At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit, delegations from fifty-three African countries gathered in Beijing, where the Chinese government pledged to support African countries in building smart cities; enhancing the role of information communication technologies (ICTs) in safeguarding public security, counter-terrorism, and fighting crime; and expanding African countries’ efforts to uphold information security. These activities can sound uncontroversial, even commendable; but what implications do they hold for democratic freedom on the African continent?
A starting point for this question is to understand that there is a real local demand for the infrastructure provided by Chinese firms: Sub-Saharan Africa’s 35.2 percent Internet penetration rateis well below the global average of 54.4 percent. China’s two communications technology giants, ZTE and Huawei, are ranked among the top five telecommunication providers in Africa. Under the auspices of the “Digital Silk Road,” part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Huawei has partnered with the Export-Import Bank of China to invest more than $1 billion USD in digital infrastructure in several countries across Africa. Huawei Marine is building the Pakistan East Africa Cable Express (PEACE)Internet cable system linking South Asia with East Africa and beyond—just one among more than 90 connectivity projects covering 31,000 miles that China is investing in across Asia and the Pacific, Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa.