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  • China, Africa, and the Private Surveillance Industry
  • Samuel Woodhams (bio)

Internet freedoms around the world have steadily declined over the last decade as governments have acquired increasingly sophisticated tools to monitor, manipulate, and censor their citizens online. Abetted by a lack of meaningful international regulation, authoritarian regimes have been free to establish ever-expanding arsenals of potentially repressive technologies. Digital authoritarianism, or "the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations," has flourished, undermining democratic processes and eroding human rights standards in the process.1

Surveillance technologies—such as facial recognition cameras, spyware software, and social media monitoring solutions—are central to this dynamic. Developed and marketed as essential products for modern policing and counterterrorism efforts by private companies, they provide governments with the ability to track a target's physical location, monitor their digital activity, and potentially even discern their emotions.2 These powerful tools traverse the divide between cyberspace and the material world, often in deeply troubling ways. Nowhere is this more evident than in the province of Xinjiang in northwest China, where the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have constructed a complex web of sophisticated surveillance technologies to aid the continuous monitoring and forced detention of an estimated one million Turkic Muslims.3 Growing evidence that these tools have been used in ways that violate human rights has led David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, to call for a global moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance tools.4 However, due to a lack of regulation and sustained demand from governments around the world, the private surveillance industry looks set to continue growing.

Surveillance technologies manufactured and sold by private companies are now increasingly being deployed by African governments and security forces. From invasive spyware software to track political opponents in Uganda to the deployment of facial recognition cameras in Zimbabwe, the proliferation of these technologies is occurring at a rate that has left many struggling to keep pace.5 This growth is exacerbated by the opaque ways in which these technologies are developed, sold, and deployed. In response, there has emerged a growing effort by a diverse group of think tanks, journalists, and academics to uncover those responsible. For many, China and its companies—above all others—are to blame.

This article will add to this debate, demonstrating the significance of China and [End Page 158] its companies in the diffusion of surveillance technologies and the associated rise of digital authoritarianism in Africa. It will be made evident, however, that companies and governments in the West are also heavily implicated in this process, and, unless this is adequately acknowledged, efforts to rein in the private surveillance industry will continue to fall short.

China's "Techno-Dystopian Expansionism"

In November 2018, Freedom House, an independent think tank based in Washington, DC, published their annual "Freedom on the Net" report. In it, they accused the PRC of pursuing a policy of "technodystopian expansionism," which seeks to spread their "model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems around the world."6 Often accompanying this popular view is the assertion that, unlike companies or governments in the West, China and its companies are integrating themselves into international digital ecosystems as a means of pursuing broader geopolitical objectives.7 According to US Congressional Representative Adam Schiff, the sale of surveillance technologies has "not only enabled China's quest to gain market share, they're also shaping the world in a way that also encourages support for their brand of governance and restrictions on personal liberty."8 Within this global dynamic, African citizens are often deemed to be particularly at risk as authoritarian-learning regimes look to adopt China's domestic model of surveillance to stifle dissent and maintain power. It is a pervasive and, to some extent, persuasive argument.

At the same time, it has also attracted a significant amount of criticism. Firstly, it overlooks the nuances of China's domestic digital landscape and misunderstands the PRC's broader geopolitical objectives.9 Further, it has been accused of failing to recognize the inconsistent and often pragmatic ways that Chinese...


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