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The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa

A Focus on Ethiopia and Kenya
Bulelani Jili
3.1 Introduction
To date, 16 African countries are using Chinese digital surveillance technology
(Feldstein, 2020). The digital surveillance technologies arrive predominantly
under Huawei’s “smart city” banner, as a development infrastructure and supple-
mentary technology to the Belt and Road project. Chinese ocials began pro-
moting the “Digital Silk Road” (DRS) initiative in 2015 (Kurlantzick, 2020), as
part of the Belt and Road project, aiming to expand Chinese corporate engage-
ment globally by promoting internet connectivity, digital economies, so-called
smart cities, and articial intelligence. Digital infrastructure, from this perspec-
tive, is how politicians plan and imagine the future of African cities. Research
and media coverage disproportionally focus on Chinese reasons and incentives
for the proliferation of surveillance technology (Biryabarema, 2019; Feldstein,
2019; Parkison, Bariyo and Chin, 2019; Mozur, Kessel, and Chan, 2019). This
chapter, however, examines Beijing’s growing geopolitical footprint on the con-
tinent. It investigates the part played by local demand factors that contribute to
the growing use of digital surveillance technology. The work lends weight to an
examination of the spread of surveillance technologies as a dynamic multilateral
social process.
Based on a review of literature, the chapter investigates the impact of Chinese
surveillance tools in Africa, focusing on Kenya and Ethiopia’s capital cities:
Nairobi and Addis Ababa, respectively. Both countries have received substantial
nancial and technical assistance from China to build their digital infrastructure.
In Nairobi the digital infrastructure is Huawei-driven initiatives, consisting of
bre-optic cables, surveillance cameras, interconnected tracking devices, soft-
ware, and cloud storage systems. The aim is that these digital infrastructures
will buttress law and order in an open society. By contrast, Addis Ababa has
DOI: 10.4324/9781003274322-3
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 33
sought to expand its digital infrastructure, which consist of bre-optic cables and
cloud storage systems, while maintaining a state monopoly. In both cases, the
infrastructure is perceived to be responding to state ineciency, ambitions, and
concerns around state security. The dierence in local conditions and political
arrangement raises important questions: What eects can be observed as digital
infrastructure becomes enmeshed in local technology, discourses, and institu-
tions? What similarities are observable? What dierences in application of tech-
nology are partly contingent on dierences in sociopolitical environments?
The chapter is divided into three parts. I begin with a brief review of the
literature. Then, I discuss China’s engagement with Africa because of its domes-
tic circumstances and transnational systems of investment. By investigating
both cases (Ethiopia and Kenya) and seeking to situate the emergence of digi-
tal surveillance technologies in a web of local relations, I aim to illustrate the
factors that determine the distribution of technologies and the future of Africa–
China relations. Finally, I examine the consequences of China’s engagement
with Kenya and Ethiopia in digital technologies. I attempt to demonstrate that
Chinese companies and government are locally engaged and have agreed to sup-
port the visions of the African host countries. This argument challenges the idea
that China simply aims to export a model of digital governance and surveillance.
The chapter examines instead how Beijing engages on the terms made avail-
able both in Kenya and in Ethiopia. Critically, however, I point out that China’s
locally responsive engagements do not necessarily result in neutral outcomes.
How China chooses to dene neutrality is contingent on the promotion of polit-
ical equality among nations, which aims to maintain economic activity between
Africa and China. This posture systematically presents Beijing as an amiable
development partner while also de-emphasising its preference for state-driven
capital. In the absence of clear and robust privacy and data protection measures,
this tendency to privilege state actors regardless of the political regime type
leaves many people vulnerable to the misuse of surveillance technologies, even
though the Chinese partners profess neutral intentions. Indeed, even in the con-
text of a democratic government, the bolstering of state power reinforces the
ambitions of the state towards utilising digital technologies to conduct surveil-
lance for political and economic ends.
