China’s Surveillance Eye on the African Continent

Chinese investment in the African continent has witnessed a staggering upshoot in the past two decades. Infrastructural projects ranging from roadways, railways, ports, electricity hubs, fishing industries to telecommunication frameworks are quite rampant across the continent. Most of these projects seem to be financed through the Chinese developmental banks; yet the terms and conditions of these arrangements have been kept quite secretive leading to suspicion that they contain unfavourable provisions for the host nations. The African continent combined altogether owes China a deficit of $93 billion dollars which is predicted to reach an astounding $153 billion in the coming years.

A more worrying scenario however, is the growing surveillance that China has created within different African countries in the continent. An astounding number of governmental buildings have been constructed by the Chinese for over 35 African nations. In 2018, a French newspaper broke the news of Chinese entities stealing sensitive data from the African Union’s building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The computer servers in the building were found to have rigged clusters of servers that enabled the data transfer back to Shanghai in China. It was reported that the whole process had been made easier to rig due to Chinese authority’s involvement in financing as well as facilitating the construction of the building for the African Union. The whole incident had led to widespread calls across the continent for a complete review of Chinese projects in various countries. However, in a total contrary move, not only Chinese projects in the continent but also the construction of government and ministerial buildings through Chinese funds have increased.

In a report by the Heritage Foundation, it was revealed that China has till today constructed and renovated around 186 sensitive African government buildings, 24 presidential buildings, 26 parliaments and parliamentary offices, 32 military offices and 19 ministries of foreign affairs buildings. In continuation of the same strategy and a far more serious concern, China has been facilitating the 4G network in Africa of which 70% has already been built and is planning to deploy 5G network soon in the whole continent. Countries such as Namibia. Ghana, Angola, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea and others are amongst the recipients of the greatest number of government official buildings being built by Chinese subsidiary firms or directly by the Chinese government. This has also been added with donations of office equipment including computers for ministries and parliaments in various African countries. Many opposition leaders have also on different occasions questioned the prevailing government’s decision to accept sensitive equipment from the Chinese government. It is needless to say that there is high probability that China has made such important equipment prone to Chinese malware attacks in which it can access sensitive information as similarly to the case in the AU building. Cyber-security experts have also questioned whether if African countries have the capabilities to prevent such form of infringements.    

These projects in any nation would create a sense of aspersions due to Beijing’s history of attempting to spy upon important officials from the African Union. Yet China’s surveillance desire does not seem to end with developmental projects alone. In the recent years, Chinese firms have been partnering with local administration in various African countries for technology transfer on various occasions. For instance, in Zimbabwe, the government is working with Cloud Walk, a Guangzhou based Chinese tech firm, to establish a mass facial recognition program. Many human rights activists have been advocating against the plan indicating that a partnership with the Chinese firm risks the citizens data security and biometric data sources which can be misused by Chinese authorities. Similarly, in Uganda, the police force has acquired AI enabled CCTVs from the Chinese firm Huawei, causing severe apprehensions amongst native citizens and other activists. The uneasiness has been largely caused due to the facial recognition system being misused for imprisoning over 836 supporters of opposition leader Bobi Wine. This has raised serious questions on Chinese intentions with many asking if their objective has been to indulge in local political rivalries for their benefit rather than in curbing rising crime rates; a narrative through which the program was initially initiated.

 In any case, the larger question of Chinese surveillance in the region is a serious threat that needs to be dealt with immediately. In the past two decades, China has been making significant advancements in the technology sector and Africa seems to be its trail run in terms of what it has been able to achieve in this time. The upgradation of the communication infrastructure and its data-surveillance methods have certainly stirred the pot in Africa; for the dictatorial methods of supressing dissenters is becoming prominent visible than before, more so due to Chinese technology that has caused more dissenters to be imprisoned. Yet a larger concern for the global community begins with China’s bid to use Africa to gain a significant advantage over its aspiration of global domination.

It is perhaps no hidden secret that Beijing’s outpouring investments in Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative is based out of its proposition to secure for itself important natural resources and its reserves all across the continent. Its infrastructural projects have been strategically implemented to create a network of railroads and ports so that important resources could reach its shores without obstacles. This requires China to also secure important maritime routes across the trade route and therefore countries on sea shores have been receiving China’s undivided attention for investments.

In conclusion, it is prudent to state that African nations must show restraint while considering sweetened deals from China, for the CCP has had a tarnished history in terms of its attempt in espionage on countries it has invested in. While it is important that these nations take decisions based out of their own cost-based analysis, it is all the more important that nations leave no stone unturned to secure its own nation sovereignty by maintaining its guard in the realms of cyber-security. For if not, then a Chinese nation may soon very well dictate the grounds of functioning in many if not most of the African nations.