The Impact of Chinese digital neocolonialism on human rights and civil liberties in Africa

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Far from being liberating and spurring on democracy and human rights, Chinese digital technology has become an indispensable tool for state censorship and surveillance. Since the launch of the “Great Firewall” more than two decades ago, China has long pioneered digital authoritarianism. President Xi Jinping’s government has vastly expanded domestic surveillance, strengthening the Communist Party’s hold on society.

Rapid advances in surveillance technology and growing police access to user data have turned China into a “techno-dystopia” and have facilitated the prosecution of prominent human rights advocates and ordinary users. Ethnic and religious minorities are surveilled and persecuted for their spiritual and cultural expression, or for exposing human rights abuses. In Xingjiang, for example, authorities collect biometric data, including voice samples and DNA, and use facial recognition technology to identify, classify and track Uyghur Muslims.

This increased emphasis on domestic censorship and surveillance is also fuelling a new generation of companies that manufacture sophisticated surveillance technology that could underpin a “future of tech-driven authoritarianism . . . leading to a loss of privacy on an industrial scale”. As part of President Jinping’s strategy to transform China into a “cyber superpower”,  the government and technology companies are engaging in a sustained effort to export the technology of the country’s information control system around the globe – including to Africa.

The Chinese blueprint for digital authoritarianism has the potential for developing surveillance societies in China’s image, particularly in African countries with poor human rights records, where democratic institutions are either weak or still in their infancy. The current use of Chinese technology exports to the continent, especially facial recognition technology, raises grave human rights concerns. Repressive-leaning governments in Africa might use centralised biometric databases to target political opponents and may reinforce bias and discrimination against specific parts of the population.

Chinese Technological Penetration in Africa

Chinese technological penetration in Africa raises the spectre of “digital neocolonialism”, that is, China’s application of economic and political pressures through technology to control and influence African nations.

Although China’s presence in Africa has been growing steadily for 20 years, it started escalating drastically in 2013 following Beijing’s unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a trillion-dollar soft-power international development strategy to extend China’s influence in host countries through bilateral loans and infrastructure projects. Most African countries have enthusiastically embraced the BRI. China has emerged as the largest source of financing for infrastructure projects in Africa, and evidence of its influence is on display everywhere on the continent.

China is also sponsoring education and training for the next generation of African leaders, bureaucrats, students and entrepreneurs by hosting tens of thousands of African university and post-graduate students annually and offering thousands of scholarships to African students. The Hanban (the Chinese Language Council) has also founded 59 Confucius Institutes in Africa to propagate Chinese language and culture.

The BRI includes a major emphasis on information technology. In Africa, China is unrivalled on the technological front. Large swaths of the continent now rely on Chinese companies for their telecommunications and digital services. China Telecom plans to lay a 150,000 kilometre fibre optic network covering 48 African nations.

Transsion Holdings, a Shenzhen-based company, has overtaken Samsung as the leading smartphone provider in Africa. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has built 70% of the 4G networks and most of the 2G and 3G networks on the continent, vastly outpacing its European rivals. The Kenyan government has also appointed Huawei as principal advisor on its “master plan” for information and communication technologies.

ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications conglomerate, provides the Ethiopian government with infrastructure to monitor and surveil communications by opposition activists and journalists. Another Chinese company, H3C, will construct the Nigerian airport’s new telecommunications network. Hikvision has established an office in Johannesburg and rolled out 15 000 cameras throughout the Johannesburg metropolitan area in 2019.

The recent inroads of Chinese technology firms in Africa, despite American warnings of Huawei cybersecurity fears, are evidence that internet access trumps almost all other considerations of African governments.

Impact on Human Rights and Civil Liberties in Africa

Considering the costs and difficulty of developing these technologies, many African nations – through the lure of easy loans and investments – now depend on Chinese technology. Dangerous is that the Chinese model of sprawling censorship and automated surveillance systems is leading to a dramatic reduction in digital freedom across the continent and imperilling emerging democracy.