3.2 Africa–China Relations
The heightened scholarly attention being paid to Africa–China relations is
chiey inspired by the growing trade, investment, and aid relations. Current
research has many threads of thought: one major line considers the contem-
porary challenges surrounding Africa–China relations. This is best represented
by remarks on China’s assumed neocolonial motivations that seek to extract
mineral resources, which exacerbate inequalities, environmental degradation,
and political instability (Ado and Su, 2016; Klare and Volman, 2006; Rich and
Recker, 2013; Rotberg, 2009). These authors argue that new aid and investments
34 Bulelani Jili
simply reproduce the same exploitative relations of dependence that characterised
Africa’s relationship with Europe and the United States. In digital and telecom-
munication discourses, the discourse is about China’s export of an authoritarian
version of digital surveillance practices (Biryabarema, 2019; Parkison, Bariyo,
and Chin, 2019; Mozur, Kessel, and Chan, 2019). Most accounts presume a coor-
dinated eort between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Huawei. From
this vantage point, the adoption of digital surveillance technologies hinges on
Beijing’s objective to promote its version of digital surveillance via corporate
public partnerships. Yet, critical studies illustrate that there is in fact little evi-
dence that demonstrates Beijing’s strict interest in exporting practices and models
of development (Brautigam, 2011; Gagliardone, 2019; Mohan and Lampert,
Other work relates to the agency of African governments in shaping Chinese
bilateral relations (Corkin, 2016; Gadzala, 2015; Kragelund, 2015; Mohan and
Lampert, 2012; Phillips, 2019). By utilising the concept of agency, literature in
this category examines the relationship between enduring geopolitical structures
and local eorts in shaping development outcomes. While these studies draw
attention to African agency and the asymmetric conditions of China–Africa rela-
tions, they tend to ignore non-state actors and unduly focus on Chinese “grand
strategy at the expense of local public and private actors (Mohan, 2015).
Taylor (2006) rejects the idea that China has a grand strategy towards Africa.
He asserts that a nuanced analysis of Africa–China relations transcends talk of such
a grand “Chinese strategy”, which invokes fears among proponents of the lib-
eral order. Indeed, the asymmetric conditions between Africa and China should
inspire some scepticism (Chipaike and Knowledge, 2018; Mthembu and Mabera,
2021) – but not a scepticism that is simply contingent on assumed Chinese neo-
colonial behaviour. Rather, I attempt to explore the degree to which the interests
of African digital ecosystem actors are shaping Africa–China relations and yet
conditioned by enduring local and global structural arrangements. To presume
agency without illuminating the obstacles to its expression romanticises African
actors. On the other hand, some recognition of such agency is salient in dis-
courses on structural analyses and representations of Africa and its people. The
chapter pays attention to both the broader context of Chinese corporate expan-
sion and the local conditions where multiple actors, discourses, and partnerships
work towards establishing digital surveillance practices.
3.3 China’s Expansion into Africa
China’s expansion into Africa’s digital infrastructure sector has been rapid, but not
necessarily linear or coordinated in its operations. The push consists of various
actors in the public and private arena who have pursued distinct goals. For exam-
ple, the “Go Out” strategy in 1999, later incorporated into the tenth ve-year
plan, urged Chinese enterprises to invest abroad as a way to strengthen China’s
global business presence and to foster Beijing’s integration into the global economy
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 35
(Wang and Hu, 2017). Drawing on Harvey’s (2003) concept of the spatio-temporal
“x”, Taylor and Zajontz (2020) interpret China’s push abroad via private corpo-
rate entities as a necessary element to establish channels for investment as a way to
address domestic economic challenges. Precisely, surplus capital was lent abroad to
create new commercial and productive enterprises. The promise of higher rates of
prot engendered an incentive to support capital ows to Africa. He Yafei, China’s
Vice Minister of Foreign Aairs, echoed this sentiment in a carefully worded 2014
op-ed piece, when arguing to “‘move out’ China’s economic overcapacity on the
basis of its development strategy abroad and foreign policy” (He, 2014).
He Yafei’s reading conceptualises the Go Out strategy and the Belt and Road
Initiative (BRI) as a push for new markets, consumers, and prot. Beijing’s
investments in Africa are directed towards infrastructure and extraction to facili-
tate the needs of its domestic economy. Taylor and Zajontz (2020), like He, see
the move to novel geographies as a possible ameliorant to China’s own economic
challenges. This approach draws attention to the current iteration of global
capital and asks how the structural features of the economy motivate Beijing’s
actions in Africa. This is a salient intervention because many studies decontex-
tualise China’s behaviour on the global state; they assume its exceptional quality,
while not closely examining the political and economic features that condition
its actions.
