to a source close to the government here.

Three of the seven confirmed proposals from China are due to come up for a vote around year-end. A new standard needs a two-thirds supermajority to pass.

Should China's proposals become the international standard, this would have repercussions for not only Japanese and Western companies, but also national security.

China has independently submitted 16 proposals to establish committees within the ISO and IEC since 2014, a March survey shows, accounting for 25% of the total. Japan has submitted only two proposals. Normally, the country that proposes the committee takes its organizing post.

Japan is aligned with the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany on the international bodies. But China can count on African and Middle Eastern support. If passed, Chinese standards will go into force after about three years of deliberation.

The contents of the Chinese proposals have not been made public but appear related to residential surveillance systems in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, based on the titles and the table of contents.

The proposals deal with handling data tied to monitoring residents and tracking movements during public health emergencies, the Japanese government said in an internal memo.

China is using "health code" apps to track people's movements and curb the virus's spread. An individual's infection risk is determined by analyzing GPS data and medical records. Visitors to shopping centers and transit stations are asked to show their color-coded health codes on their smartphone screens before entering.

Supporting the health codes is the Chinese government's strategic platform that collects data on citizens. China plans to construct more than 100 smart cities across the country, replete with facial recognition cameras and drones.

China is accused of using facial recognition to track residents of Xinjiang, home to the Uighur minority.

"China's Communist Party is building a surveillance state unlike anything the world has ever seen," U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in a speech last October. Authorities make ethnic minorities give up blood samples, fingerprints and iris scans, he said.

"China is now exporting to countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East the very same technological tools that it uses in its authoritarian regime -- tools that it's deployed in places like Xinjiang," Pence said.

Smart cities use artificial intelligence and big data to run urban centers in an energy-saving manner. But Japan and Western countries seek a balance between privacy and technological convenience. Global spending on smart-city initiatives will rise about 20% on the year to $124 billion in 2020, according to IDC.

The World Trade Organization calls on members to craft their domestic standards based on the international standard. Should China's proposals gain sway, Chinese companies would have a leg up even in such areas as government procurement.

Japan will seek to have a greater voice in setting international standards by creating a cabinet-level office in fiscal 2020. The idea is to actively install Japanese representatives on standards committees abroad and to map out a strategy at home.

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