Q&A: China’s Internet governance model and the rise of digital surveillance in Africa

Eric Olander speaks about Chinese digital surveillance in Africa.


How strong are the links between the Chinese government and Zimbabwe?

The ties between China and Zimbabwe go back decades are very important to understanding this relationship today. Many of Zimbabwe’s senior leaders, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga received, were trained in China back in the early 60s. The president was part of something called the “Crocodile Gang”, a group of militant ZANU officials, who studied Marxism and combat training in China. So, the ties run really deep. And it goes both ways. Robert Mugabe was designated with the title “Old Friend” by the Chinese leadership and that explains why even though it may not have been in China’s economic interests to stick by Mugabe as long as they did, these relationships matter to the Chinese. You can’t overstate how deep the ties go between these two governments. They go back a long way together and there’s no indication either side is wavering in their mutual commitment to one another.

Some analysts have said to implement the new legislation, the administration “will lean on China for technology and expertise” in order to monitor and regulate social media data. Do you think this is a possibility? Is there evidence to back up the claim?

I haven’t seen any evidence that proves that Zimbabwe will “lean on China” for help with its new surveillance system but I never really expected to see any regardless because this kind of thing doesn’t happen in the open. It’s not a public process so we shouldn’t really expect to see any evidence if and when these systems are actually operational. That said, we probably don’t need a lot of evidence to draw the conclusion that China will likely lend its expertise to building this kind of digital surveillance given the trust that exists between these two governments and China’s expertise in this area. Plus, the Chinese have an entire mechanism in place to provide the financing, implementation, and training on how to use technology like this, so again, it’s not a giant leap to think they are well-positioned to provide this kind of service to the Zimbabwe government should officials in Harare want it.

This is a very crowded market in Africa with US, European and Israeli companies all in the same space. After all, we know that the NSA in the US built digital surveillance tools for the Ethiopians, for example, so to make this a “Chinese thing” is only telling part of the story.

Have we seen Chinese technology being deployed in other African countries to help governments’ control social media and censor the internet? 

There is considerable evidence that shows how African telecommunications networks are integrating Chinese technologies and methods into their networks to facilitate surveillance and censorship. In fact, the record is so full of examples here that it’s not really any kind of secret that this kind of thing is happening. But I think we need to look at this from a different perspective. The Chinese are not forcing any African government to implement this technology. I don’t say that relieve the Chinese government or Chinese companies from any responsibility here but rather to suggest the ultimate burden lies with the host government and that is where the focus should be. Secondly, while the Chinese are certainly prolific with sales of their digital surveillance technologies, they are by no means alone. This is a very crowded market in Africa with US, European and Israeli companies all in the same space. After, we know that the NSA in the US built digital surveillance tools for the Ethiopians (“In exchange for local knowledge and an advantageous location, the NSA provided the East African nation with technology and training integral to electronic surveillance.“) so to make this a “Chinese thing” is only telling part of the story.

Stepping back even further and looking at this through an even wider lens, the issues of censorship and surveillance is also about China’s view of internet governance compared to that of the US/EU/JPN. In China, the idea of “Internet Sovereignty” means that each country can set its own standards for how it manages online activity and no other country has the right to comment or criticize. That notion of a closed, controlled, censored Internet is offensive to many people in the West but it has a lot of fans in autocratic countries, including some in Africa, who are increasingly modelling their own internet governance standards along the same lines as the Chinese. In my view, THAT is the bigger, more important story here.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here