President Xi Jinping announced the BRI during ocial visits to Kazakhstan
and Indonesia in 2013. Beijing’s most ambitious transnational infrastructure
building project, according to Huang (2016), includes networks of railways,
highways, and energy pipelines. The initiative mainly seeks to expand inter-
continental connectivity with China and the circulation of the renminbi, the
Chinese currency (Yu, 2018). As a continuation of Beijing’s commercial inter-
ests abroad, the vast collection of development and investment initiatives stretch
from Central Asia to Africa (Cox, 2018). At the same time, Beijing hopes that
these global networks will link up with its own neglected Western regions, pro-
moting economic development in places like Xinjiang, which have historically
provoked separatist violence (Chatzky and McBride, 2020). This push abroad is
in part about ameliorating domestic concerns, while also establishing China’s
global business presence.
In 2015, Chinese ocials began promoting the “Digital Silk Road” (DSR)
initiative as a supplementary project to the BRI. The DSR aims to foster internet
connectivity, digital economies, smart cities, and articial intelligence (Hillman,
2021). Reports indicate that ve African countries (Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria,
Zambia, and Zimbabwe) have signed DSR agreements with China (Garcia,
2019). Yet, it must be said that the exact number of agreements is hard to verify
because many of these memoranda of understandings (MOUs) are unreported
(Kurlantzick, 2020). Although BRI and DSR constitute key elements of China’s
expanding geopolitical footprint, BRI and DSR have no central governing insti-
tutions. China has not published a master list of BRI and DRS projects, the
terms of which are often negotiated behind closed doors.
36 Bulelani Jili
Even though natural resources continue to be core interests of China’s engage-
ments in Africa, its interests in telecommunications have rapidly expanded. In
2006, the third Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Beijing,
marked this diversication of investments. China announced that it would
grow its investments in multiple African sectors, including ICT, medicine, and
renewable energy (FOCAC, 2006). Alden and Large (2011) claim that China’s
growing investments and strategic partnerships are not simply a means to secure
natural resources and novel consumers, but also a strategy to win favour with
African countries. Likewise, Lee (2019) investigates China’s diplomatic good-
will eorts in Zambia. Convincingly, she argues that Beijing’s ambitions are not
always dened by corporate interests or immediate domestic needs. Challenging
conventional assumptions about China’s strict economic interests in Africa, Lee
maintains that the Chinese state capital is also concerned with promoting politi-
cal goodwill with African governments. Through ethnographic studies of the
mining industries of Zambia, Lee (2019) demonstrates how Chinese investors
made more compromises to accommodate Zambian state and labour demands
than Western private corporations did.
3.4 China’s ICT Investments in Africa
Ethiopia and Kenya have limited raw materials bases. Both nations have enjoyed
considerable Chinese investments in the ICT sector (Figure 3.1). Regarding dig-
ital infrastructure, the evidence suggests that both Chinese companies and gov-
ernment appear to have agreed to support the visions of host African countries.
The cases of Kenya and Ethiopia challenge assertions that China seeks to export
a model of digital governance and surveillance. It illustrates how China engages
FIGURE 3.1 Chinese ICT Loans to Africa 2000–2019 (USD Million). Source: China
Africa Research Initiative:
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 37
on the terms made available in local contexts, which result in both locally and
globally determined digital infrastructure projects.
For Chinese corporations that have expanded into Africa, prot margins
remain relatively high, even in challenging political environments. Surveys
conducted on Chinese enterprises in Africa indicate that prot margins are
as high as 20%, leading companies like Huawei to expand their operations on
the continent. Kirby (2020) contends that Huawei was not shy about pursu-
ing prot in politically challenging environments. Its success was partly con-
tingent on the absence of Western competition, which was averse to African
political instabilities. As Ren Zhengfei, the founder of Huawei, put it: “many
wars broke out in Africa in the 1990s. All the Western companies pulled out
of the market, so we took that opportunity and sold some of our products” (as
cited in Kirby, Chan, and Mchugh, 2020, p. 5). Huawei also sold their prod-
ucts 20–30% cheaper than Western companies remaining in Africa. By 2005,
Huawei’s international sales exceeded its domestic sales. It is these achievements
abroad that garnered Beijing’s attention (Huawei, 2020). As early as 2004, the
China Development Bank opened a USD 10 billion credit line to customers of
Huawei’s digital products (Hu, 2011). Mackinnon (2019) notes that Huawei has
built 70% of Africa’s 4G networks, which vastly outpaces Western competitors.
