Africa has longstanding and deep partnerships with Chinese technology companies—Huawei famously began developing its telecommunications networks in rural Kenya in the 1990s. Today, African governments are among the top customers for Chinese surveillance tools, from “smart cities” to media monitoring. These partnerships have come under increased scrutiny and criticism for two main reasons: domestic human rights abuses committed with the help of surveillance tech in China, and allegations of government spying (in 2018, Le Monde reported that the African Union headquarters communications network, built by Huawei, was leaking data to Shanghai). This raises the question: is China exporting its surveillance apparatus to Africa?
It’s more complicated than that, according to Jili Bulelani, MERICS Futures Fellow and Harvard PhD candidate. In this conversation, he offers insights in how to conceptualize these issues, with emphasis on the motivations of local actors and the race to regulate surveillance technology.