Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
digital world
digital world

China’s Eyes Are Watching Africa Closely

In exchange for help with high-tech communication systems, China gets to install mass surveillance technology

Depending on who you talk to, the twenty-year relationship between China and several countries in the African Union has been described as everything from mutually beneficial to asymmetric and dysfunctional right down to exploitative and neo-colonialist. Recent pre-COVID-19 surveys indicate that citizens of several African nations see their country’s interaction with China as largely positive. But if some African science fiction writers are any indicator, others see a dystopian future. The current onslaught of high-tech surveillance technologies from China provides a chance to compare the two views.

Recently, I have written about racial tensions between African nationals and local government in Guangzhou amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and about how the pandemic has worsened African countries’ debt crisis, particularly due to Chinese infrastructure projects. In this article we will look at China’s efforts to export surveillance technologies to Africa, particularly in light of the country’s extensive surveillance measures in Xinjiang and other mainland areas.

Spying on the African Union (AU)

China has a history of using cyberespionage to gain political and economic advantage. According to a 2020 Heritage Foundation report on China, 95% of economic espionage cases reported by over 165 American firms could be traced to Chinese hackers. The government of China placed covert surveillance technologies in government buildings it funded and built in Africa. One such example was discovered in 2018 at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

In January 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that servers installed by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the African Union (AU) headquarters were daily uploading their content to servers based in Shanghai, China. An inspection of the building—built by the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation—also uncovered listening devices hidden throughout the building.

Joshua Meservey, “Government Buildings in Africa Are a Likely Vector for Chinese Spying” at The Heritage Foundation (May 20, 2020)

The discovery was apparently made when a technician noticed a spike in data usage on the servers between midnight and 2 AM due to data being transferred to Shanghai via a “backdoor” in the telecommunication infrastructure. Anonymous sources told Le Monde that even after the situation was brought to authorities’ attention, they did nothing for about a year.

The Le Monde report was subsequently verified by other media outlets but the African heads of state and Beijing both deny that China was spying on the AU headquarters.

world planet earth Europe. elements of this image furnished by NASA 3d-illustration

Chinese company Huawei, which has come under scrutiny by the U.S. and other countries, provided the servers and technical infrastructure when the AU building was constructed in 2012. For five years daily content was uploaded to servers in Shanghai. When the AU servers were replaced and the building swept, security experts from Algeria found hidden microphones in desks.

The AU headquarters in Ethiopia is not the only location of concern. According to the Heritage Society report, Chinese companies have built at least 186 government buildings as well as 14 “sensitive intra-governmental telecommunications networks” in 40 of Africa’s 54 countries.

There is also the attractiveness of the opportunity: Chinese companies have built, expanded, or renovated at least 24 presidential or prime minister residences or offices; at least 26 parliaments or parliamentary offices; at least 32 military or police installations; and at least 19 ministries of foreign affairs buildings. Having surveillance access to these buildings is an extraordinary opportunity for the CCP to gather intelligence directly from the highest levels of African governments.

Joshua Meservey, “Government Buildings in Africa Are a Likely Vector for Chinese Spying” at The Heritage Foundation (May 20, 2020)

This ties into China’s lending policies for developing countries. U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios told Ross Anderson, deputy editor of The Atlantic, that China uses “predatory lending to sell telecommunications equipment at a significant discount to developing countries, which then puts China in a position to control those networks and their data.” If countries need to renegotiate the terms of their loans, they can offer China network access in exchange for lower rates. In our current global economy, data is a valuable commodity and China has positioned itself to acquire massive amounts of it.

Authoritarian Governments Use China’s Surveillance Tech to Control Citizens

Not all surveillance technologies in Africa are covert. Several African countries have bought Chinese surveillance tech for policing and surveilling citizens. These are the same technologies used in Xinjiang to oppress the Ugyhur population. Many of these countries are authoritarian states or corrupt democracies seeking security and social control. China, for its part, wants access to data for its AI technologies:

…China is already developing powerful new surveillance tools, and exporting them to dozens of the world’s actual and would-be autocracies. Over the next few years, those technologies will be refined and integrated into all-encompassing surveillance systems that dictators can plug and play.

The emergence of an AI-powered authoritarian bloc led by China could warp the geopolitics of this century. It could prevent billions of people, across large swaths of the globe, from ever securing any measure of political freedom.

Ross Anderson, “The Panopticon Is Already Here” at The Atlantic (September 2020)

Zimbabwe was one of the first African countries to employ a surveillance network developed by CloudWalk, a Chinese tech company in Guangzhou. In exchange for the technology, Zimbabwe sends images of its citizens, which give China a leg up on A.I. technologies compared to the U.S. and other Western countries:

Its terms require Harare [the capital of Zimbabwe] to send images of its inhabitants—a rich data set, given that Zimbabwe has absorbed migration flows from all across sub-Saharan Africa—back to CloudWalk’s Chinese offices, allowing the company to fine-tune its software’s ability to recognize dark-skinned faces, which have previously proved tricky for its algorithms.

Ross Anderson, “The Panopticon Is Already Here” at The Atlantic (September 2020)

Zimbabwe is one of several nations enrolled in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). According to a report in the student-run Cornell International Affairs Review, half of the 86 countries enrolled in the BRI have surveillance systems from Chinese companies. Among them are Uganda, Angola, and Ethiopia. The legality of the surveillance is unclear because some countries have very few privacy laws and, in the hands of authoritarian governments, they can easily cross the line to infringing upon citizens’ rights.

Authoritarian governments also seek control of internet content

In an interview with The Wire China, Hong Kong-based journalist James Griffiths explained,

The various Chinese telecom giants are always happy to help build out internet backbones and internet services around the world. Not so much is happening on the consumer side for software because there has been a real struggle for a lot of apps like WeChat to take off in other parts of the world. But certainly, the more sinister software surveillance — stuff that’s geared at police departments and security services — those companies are very, very active and marketing themselves to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments around the world.”

Eli Binder, “James Griffiths on How China Controls the Internet” at The Wire China (June 21, 2020)

Right now, the U.S. still beats China in AI technology, but China hopes to change that soon and, in so doing, export its authoritarian views of internet control. Several China watchers have noted that China tries to control the discussion around AI ethics and internet norms in international venues. China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a conglomerate of Asian countries that meets annually, discusses digital norms for the international community but these discussions tend to be secretive and are not translated into English. Additionally, China has tried to steer discussions on internet norms at the UN’s International Telecommunications Union for which China’s Houlin Zhao is the current secretary general.

Meanwhile, in Africa, while several governments want to incorporate Chinese technology, citizens and activists are becoming concerned over how government will use the data. As many countries have been asking themselves recently, what is the real cost of doing business with China?

More from Heather Zeiger on China and Africa:

China’s AI package for Africa includes mass surveillance technology


COVID-19 response exposes racism in China, amid harmony claims

Also: China and Africa: Debt-trap diplomacy?

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China’s Eyes Are Watching Africa Closely