A 2016 World Bank report notes that, compared to Huawei, “other foreign
rms with shorter time horizons and a higher prot requirement face a unique
challenge when competing for contracts in Sub-Saharan Africa” (Sanghi and
Johnson, 2016, p. 20).
Chinese loans mostly oered by the EXIM bank amount to USD 9.1 billion
in the ICT sector in Africa (CARI, 2018). As shown in Figure 3.1, signicant
investments were made in 2006 and 2013. The remaining years between 2000
and 2018 were marked by moderate investments. This uctuating trend is in
part a consequence of local interest in digital infrastructure; a conclusion that
is antithetical to established presumptions about China’s steadily rising invest-
ments. Figure 3.2 shows the total number of loans made to Africa in the last two
decades. According to SAIS-CARI, China has committed USD 153 billion to
Africa between 2000 and 2019. Despite this large economic footprint, there is
little data on the specics of China’s lending in the public domain. After rapid
growth, annual lending commitments to Africa peaked in 2013, the year the
BRI was launched. China’s lending to African governments fell by 30% in 2019.
China has sharply curtailed lending to the continent partly due to debt sustain-
ability concerns (Song, 2021; Yun, 2020). This observation about the oscillating
quantity of ICT loans is reected in the cases of Ethiopia and Kenya. Both cases
show that loans are provided within contexts where Beijing is aiming to advance
diplomatic relations with Africa, Chinese corporations are expanding their geo-
political footprint, and local Ethiopian and Kenyan actors are demanding digital
infrastructural investments to support development ambitions. I discuss the two
cases further in the next section.
38 Bulelani Jili
FIGURE 3.2 Total Chinese Loans and U.S. & French Aid to Africa. Sources: China Africa
Research Initiative,; OECD Statistics,
total ocial development ows by country and region,
3.5 Ethiopia’s Digital Infrastructure Projects
The Bringing Internet to Ethiopia (BITE) initiative launched in 1995 by the
Ethiopian government aimed to produce an actionable policy to engender
the infrastructure conditions necessary to support connectivity (ITU, 2002).
Initial discussions were favourable to a multi-stakeholder approach. However,
the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) rejected the
idea of a privately owned internet provider. As a result, a public network ser-
vice provider was proposed by BITE, which put forward the idea of a not-for-
prot service provider with the chief objective of supporting public interest and
development goals. The Ethiopian government rejected the BITE initiative and
instead decided to lead the development and management of the internet itself.
This decision vexed private actors and civil society organisations seeking to
import best practices and digital infrastructure (Gagliardone, 2019). Ultimately,
the choice was predicated on the government’s desire to maintain a monopolistic
grip on digital technologies.
In 2006, the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation and Chinese tel-
ecom giant Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation (ZTE)
signed the largest agreement in African telecommunication history. Backed by
the China Development Bank, ZTE (partially state-owned) oered a loan of
USD 1.5 billion to support the replacement and expansion of Ethiopia’s telecom-
munication infrastructure (Dalton, 2014). The loan was disbursed in three phases
and expected to be repaid over a 13-year period. The rst phase was branded
the “Millennium Plan”, which implied digital infrastructure with the capacity
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 39
to make development viable by 11 September 2007, the date marking a new
millennium on the Ethiopian calendar (Gagliardone and Brhane, 2021). The rst
phase was to install around 2,000 kilometres of bre-optic cable, which aimed
to connect Ethiopia’s 13 largest cities (Cotterill, 2021; Foster and Morella, 2010;
Gagliardone, 2019). The second and third phases expanded coverage to include
Ethiopia’s rural areas. New digital infrastructure capacity was now able to sup-
port a million internet broadband users and 20 million mobile users from an
earlier 1.2 million.
