When Naomi Klein explored the Chinese surveillance industry earlier this year, she touched on the idea that Chinese companies are now trying to sell their surveillance equipment to the outside world.
True enough, but as she was writing for Rolling Stone she concentrated on possible exports to America. That’s a sideline: the US, with its own massive surveillance industry, needs no foreign assistance to spy on its citizens. The more interesting story is China’s growing exports of surveillance know-how to the developing world.
Thanks to Chinese technology even the smallest, poorest and most politically isolated nations are gaining the ability to conduct sophisticated electronic monitoring and censorship. That means above all Africa, but also perhaps Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet bloc.
Some specific cases have already been identified: Chinese knowledge has helped with internet censorship in Belarus and radio-jamming in Zimbabwe. Like there is more that goes unreported, both because of the secrecy involved and because there is no obvious Western angle for the english-language media.
More broadly, look at Chinese government documents. The primary official statement of its Africa policy is this document from 2006:
China will cooperate closely with immigration departments of African countries in tackling the problem of illegal migration, improve exchange of immigration control information and set up an unimpeded and efficient channel for intelligence and information exchange.
In order to enhance the ability of both sides to address non-traditional security threats, it is necessary to increase intelligence exchange, explore more effective ways and means for closer cooperation in combating terrorism, small arms smuggling, drug trafficking, transnational economic crimes, etc.
I don’t think I’m being too conspiratorial if I read into that an ambition to supply the backbone for surveillance across Africa.