Analysts say they began to notice the drop in shipping traffic towards the end of October, as China prepared to enact data privacy legislation.

Usually, maritime data companies are able to track ships around the world because they are equipped with an automatic identification system, or AIS, transceiver.

This system allows vessels to send information, such as position, speed, course and name, to stations based along the coast using a high frequency radio. If a vessel is out of range of these stations, information can be exchanged by satellite.

But this is not happening in the world’s second-largest economy, a key player in global trade. In the past three weeks, the number of vessels sending signals from the country has fallen by nearly 90%, according to data from global maritime data provider VesselsValue.

“We are currently seeing an industry-wide reduction in terrestrial AIS signals in China,” said Charlotte Cook, chief business analyst at VesselsValue.

New data law could worsen supply chain chaos

When asked about the matter, China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment. The State Council’s Information Office, which serves as the press office for the country’s cabinet, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why carriers were losing access to data. .

But analysts believe they have found the culprit: China’s Personal Information Protection Law, which went into effect on November 1. fear in Beijing that such data will end up in the hands of foreign governments.

The law does not mention shipping data. But Chinese data providers could withhold information as a precaution, according to Anastassis Touros, AIS team leader at Marine Traffic, a major provider of vessel tracking information.

“Every time you have a new law, we have a period where everyone has to check to see if things are going well. “ said Touros.

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Other industry experts have more clues as to the influence of the law. Cook said colleagues in China told him some AIS transponders were taken from stations based along China’s coast earlier this month, on instructions from national security authorities. The only systems allowed to remain were to be installed by “qualified parties”.

All the data has not disappeared: satellites can still be used to capture signals from ships. But Touros said that when a ship is close to shore, the information gathered in space is not as good as that which can be gathered on the ground.

“We need ground stations to have a better picture, a higher quality picture,” he added.

As Christmas approaches, a loss of information from mainland China – home to six of the world’s 10 busiest container ports – could create more problems for an already struggling global shipping industry. Supply chains have been strained this year as heavily congested ports struggle to meet rapidly rebounding demand for goods.
Supply chain stress escalates and shows no signs of fading, says Moody's Analytics

Shipping companies rely on AIS data to forecast vessel movements, track seasonal trends and improve port efficiency, according to Cook of VesselsValue. She said the lack of Chinese data “could have a significant impact on the visibility of the ocean supply chain across China.” The country is one of the world’s largest importers of coal and iron ore, as well as a huge exporter of containers.

“As we move into Christmas time, this will have a very big impact on [supply chains] and that’s the most important thing right now, “said Georgios Hatzimanolis, media strategist for Marine Traffic. He expects the loss of ‘minute by minute’ vessel data from China to have” a significant impact on the supply chain “, as companies can lose crucial information about the mooring, unloading and departure times of vessels.

The global supply chain is already under “great strain”, he added. “He doesn’t need another factor to make it more difficult.”

Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan seen in August.  Experts fear that a lack of data on shipments from China could strain the global supply chain.

China’s self-isolation

China’s desire to maintain absolute control over all data and information within its borders is not surprising, as President Xi Jinping continues to reaffirm the dominance of the ruling Communist Party in all aspects of economy and society.

The country has pushed for economic self-sufficiency as it faces external threats, such as US sanctions on key technologies.
Xi stressed his goals of self-sufficiency in the years leading up and during a bitter trade and technology war with former US President Donald Trump. This is the subject, for example, of “Made in China 2025”, an ambitious plan aimed at pushing the Chinese manufacturing sector towards more advanced technological fields.
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Some senior Beijing officials recently tried to allay concerns from global investors that the country is isolating itself from the rest of the world as it prioritizes national security.

Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, seen as Xi’s trusted ally, told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore that China would not “develop in isolation from the world.” Speaking by video, he also called on countries to keep supply chains “stable and smooth”.

But China has adopted policies during the coronavirus pandemic that often appear to do otherwise.

For example, during the pandemic, Xi redoubled efforts for self-reliance, stressing the need to create “independent and controllable” supply chains to ensure national security.
And the country’s sweeping crackdown on technology spilled over to foreign IPOs this summer, when China’s Cyberspace Administration proposed that large companies with more than one million customers seek approval before listing their. actions abroad. As with the recent data privacy law, the agency has raised concerns about whether personal data held by these companies could be exploited by foreign governments.

China’s actions this year could come at a cost, however, if the country goes too far in its attempt to hedge against perceived foreign interference.

– CNN’s Beijing office contributed to this report.