In 2011, Ethio-Telecom, the country’s sole telecom operator, issued a tender
to further augment its network capacity to support around 50 million subscrib-
ers by 2015 (Human Rights Watch, 2014). Like ZTE, the tender was contin-
gent on vendor-nancing. Unlike in 2006, this time a public tender process was
launched. Ethiopia ended ZTE’s monopoly by inviting Huawei. The tender was
jointly won by the Chinese rms, ZTE and Huawei. Together Huawei and ZTE
pledged a total of USD 1.6 billion (Dalton, 2014). This deal was backed by con-
cessionary loans from the EXIM bank. ZTE and Huawei agreed to oer USD
800 million each. Interestingly, it was normal for ZTE and Huawei to compete,
especially at home. The Ethiopian government invited Huawei because of its
growing reputation on the continent, but also because of ZTE’s poor job in 2006
(Dalton, 2014).
The loans are partly provided to support Chinese corporate expansion abroad,
but also to improve China’s diplomatic eorts in Africa. Beijing appears to pre-
sent itself as a peaceful rising power and impartial development partner will-
ing to meet the demands of African actors (Jakobson, 2009). The loans are
oered without political conditions.1 This “no strings attached” approach has
empowered African partners, like Ethiopia, to utilise Beijing’s nance to pursue
domestic ICT projects while simultaneously also oering legitimacy to Beijing’s
aable image. This image is developed in contrast to traditional Western part-
ners, which condition aid and loans, asking African actors to adopt particular
market and democratic reforms (Taylor, 2009). The lack of political conditions
attached to the loans obscures the impact of Chinese engagement. Chinese state-
led nancial and technical help tends to benet state actors over private enter-
prises. China’s seemingly neutral engagement means that it seeks to uphold a
strict distinction between political conditions and funding. It does not decide
how its technologies are put to commercial and political use.
During this time, Ethiopia was also able to work with partners besides China
in establishing its surveillance practices. The work by Citizen Lab, a Canadian
information controls laboratory, illustrates Ethiopia’s aptitude to combine
diversely sourced digital infrastructure and surveillance technology. The gov-
ernment has acquired monitoring tools through various channels, namely, the
UK- and German-based Gamma International FinFishers company; Cyberbit,
an Israel-based cybersecurity enterprise; and the Italian-based Hacking Team
Remote-Control System (Citizen Lab, 2014; Horne, 2014). These systems – as
much as any provided by China – boost Ethiopia’s governance and surveillance
40 Bulelani Jili
capacities and enable access to les on targeted laptops. They also log keystrokes
and passwords to turn on webcams and microphones by stealth. These tools, crit-
ically, run on Chinese-funded ICT infrastructure (Human Rights Watch, 2014).
Researchers have studied the Ethiopian government’s malware campaign,
which targeted activists, lawyers, and political opponents (Citizen Lab, 2017).
Reports describe how the state uses emails containing spyware posing as Adobe
Flash updates and PDF plugins. Several ethnic Oromo activists like Jawar
Mohammed, an Oromo activist and executive director of the US-based Oromia
Media Network (OMN), were targeted by the Ethiopian government (Human
Rights Watch, 2017). These new digital surveillance practices follow a history of
surveillance practices aimed at undermining civil liberties (Hawaz and Xi, 2020;
Human Rights Watch, 2014).
Evidence leaked by Edward Snowden indicates that it was not China and
Europe alone that supported Ethiopia’s surveillance practices. The U.S. National
Security Agency (NSA) established the Deployed Signals Intelligence Operations
Center in Addis Ababa (Turse, 2017). This began as a meagre counterterrorism
undertaking that eventually grew into an operation involving eight U.S. military
personnel and 103 Ethiopians surveilling Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen by 2005
(Turse, 2017). In exchange for intelligence and an advantageous location that
oered unique access to targets, the NSA provided Ethiopia with training and
technology to conduct digital surveillance. This shows Ethiopia’s hybridised sur-
veillance system, and its diversely sourced technology from China and the West.
