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Iginio Gagliardone

May 20th, 2021

Chinese digital tech in Africa: moral panics and the messy reality of surveillance

1 comment | 17 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Iginio Gagliardone

May 20th, 2021

Chinese digital tech in Africa: moral panics and the messy reality of surveillance

1 comment | 17 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

  • Despite the extensive attention given to China’s digital tech engagement in Africa, there has been little sensitivity to empirical evidence and a tendency to perpetuate stereotypes.
  • To understand which forces and processes may be making the Internet less open and more vulnerable to the interests of large and powerful actors, the focus must extend well beyond China.
  • Questions about digital tech should stop treating complex artefacts and assemblages as ready-to-use gadgets, as “technologies of unfreedom” often falter or fail altogether when inserted in contexts that are very different from those where they originated.

China’s engagement with Africa is often described in hyperbolic tones, referring either to neo-colonialism and debt-traps or, less often, to win-win cooperation and investments in ‘frontier’ markets. When it comes to digital tech, this tendency has been taken even further, evoking images of a Chinese panopticon descending on African citizens, powered by companies using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to export repression.

It is now more than a decade since I started researching China-Africa relations through the deployment of digital infrastructures and the expansion of Chinese media outlets, and it is surprising – but also a bit unnerving – how the questions and claims surrounding China’s role in Africa have largely remained the same. They may have adapted to include the technology of the moment, shifting focus from tools used to censor online debates, to AI powered solutions for facial recognition and crime control, but they have continued to perpetrate similar stereotypes, and, more importantly, they have shown very little sensitivity to empirical evidence.

Media headlines and policy papers on Chinese tech and its global repercussions are becoming even more sensational suggesting that the world is entering a new digital cold war between China and the United States. Before highlighting what is missing – or even dangerous – in this approach, I will argue that a shift in perspective is needed to better understand how Chinese digital tech interacts with the complex techno-political realities characterising different African nations.  But first, it is important to clarify possible ambiguities as to where I situate my own work in this polarised debate.

While a variety of labels have been used to describe the Chinese Internet, “censored” and “authoritarian” have arguably been the most common. Scholars like Yuezhi Zhao, Guobin Yang, and more recently Shaohua Guo, Daniela Stockmann and Ting Luo, have shown us how this characterisation is reductive, but not necessarily inaccurate. It is reductive because it conceals the complexities and contradictions that have characterised the struggles to shape China’s information space. It is not inaccurate because, so far, the Chinese state has been able to impose its centralised and controlling vision on every non-state actor that has sought to propose alternative ways to use digital tools to promote political change. The constraints and persecutions on individual users and coordinated movements have been extensive and well documented, and the wrath of the state has recently reached even some of China’s own digital champions, feared for the power and visibility they have gained.

In response to accusations of authoritarianism and the tightening civic and political space, Chinese leaders have sought to propose and spin their own vision of the Internet – mostly for international consumption – combining images of a harmonious and a sovereign Internet. I have little sympathy for an idea of sovereignty centred around governments and state actors as arbiters of their national information societies – as proposed by China. If sovereign rights need to be rethought in response to failures of the Information Revolution in addressing pre-existing imbalances (one of the claims made by China in supporting its idea of sovereign Internets), starting from individual users, and from how they control their data, is a safer and at the same time more radical project.

Pointing fingers at China

What the Chinese government has done with the Internet over the past two decades has caused disillusionment – for the once widespread assumption the Internet would have democratised China – and anger – for how its resilience represents a vivid reminder of the possibility of a model that defies the ideals of freedom, openness, and user-centeredness that once powered the global information revolution. These sentiments, and the fear that a “corrupted” version of the Internet may be spreading globally, constitute a powerful obstacle to understanding the role China is actually playing in digital tech in Africa and globally. China has become an easy target to explain – often in spurious ways – why the Internet is or may be turning authoritarian in African countries run by leaders who have overstayed their term in office or who have little tolerance for dissenting voices. Pointing fingers at China has become a lazy tactic used by Western politicians, diplomats, pundits, and think-tanks to reclaim a higher moral ground. It allows them to display commitment to the free and open Internet, without 1) having to check whether their claims are backed by empirical evidence (based on the assumption of an ingrained authoritarianism in Chinese politics and tech); 2) having to acknowledge how the ideal of the free and open Internet is being corrupted by a significantly more complex combination of forces and actors, many of which are rooted in the “free world”.

So, how can China’s role in Africa’s digital present and future be understood for what it is, rather than for what is expected to be? My suggestion is to first address some of the questions that have been asked all along, and then begin to ask new questions.

Is China promoting its model, or an alternative authoritarian version of the Internet?

This question has dominated in policy circles for almost two decades, since China stepped up its presence in Africa’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector in 2005. I have offered a (book) long answer to this question here. But in short, the answer is: not really. But even if the answer was a yes, or a partial yes, it is the question itself that is problematic. It assumes – and at the same time perpetrates the idea that – a Chinese model of the Internet exists. It does not (see links to scholars above). The question also extends observations derived from how other (mostly Western) donor countries have behaved when providing assistance in the ICT sector – as they sought to promote principles and strategies that guided the evolution of their own information societies – onto China, without considering the possibility that China may operate differently. Which, as Deborah Brautigam has illustrated, is often the case. Finally, and more importantly, this question obliterates African agency.

