The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) two-decade-long blitz of engagement in Africa has likely given it extensive surveillance access to the continent. Chinese companies, all of which are legally obliged to help the CCP gather intelligence, have built at least 186 government buildings in Africa and at least 14 sensitive intra-governmental telecommunication networks. Beijing has also donated computers to at least 35 African governments.
The wealth of information the CCP probably gathers in Africa presents four primary dangers for the U.S., as that information could be used to:
- Facilitate Beijing’s influence operations on the continent;
- Recruit intelligence assets at senior levels of African governments;
- Gain insight into U.S. diplomatic strategies, military counterterrorism operations, or joint military exercises; and
- Disadvantage U.S. companies competing against Chinese firms for Africa’s growing economic opportunities.
While the longer-term challenge of Beijing’s extensive influence in Africa can only be addressed by a comprehensive U.S. strategy, Washington can take a number of immediate steps to complicate Chinese surveillance access to Africa. Those steps should include working to understand the nature of Chinese surveillance and how it contributes to Beijing’s influence operations on the continent, educating U.S. companies on the risks, and training its officials on techniques to protect themselves from Beijing’s eavesdropping.
At Least 186 Buildings
In January 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that servers installed by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in the African Union (AU) headquarters were daily uploading their content to servers based in Shanghai, China. An inspection of the building—built by the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation—also uncovered listening devices hidden throughout the building. Three days later, the Financial Times newspaper confirmed Le Monde’s story.
Beijing’s eavesdropping on African government buildings likely extends well beyond the AU headquarters. Since 1966, Chinese companies have constructed or renovated (or both) at least 186 such buildings. In fact, at least 40 of Africa’s 54 countries have a government building constructed by a Chinese company. Given the difficulty of gathering comprehensive data on independent China’s nearly seven decades of engagement with Africa, these numbers are almost certainly an undercount.
A Tempting Opportunity for the CCP
There are compelling reasons to believe—beyond the fact that it has already done so with the AU headquarters—that the CCP is using the opportunity afforded it by Chinese companies constructing government buildings to gather intelligence. Doing so would be in keeping with Beijing’s extensive use of espionage and other malpractice to gain an economic advantage. A 2017 report branded China “the world’s principal IP infringer,” while a recent U.S. Trade Representative investigation found that the U.S. loses at least $50 billion every year to unscrupulous Chinese activity. The FBI found that China committed 95 percent of the cases of economic espionage reported by 165 American firms, while a German firm estimated that around 20 percent of Germany’s $61 billion in annual losses to espionage were due to Chinese attacks.
There is also the attractiveness of the opportunity: Chinese companies have built, expanded, or renovated at least 24 presidential or prime minister residences or offices; at least 26 parliaments or parliamentary offices; at least 32 military or police installations; and at least 19 ministries of foreign affairs buildings. Having surveillance access to these buildings is an extraordinary opportunity for the CCP to gather intelligence directly from the highest levels of African governments. The opportunity is so enticing, in fact, that Beijing may have financed and constructed some of the buildings to improve its surveillance of certain governments.
Furthermore, most of the Chinese companies that built these structures are probably state-owned enterprises (SOEs), given that SOEs undertake a large majority of China’s foreign construction projects. SOEs, as implements of the CCP, must obey its orders, though in practice it does not matter whether an SOE or private Chinese company was involved. Chinese law compels both to assist the Chinese government in collecting intelligence, and there are many examples—in addition to Huawei’s role in the AU bugging—of ostensibly private Chinese companies engaging in surveillance and espionage on behalf of the Chinese government.
Finally, Beijing’s engagement blitz in Africa for the past two decades demonstrates how important the CCP considers Africa, which presumably makes the continent worth surveilling. Every year, the Chinese Foreign Minister includes Africa in his first overseas trip; from 2008 to 2018, in fact, senior Chinese leadership visited the continent 79 times. In two decades, China–Africa trade increased fortyfold, and China has dramatically increased its military cooperation, investment, and public diplomacy efforts on the continent as well.