The brief progress made in attaining peace and democratising Ethiopian soci-
ety by current prime minister Abiy Ahmed is slipping in the face of the 2020
Tigray crisis. Since Ahmed’s ascendance to power, Ethiopia has embarked on a
series of liberalising reforms that have opened the market. This is exemplied
by a bid issued to privatise the state-owned Ethio-Telecom, appointing interna-
tional rms like KPMG to lead the transformation. This change hinges on the
newly awarded operating licence, which was given to a consortium led by Kenya’s
Safaricom, UK’s Vodafone Group, and Japan’s Sumitomo that included nancing
from the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The winning bid was
an USD 850 million oer with a promise to invest USD 8 billion over the next
ten years (Woo and Wexler, 2021). The losing bidder was South Africa’s MTN
Group whose proposal was nanced in part by the Silk Road Fund, a Chinese
state investment group. Whether this is indeed an inection point is a pending
matter. The Western-backed consortium marks a push to challenge Beijing’s
economic inuence in Africa (Olander, 2021). It must be made clear that one
more licence still needs to be announced. It is widely expected that bids, which
include MTN, and Silk Road Fund will be more competitive in the next round.
If successful, it is likely that Huawei’s digital infrastructure will be used to build
the networks.
China has indeed become the largest partner of Ethiopia’s ICT development
ambitions. Without the EXIM bank’s concessionary loans, Ethiopia would
not have had the nancial means to realise its digital infrastructure monopoly
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 41
(Thakur, 2009). Elsewhere on the continent, including Kenya, a liberalisation
strategy that relied on multiple private and public partners has driven the estab-
lishment of digital infrastructure. China’s nancial support and Huawei’s tech-
nical provision have enabled the development of Ethiopia’s telecommunication
infrastructure, and with it, the State’s means to surveil and retain control over
the digital infrastructure.
3.6 Kenya’s Digital Infrastructure Projects
In the case of Kenya, the Kenya Communication Act of 1998 put an end to
the Kenya Posts and Telecommunication Corporation (KPTC), a state-run
monopoly (Waema, 2005). This liberalisation strategy allowed the Kenyan state
to take a leading role in shaping Information and Communications Technology
(ICT) policies that aimed at privatising state-owned enterprises (Waema, 2005).
Through the docking of four bre-optic submarine cables between 2009 and
2011, the government was able to create a relatively competitive telecommu-
nication sector that improved internet connectivity and aordability: competi-
tion among local and international rms began driving down the cost of phone
calls and made internet services aordable for a larger portion of the popula-
tion (Lancaster, 2017). Consequently, the sector’s regulator reduced intercon-
nection taris and instituted a range of regulations aimed at developing further
Despite these policy changes in the ICT sector, the Kenyan government in
2006 did not have the infrastructural capacity to realise these development ambi-
tions. Before 2009, Kenya relied on satellite technology for connectivity, which
resulted in limited connectivity and was available at prohibitive costs for most
citizens. This necessitated the need to transition from narrowband, which oper-
ates on satellite technology, to bre-optic-powered broadband. China’s chief
entrance into the Kenyan ICT market came through the docking of bre-optic
cables. Led by Huawei and ZTE, the docking of four bre-optic submarine
cables between 2009 and 2011, enabled the government to create a relatively
competitive telecommunication sector that improved internet connectivity and
aordability: competition among local and international rms began driving
down the cost of phone calls and made internet services aordable for a larger
portion of the population (Lancaster, 2017).
Huawei and ZTE were jointly contracted to build new digital infrastruc-
tures. The Chinese EXIM bank was instrumental in making this infrastructure
nancially feasible for Nairobi, as was the case in Ethiopia, where Huawei and
ZTE worked to expand internet connectivity. Bidding and winning the con-
tract, the Chinese companies worked with the French corporation Sagem to
create Kenya’s rst National Optic Fibre Backbone Infrastructure (NOFBI),
which brought high-speed connectivity to the country’s largest cities. The
government started by building the NOFBI, initially to interconnect the for-
mer provincial headquarters and later to the county headquarters. This novel
42 Bulelani Jili
capacity allowed for e-government projects across the country (ICT Authority,
2021). Each company was expected to manage a dierent region. Sagem laid
the cables for the Coastal and Northeastern region, ZTE worked on the West,
and Huawei handled Nairobi and the central parts of the country (Okuttah,
2012; Wahito, 2012). The second phase of extending connectivity was directly
funded by the EXIM bank. It oered USD 71 million to cover 36 administrative
districts that would provide high-speed internet in rural parts of the country.
A condition to this loan was that Huawei had to be the company to build the
digital infrastructure.
