The World’s Highest and Fastest Cell Service Could Have Geopolitical Implications

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

While most of China was quarantined and Mount Everest was closed to climbers due to COVID-19, a herd of nearly 50 yaks made their way up the snowy north slopes of the world’s highest mountain in temperatures that dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit. On their backs were loads of equipment—metal beams, cables, and solar panels strapped down with cord—that would be used to build 5G antennas on rocky moraines scattered across the mountainside.

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Chinese tech giant Huawei and state-owned network provider China Mobile teamed up for this project to bring the latest in wireless data to Everest, which previously had very little cell coverage above base camp. Now, data speeds in the “death zone” on Everest, where the altitude is too high and the air is too thin to support life, are faster than in most American neighborhoods.

In a press release, Huawei stated that the new super-fast data speeds on Everest will be used for “smart tourism”—with high-definition video streaming and virtual reality experiences for digital tourists to “visit” Everest from anywhere in the world. Huawei said the 5G network would also serve as a useful tool for mountaineers and scientists on the mountain. There will be better communication during rescues if climbers get injured or caught in bad weather, and tourists traveling from afar can keep up with their social media. Ru Zhigang, a Chinese mountaineer and influencer on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok; they are owned by the same company), has already put this tool to use by livestreaming a Q&A for his fans from base camp. But not everyone believes China’s intentions behind this huge investment stop there. Given China’s politics in the Himalayas, there are reasons to be suspicious of 5G on top of the world.

China laid claim to Tibet, home of the ethnic Tibetan people, following an invasion by the People’s Liberation Army—the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China—in 1950. Tibet, now officially called the Tibet Autonomous Region, is the second-largest province in China by area and the highest-elevation region in the world. The southern border of Tibet is drawn by the Himalaya Mountains, and the summit of Mount Everest separates China from its neighbor Nepal. Since asserting power in Tibet, China has held a firm grasp on its control by militarizing the border between Tibet and Nepal, developing infrastructure across the province and into the mountains, and hiding its activities—particularly human rights violations against the Tibetan people—behind a curtain that few journalists have been allowed past.

Professional climber Conrad Anker, who has climbed Everest three times since the late ’80s (before there was even electricity at base camp), thinks connecting the Himalayas to high-speed data will provide opportunities for the people of Tibet. But he said a downside is the loss of cultural identity that could come with the stream of media on the internet. This is of great concern for the Tibetan people, who have struggled since the 1950s to preserve their cultural traditions and Buddhist religion under China’s repressive rule. China has said that modern communications will improve the lives of Tibetans living in poverty. But this comes at a cost. The internet in Tibet, like the rest of China, is censored by the government, and it’s rife with alternative facts designed to hide the history of Tibet’s sovereignty before 1950.

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Approximately 2,500 Tibetans try to flee China every year to join their leader the Dalai Lama in India where he has been in exile since 1959. In India, the Dalai Lama encourages refugees to educate themselves on their Tibetan culture, something that is not possible in Tibet, where people are imprisoned for flying Tibetan flags, singing Tibetan songs, or voicing support for the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, China has provided incentives for Han Chinese migrants to move to Tibetan cities, further solidifying Chinese dominance in the region. The Dalai Lama has called it “cultural genocide.”

Developing infrastructure and amenities, including the 5G stations on Everest, serves China’s goal of Tibetan erasure. China has had a great interest in developing rural parts of Tibet since the ’90s, when it started investing billions of dollars to build roads, hotels, malls, railways, mines, and military stations to exploit resources in the region and force Tibetan herdsmen out of their rural and nomadic lives.

In the past, Nepal was the more popular side for climbers and tourists. But in recent years, China has invested in development to entice travelers to use its side of the mountain. There is a paved auto road all the way up to base camp in China, whereas in Nepal, the approach to Everest base camp is a 10-day trek. Many high-end guide services have now moved their operations to China from Nepal. Sibusiso Vilane, a South African mountaineer and two-time summiter of Everest, thinks 5G will be a big draw. He called himself a “yesteryear mountaineer,” more interested in disconnecting in search of solitude and natural beauty in the mountains. But Vilane sees how the younger generation wants to stay connected, and he thinks being able to post live from expeditions on social media will excite future generations to take up the sport of mountaineering.

It may seem odd to draw tourists to a region where human rights violations are regular. But China’s agenda benefits from flooding the Himalayas with millions of dollars from foreign travelers. It helps demonstrate the legitimacy of China’s power in Tibet, and it further turns the impoverished nation into a capital of globalization. Tibet is considered a commercial and political gateway between China and South Asia, and despite its Communist identity, the Chinese government is intent on capitalizing on the market in Tibet.

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India expressed concern last year about the potential for 5G’s military applications after China built 5G stations near Tibet’s border with India. Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who researches Chinese military innovation, wrote for Defense One, “China’s agenda for 5G can be linked to its strategy for national and defense ‘informatization.’ … 5G could improve battlefield communications with faster and more stable information transmission.”

5G is expected to be 10 times faster than the 4G that most people have experienced on their smartphones since 2012. More speed means more powerful applications and more functionality from mobile devices. It also means 5G is well suited to support the high levels of data transfer required for artificial intelligence and the connecting of machines through the Internet of Things, which experts believe can better support military activities like border monitoring and weapons deployment.

In a post published by the Brookings Institution, Kania wrote that the Chinese military has been investing significantly in applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In late June, the U.S. Defense Department produced a list of 20 companies, including Huawei and China Mobile, alleging they have been backed by the Chinese military.

It’s not just China exploring the military applications of 5G. The United States has been eager to get in on the action too. The Defense Department, the Army, and the Air Force have been pushing for investments in 5G mobile technology. They have expressed particular interest in the network’s capabilities to improve supply chain management. But 5G could also improve drone accuracy and facial recognition software used by the military.

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China’s Himalayan border is heavily militarized, and a big focus of the military activity is capturing refugees. Near Cho Oyu, the sixth-highest mountain in the world (18 miles west of Everest), a military base specifically intended to capture and sometimes kill refugees sits at 16,000 feet with a view of Nangpa La (an icy pass over the border between Tibet and Nepal). These surveillance efforts could be aided greatly by a high-mountain 5G network. In 2006, climbers on Cho Oyu filmed Chinese border guards firing assault rifles at Tibetans trying to flee China by crossing Nangpa La. Kelsang Namtso, a 17-year-old nun, was shot and killed. The footage shocked the world. But it wasn’t an isolated act. In Jonathan Green’s book about the incident, Murder in the High Himalaya, the Dalai Lama said, “They have been killing and shooting like this for years!” Green wrote of the Dalai Lama’s frustration that the West has long ignored bloodshed in Tibet.

There’s no way to know for sure what China has planned for its high-speed network in the Himalayas. Improving communications for climbers, researchers, and tourists is certainly part of it. But what other strategic purposes these 5G stations serve can only be assumed from China’s repressive and domineering record in the region. If these political implications can be validated, then it means the climbers and tourists that this new technology is outwardly marketed at are merely pawns on China’s complex geopolitical chessboard.


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