China promotes digital authoritarianism as a way for African governments to control their citizens in the name of securing “public order”. For example, technology provided by ZTE over the past 20 years has been integral to the Ethiopian government’s monitoring of private citizens and organisations, especially those who are critical of the government. The government’s complete control over Ethiopia’s telecommunications system has been linked to the erosion of privacy, freedom of expression and association, and access to private information.

Arrests, interrogations and detention have followed the government’s illegal surveillance of its citizens. The Oromo population have been particularly targeted. Human Rights Watch has found that this has led to considerable self-censorship amongst the Ethiopian population.

Advanced surveillance system company Huawei aggressively seeks new markets in sub-Saharan Africa. It has introduced advanced “safe city” platforms, facial recognition and provides advanced analytic capabilities to repressive governments. The Wall Street Journal found that Huawei technicians in Uganda and Zambia have helped governments spy on opponents.

At an academic conference of African mayors and local government officials in Mombassa, Kenya, in 2019, Huawei pitched a vision centred on surveillance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and 5G communication networks, in which a citizen’s every movement is tracked and then captured in a searchable database.

Through seminars and official visits, the Chinese government is actively advising media elites and government officials in BRI countries to follow its lead on internet censorship. According to Freedom House, “increased activity by Chinese companies and officials in Africa preceded the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Uganda and Tanzania” (whose largest trading partner is China) during 2018.

Tanzania has a history of harassing critics of the government and recently introduced a statute regarding internet content that relies heavily on the Chinese model. Posting “false content” is prohibited, reminiscent of Chinese law’s prohibition on “making falsehoods”. The nebulous notion of “content that causes annoyance” is proscribed in Tanzania, just as “destroying the order of society” is in China. According to the Tanzanian government, this law was propagated to crack down on “moral decadence”; in China, “decadent” material is banned from social media.

In December 2019, Nigeria introduced the Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulation and Other Related Matters Bill that would “stifle the space for critics, human rights reporting and accountability in the country”. Similar to the sweeping provisions of China’s Cybersecurity Law, the Nigerian bill proposes to prohibit statements online deemed “likely to be prejudicial to national security” and “those which may diminish public confidence” in Nigeria’s government.

Some African governments have also ordered internet shutdowns and censorship campaigns. Internet shutdowns and social media bans have been reported in Chad (2016), Togo (2017) and Cameroon (2018). The Financial Times noted that Chad, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Mauritania had shut down the internet in the first half of 2019. In June 2019 in Sudan, “as soldiers from a government paramilitary force went on a killing spree in the capital Khartoum, the internet went dark, preventing protesters from documenting the violence on social media”.

China is projected to dominate the US$7 billion global market for facial recognition devices, with a 44.59% market share by 2023 and with CloudWalk leading all providers. However, China does not simply want to dominate the AI markets internationally, but it also wants to use developing countries as a laboratory to improve its surveillance technologies.

In April 2018, China’s CloudWalk launched a strategic cooperation agreement with the government of Zimbabwe to build a mass national facial-recognition database and monitoring system throughout cities and the public transport system, including smart financial systems (to integrate finance with technology), and, airport, railway and bus station security. Under this deal — in which the citizens of Zimbabwe did not have any say — the Zimbabwean government will send biometric data on thousands of Zimbabweans to China to build a more ethnically diverse facial recognition database upon which to train CloudWalk’s AI programs.

Gaining access to a population with a racial mix far different from that of China will give CloudWalk a vital competitive edge. Commercial facial recognition systems developed in the West and China have been plagued by a well-documented inability to accurately recognise faces with darker skin tones. The biometric records of Zimbabwean citizens are therefore crucial, not only to enhance the Chinese government’s own “tech-infused policing capacity”, but also to make CloudWalk’s products more effective and thus commercially attractive.

It is clear that CloudWalk intends to use Zimbabwe as a large research laboratory. Amy Hawkins, writing in Foreign Policy, comments that the people of Zimbabwe will not see any return on the research that their personal data has facilitated. The CloudWalk/Harare deal does not allow individual citizens to opt out of biometric data collection. Thus, there appears to be no intra- and intergovernmental checks and balances regulating any rights which Zimbabweans might have to such data and who is responsible for protecting it.