China’s telecommunication companies entered Kenya’s ICT sector late and
had to navigate a relatively crowded market. National and international compa-
nies like MTN from South Africa, Zain from Kuwait, Vodafone from the UK,
and Bharti Airtel from India had already entered that market and won shares and
customers (Hughes and Lonie, 2007). These corporations localised quickly by
shifting from contract-based purchasing plans to prepaid data, calls, and messag-
ing. To go even further, the partly state-owned company Safaricom instigated
an initiative intended to expand nancial inclusion. Launched in 2007, M-PESA
is Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-nancing service (Avgerou,
Hayes, and Rovere, 2016; Morawczynski, 2009). By using funding from the
UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), Safaricom was able
to improve access to nancial services for unbanked communities. The Chinese
government and companies operating in Kenya adopted a receptive posture
towards the wishes of Nairobi and the currents of the business environment.
This strategy was similar to their labours in Ethiopia, where China supported the
state’s ambition to introduce digital infrastructure.
Huawei’s 2018 annual report maintained that its Safe Cities project (anquan
chengshì) serves over 100 countries (Huawei, 2018). According to data collected
by the Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, 16 African states have contracted with Huawei to receive
digital surveillance and governance technology. These surveillance and govern-
ance devices oer multiple services which include smart metering, emergency
assessments, and predictive policing. A popular example is the rst African safe
city system built in Kenya. Huawei was able to connect 1,800 high-denition
cameras and 200 high-denition trac surveillance infrastructures across
Nairobi. Additionally, a national police command centre was established to pro-
vide support to over 9,000 police ocers and 195 police stations (Huawei, 2018).
These technologies aim to support crime prevention, accelerated response, and
recovery. Due to the dearth of data, the benets of the Safe City project are
hard to verify and appear exaggerated (Epoch Times, 2019; Hillman, 2019).
According to Huawei, crime rates from 2014 to 2015 decreased by 46% in areas
supported by their technologies in Kenya (Huawei, 2014). But Kenya’s National
Police Service reports indicate smaller reductions in crime during those years in
Nairobi. Nairobi and Mombasa, the two cities with surveillance technologies,
have also seen increases in reported crimes in 2017 and 2018.
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 43
Equally important, Nairobi’s central business district is reliant on digital
CCTV cameras purchased from Huawei, but also suppliers like Hikvision, a
Chinese state-owned provider of video surveillance technology. The facial rec-
ognition technology used on its national borders is powered by Sensetime, a
Hongkong-based company. This case, like the example of Ethiopia, also illus-
trates a hybridised surveillance system that is diversely sourced to establish state
security ambitions to manage crime and terror. In particular, Kenya’s experience
with terrorist attacks by Islamist militants in 2013 has led to the government
utilising surveillance technologies and legal powers to manage the threat. Local
civil society organisations point out the risks involved in digital surveillance and
governance technologies and how the pretext of terror enables the atrophy of
personal privacy and extended surveillance practices.
Rather than asserting a Chinese-based vision of digital governance and sur-
veillance in Kenya, Chinese companies and the government have agreed to
the propositions of their host. Digital surveillance tools are embedded within
state processes that are a result of private–public ventures. Whether operating
in Kenya’s open market or Ethiopia’s closed market, China and its companies
have shown dexterity in adapting to local expectations and to sharing the unique
vision of the host country. In Ethiopia, Beijing is the largest supporter of Addis
Ababa’s digital infrastructure projects. Without the EXIM bank’s concessionary
loans of USD 3.1 billion, the EPRDF would not have been able to realise its
state capacity goals. Yet, it is also fair to say that Beijing is not aiming to export
a strict normative basis of digital governance and surveillance in Africa. On the
contrary, it seems to engage on the terms made available in the local context,
which leads to context dependent outcomes. This raises questions about how we
should interpret China’s adaptive diplomatic strategy and its willingness to meet
African states on their terms.
