The Impact of Chinese Tech Provision on Civil Liberties in Africa
The increasing support provided by China to African states to expand their information infrastructure and the rise of Safe City (Huawei) and Smart City (ZTE) projects across Africa have raised concerns about a possible tightening of civil liberties on the continent. Some of these concerns are motivated by cases of abuse of Chinese-deployed surveillance platforms in Africa. Others build on various assumptions and ambiguities this study seeks to unpack and challenge, offering a more fine-grained analysis of the specific technologies, actors and discourses that are indeed endangering individual freedoms. As illustrated both by trends in Chinese support to communications in Africa and by individual case studies, greater financing from China has not led to an increase in authoritarianism or greater adoption of a supposed ‘Chinese model’ of the Internet in recipient countries. At the same time, Huawei and ZTE have played on perceptions of Chinese tech to market their Safe City/ Smart City solutions in African metropoles. In the absence of strong regulatory frameworks, the deployments of these solutions can indeed expose individuals to levels of surveillance and control that can impinge on their rights of expression and association. Yet, as emerging data from already deployed Safe City and Smart City projects suggests, the perception of Chinese surveillance tech as particularly effective and sophisticated is not matched by the actuality of its chaotic implementation. As much as promises of ‘liberation technologies’ to free the world from abuse and dictators have been challenged by the actual interaction of these technologies with existing networks of power and politics, so new surveillance technologies or ‘technologies of unfreedom’ run similar risks when inserted into contexts that are very different from those where they originated.