China’s mining of Zimbabweans’ data also resurrects painful memories of the European powers pillaging Africa for its human and natural resources during the colonial era. Furthermore, the collection of such data has the potential to be dehumanising.

CloudWalk’s AI technology ensures that Zimbabwe’s government can identify, track and monitor its people. Although the professed purpose of the facial recognition technology is to combat crime in Zimbabwean cities, it could also be used to stifle opposition. Zimbabwean journalist, Garikai Dzomo, believes that “the benefits of using the database and technology to fight crime are far outweighed by the dangers the system poses to individual freedoms”. For example, facial recognition cameras could identify every individual who attends a protest. They could automatically flag “suspicious behaviour” or people who look or act in a certain way.

In Zimbabwe, freedom of expression has long been curtailed. In 2015 President Robert Mugabe accepted a gift of cyber-surveillance software from Iran, including IMSI-catchers, which enables eavesdropping on telephone conversations. Furthermore, Mugabe heralded China as an example of social media regulation that he hoped Zimbabwe could emulate in 2016.

As in China, the principle of intrusive surveillance is well-established in Zimbabwe. The 2017 Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill criminalised communicating falsehoods online — the same legal rhetoric used by China to stifle dissent. The technology provided by the CloudWalk deal will leave government opponents in Zimbabwe with even fewer places to hide.

If anything, Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe government seems even more determined to restrict freedoms. In January 2019, after days of protests over a 100% increase in fuel prices, security forces launched a crackdown in which 12 people were killed, and 600 were arrested. The Zimbabwe government also ordered its first countrywide internet shutdown. The assault on the internet was the government’s latest attempt to impose its will on the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe.

In May 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, David Kaye, concluded that the problem of pervasive technological surveillance is serious enough to warrant an immediate moratorium on the global sale and transfer of the tools of the private surveillance industry. He argues that this must be done until rigorous human rights safeguards are put in place to regulate such practices.

Some Chinese companies, such as Yitu, CloudWalk and Hikvision, explicitly export sophisticated surveillance technology to Africa. The Chinese authorities’ ongoing persecution of the Uyghur Muslims suggests that these technologies will allow authoritarian-leaning African governments to track their citizens’ every move. On a continent with a wretched history of genocide, ethnic violence and apartheid, this should give government officials pause.

Will Africa be “left behind”

Many Africans worry that they will be “left behind” in the global technology race and the corresponding transformational economic change. But the danger also looms that the developing world will become passive consumers of digital systems developed in China or, for that matter, the West for different people, cultures and situations.

Facial recognition technology has unprecedented potential for the large-scale invasion of privacy and erosion of human rights. Sifting data to look for pickpockets, robbers and terrorists can easily morph into ferreting out and repressing political dissidents. Democratic governments should resist the temptation to undermine human rights in the name of safety and security, and should refrain from sacrificing individual rights at the altar of innovation.

Africans – especially entrepreneurs active in the technology field – should consider how technology could benefit local communities and not blindly import Chinese digital technology premised on control. They will have to discern between using new technologies legitimately for traditional law enforcement purposes and using them illegitimately to solidify single-party social control and to curtail basic human rights.

With such a large part of the continent’s telecommunications infrastructure under Chinese control, African states will find it difficult to untangle themselves from China. However, the African continent is far from helpless in staunching the creep of authoritarian Chinese technology. Unlike China, many African countries have constitutions and laws that protect individual rights such as privacy and freedom of expression. Furthermore, Africans can call upon the international human rights framework to address violations, and they have access to a robust regional human rights system that could be mobilised to constrain repressive Chinese technology.

Chinese investment and technological innovation in Africa should not lead to the resurrection of the spectre of neo-colonial exploitation. A people hoping to reap the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the betterment of the quality of life of all Africa’s citizens, should play a central role in determining crucial technological issues for the continent. The voices of Africans must be prioritised at every step of the way from designing to developing to implementing technology, and — most importantly — in establishing a policy and legal framework within which these technologies will operate.

Willem Gravett is an Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria.

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