In Ethiopia, China provided the largest loan in the history of telecommunications in Africa. More than 3 billion US dollars, used by Huawei and ZTE to completely overhaul Ethiopia’s digital infrastructure and support the government’s determination to expand access in a regime of state monopoly. Ethiopia, already an authoritarian state, allowed unprecedented entrance to Chinese capital, technology, and expertise. In theory, this should have made it the perfect site for China to experiment with transplanting its supposed model of the Internet, if such a plan existed. And yet, very little evidence of that experimentation can be found.

This does not mean the Ethiopian government did not explicitly seek out technologies that would allow it to censor dissent and surveil opponents. Quite the opposite. Ethiopian leaders, rather than being talked into relying exclusively on Chinese tech to achieve their goals, displayed a remarkable ability to shape and retain control of their own surveillance apparatus. Chinese solutions were adopted, for example, to allow lawful interception, enabling law enforcement agencies – supported in principle by a court order or other legal authorisation – to monitor users on the ethio-telecom network. The most malicious forms of surveillance, however, were carried out through software or services offered by companies headquartered in Europe, not in China. The Italian company Hacking Team was contracted to target Ethiopian journalists and opposition leaders in the diaspora, using spyware to access their files, passwords, and intercept their communications. FinSpy, a commercial software developed by UK- and Germany-based Gamma International, was purchased to perform similar operations. In a final ironic twist, thanks to classified information leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, we have evidence that Ethiopian spies acquired some of the skills needed to make use of these tools and plan surveillance operations through training offered not by Chinese, but by American intelligence.

If we turn to Ghana and Kenya, two countries recognised as more democratic and characterised by an open and liberalised digital space, the picture is significantly different. Chinese companies, backed by Chinese export credits, became just one of the many actors engaged in laying down national backbones to provide faster and more widespread connectivity. And if we expand the focus to other countries on the continent, we find similar experiences. The strategy adopted by the Chinese government in the digital sector seems informed not by the ambition to push a specific model onto African governments, but rather by a significant disposition to adapt to what is being asked. In some cases, this can include offering instruments for governments to intercept encrypted communications and track political opponents, as happened in Uganda and Zambia. But to understand which forces and processes may be making the Internet less open and more vulnerable to the interests of large and powerful actors, the focus must extend well beyond China.

Technologies, societies, politics, norms

What types of questions should then be asked to better understand how Chinese influence, technology, and investments are intersecting with the distinct digital trajectories different countries in Africa have charted, and with what consequences? More than the wording itself, what is needed are new formats and tones, geared towards uncovering what is, rather than what it is likely to be. Researchers need to be asking questions that do not sound already like – often one sided – hypotheses. Questions about digital tech should stop treating complex artefacts and assemblages as gadgets, ready to use and produce their desired – or undesired – effects once they are deployed. They should allow space, conceptually and empirically, to trace how technologies and projects emerged in specific socio-technical contexts can morph, stumble, or fail when they are inserted in different settings, interacting with new sets of norms, politics, and uses.

An example can clarify this point. Much attention has been placed in the past few years on the deployment of Huawei’s Safe City and ZTE’ Smart City projects in Africa, and globally. The solutions of urban surveillance developed by the two Chinese companies are layered and relatively distinct, but they both rely in essence on operation centres analysing vast amounts of data in real time, sourced from sensors and cameras deployed across the city. They offer services ranging from mundane smart metering to more worrying emergency assessments aimed at keeping ‘social peace’, and predictive policing. Their deployment across the globe has been received, once again, with a sense of moral panic, stressing how Huawei and ZTE’s solutions represent a threat to civil liberties. They certainly have the ingredients for being so.

These reactions, however, are based on a paradoxical understanding of what technology does. They seem to presuppose that surveillance technologies, aided somehow by their more sinister and cunning nature, will succeed in producing their desired effects, where the liberation technologies that for many years we have expected to free the world from abuse and authoritarianism have failed.

Data emerging from Asia and Africa, however, has begun to reveal how Huawei’s own promises of curbing crime and improving centralised city management clash with the – quite predictable – complexity of the socio-political and technological realities of different locales. Reports from Pakistan, one of the main beneficiaries of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, indicate that, after a slight reduction in the year following the installation of Huawei’s Safe City in the country’s major urban centres, violent crime has continued to rise. Kenya, an early African adopter of Huawei’s Safe City, experienced a similar trajectory, with crime rates apparently unaffected by the installation of new surveillance technologies in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Similar to “liberation technologies”, “technologies of unfreedom” also have to relate to the complex techno-political realities of countries that have experienced trajectories in the evolution of their information societies that are dramatically different from China’s. They often faltered or failed altogether when inserted in contexts that are very different from those where they originated.

In conclusion, while China’s role in digital infrastructure in Africa has been massive, its involvement has also offered huge opportunities for oversimplification, reducing complex processes to the influence of one actor and opposing stereotyped versions of the open vs the closed Internet. State and corporate surveillance, from the East, from the West, and from within the African continent, are indeed threats to the users that were once supposed to be ones shaping cyberspace, but it is not by focusing on only one element of this complex equation, that we can bring some of the power back to the users.


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Iginio Gagliardone

Iginio Gagliardone is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Associate Research Fellow in New Media and Human Rights in the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP), University of Oxford. He holds a PhD from the LSE and has been living between Italy, Ethiopia, the UK, and South Africa, researching the relationship between new media, political expression, and human development, and exploring the emergence of distinctive models of the information society in the Global South. His most recent publications include “China, Africa, and the future of the Internet” (ZED, 2019), “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” (UNESCO, 2018), and “The Politics of Technology in Africa” (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

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