3.7 Conclusion: China’s Neutrality
This chapter challenges the conception that China seeks to export a model of
surveillance. Chinese companies operating in Africa tend to adapt to local busi-
ness practices, rather than follow Beijing’s supposed geopolitical strategy. Alves
and Alden (2008) contend that China’s nancial and technical support does not
result categorically in the exportation of its normative values. The evidence sug-
gests that China helps fortify the political and social processes that were already
in place in Ethiopia and Kenya. The lack of a digital governance and surveillance
model to export does not negate the possibility of other strategies. Relevant
questions, then, are: what kind of political, social, and legal environments are
these digital surveillance tools embedding themselves in? How do we inter-
pret China’s adaptive diplomatic strategy? How are digital tools being utilised
to meet public goals versus other ambitions? China’s tendency to privilege state
actors over other agents is problematic in the context of authoritarian regimes
such as Ethiopia, which has a track record of human rights violations, and the
44 Bulelani Jili
government has shown a predilection towards conducting unwarranted surveil-
lance on citizens. The new technologies enhance the government’s capacity.
This latter point is not exclusive to authoritarian governments: skewing power
towards the state, even in a democracy like Kenya, can result in unwarranted
surveillance practices that undermine civil liberties.
China has incessantly repudiated the notion that it is exporting its values
and surveillance practices abroad. During the 2018 Beijing Summit of FOCAC,
President Xi spoke of the “ve no” strategy that shapes its Africa policy: “no
interference in the development paths of individual countries; no interference
in their internal aairs; no imposition of China’s will; no attachment of political
strings regarding assistance; and no seeking of selsh political gains in invest-
ment and nancing cooperation” (Liangyu, 2018). Xi’s claims of neutrality do
not eliminate concerns or negate the possibilities of recipients of Chinese aid
conducting surveillance operations, especially after receiving support to establish
digital surveillance capacities. It is clear, however, China’s strategy towards Africa
has never been explicit, strict, or coercive, but always remunerative in orienta-
tion. It is predicated on providing nancial support and incentives to promote
diplomatic relations. China is not actively promoting surveillance practices and
advocating for specic models of development in the same way Western donors
explicitly do, where compliance to specic market and democratic reforms is
expected. The fact that it nancially supports African governments and their
ambitions to build digital infrastructure, still, prompts doubts about its neutral
impact – and gestures towards a general strategy towards African partners. For
these reasons, we must engender more proportional accounts that accent the
degree to which African volition is shaping these unfolding relations while also
examining the interplay between Chinese tech providers and Beijing’s ambitions
to promote its interests in Africa.
As I have shown, Beijing’s remunerative engagements with Africa reinforce
domestic political processes. Beijing’s willingness to do business with authori-
tarian states enables surveillance practices. The way in which China chooses to
dene neutrality is simply contingent on the promotion of state sovereignty and
the absence of political conditions. This framing allows for economic activities
to persist while obfuscating the asymmetric conditions that structure relations.
But this position also obscures the fact that, while oering aid and loans, China,
like others, enables state capacities for surveillance (Jili, 2020). The “no strings
attached” approach does not categorically result in neutral outcomes but is a
beguiling posture that maintains China’s image as a generous development part-
ner, while also deemphasising its tangible impact on the ground. While China’s
involvement does not actively promote surveillance practices, it does create the
conditions for it. How long Beijing maintains this posture of “neutrality” is
a paramount matter as it expands its geopolitical footprint. Unfortunately, the
few publicly available Chinese state documents remain vague as they pertain to
regulating African investments. They lack explicit direction, legally enforce-
able obligations, and eective accountability measures to mitigate the misuse of
The Spread of Chinese Surveillance Tools in Africa 45
digital governance and surveillance infrastructure. It is this lacuna that enables
Chinese corporations to adapt to host country ambitions, even at the expense of
civil liberties.
Without friends and family’s companionship, it would have been an arduous task
to muster the thew to bring this work to conclusion. It is their love that is the fuel
of today, and the harbinger of hope to come.
1 China draws a distinction between political and economic conditions. There are eco-
nomic conditions associated with Chinese loans. For instance, the resource-backed
lending model allows for nancing infrastructural projects, which requires borrow-
ing countries to commit future revenues to be earned from its natural resources to
pay loans secured from Beijing. This method allows resource-rich and high-risk bor-
rowers to secure needed nance, but it also makes nations more nancially vulner-
able. With the collapse of volatile commodity prices, the borrower bears all the risk of
debt default if the collateral is not enough. To participate in this program, the African
countries need to be resource-rich, which obviously excludes Kenya and Ethiopia.
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