The Chinese state also likely has the capacity to parse the high volume of data they would collect in such a surveillance operation. China is one of the world leaders in artificial intelligence technology that is well suited to sifting immense amounts of data. In places like Xinjiang, Beijing already uses artificial intelligence and other technologies to maintain virtually constant surveillance of the approximately 11 million Uighurs living there. There are reports of Chinese hacking groups utilizing tools that filter short message service (instant messaging) traffic—a staggering amount of data—to track individuals and keywords for later scrutiny.
The Problem for the U.S.
CCP surveillance of Africa poses a number of problems for the U.S. First, if Beijing’s surveillance blankets the most sensitive offices of some African governments, the CCP can gain insights into leaders’ personalities, habits, and preferences that would help Beijing tailor its influence campaigns directed at senior leaders.
Building such influence is important to achieving the CCP’s goal of becoming an unassailable global power. If it succeeds, the U.S.’s own global power would diminish, given the incompatibility of the American and Chinese political systems. CCP leadership believes political warfare is—as Chairman Mao put it—a “magic weapon,” and the People’s Liberation Army may have the world’s only intelligence agency dedicated to running overseas influence operations. Chinese President Xi Jinping has intensified China’s use of the “magic weapon” to influence and intimidate countries around the world, including developed, democratic nations.
The effort is paying dividends in Africa. The governments there are usually reliable Chinese allies in international forums. In 1971, African states provided more than one-third of the votes that transferred the U.N. Security Council seat from Taiwan to China. In 1989, Africa helped Beijing weather a period of international isolation after the Chinese military massacred unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square. Today, African governments are helping whitewash Beijing’s large-scale human rights abuses in Xinjiang and have helped Chinese nationals win leadership of influential international organizations.
A second, and related, problem for the U.S. is that Chinese surveillance could enable Beijing to recruit highly placed assets within African governments. If the CCP collected embarrassing or harmful information on an African official, it could blackmail cooperation from him or her. Or surveillance could gather other information, such as a recruitment target’s financial situation, which could facilitate recruitment. Having Chinese assets peppered throughout governments on an increasingly strategic continent is an obvious problem for the United States.
Third, Beijing’s spying could pick up sensitive conversations between senior American officials and their African counterparts. That would include U.S. military officers who frequently meet with senior African officials to discuss joint military exercises, counterterrorism operations, and other activities it would be best not to divulge to a competitor like China. A September 2019 report detailed how the Chinese government conducted just that sort of surveillance operation against foreign officials by hacking telecommunications companies in Asia.
Fourth, American businesses competing for the continent’s lucrative opportunities may suffer harm. U.S. companies would be at a disadvantage if any negotiating strategies, bids, or business processes they might discuss with an African leader were known by a Chinese competitor. This includes U.S. tech companies—long a prized target of Chinese commercial espionage—that are increasingly active in Africa. The Chinese government’s practice of supporting its companies—particularly its “national champions” such as Huawei—through anticompetitive means, including economic espionage, suggests it would pass any commercially useful information it gleaned to a Chinese company.
The risk to U.S. companies is perhaps higher than it has ever been. A significant part of China’s technological progress is built from technology and intellectual property stolen or coerced from the West, especially the United States. In recent years, the CCP has escalated its theft of U.S. commercial secrets as President Xi Jinping seeks to achieve the ambitious goals laid out in his Made in China 2025 strategy, lessen Chinese dependence on Western technologies, and gain leverage against Washington in the ongoing trade war. The existential nature of the task suggests Xi will use every means at his disposal, including whatever surveillance capabilities China has in Africa.
The Problem for Africa
African countries have yet to develop the sort of cutting-edge technologies the Chinese government and its companies target, and so cannot suffer the same losses that the U.S. and many other countries have from Chinese theft. Yet there is a dynamic, emerging technology industry in Africa. If it produces technology the Chinese government or one of its companies covet, that technology would be at great risk of being poached. Chinese companies have already done this in West Africa, enabling them to dominate the region’s wax-print fabric industry and force out indigenous competitors.
The bigger economic risk for African governments is that they frequently negotiate with the Chinese government, its banks, and its companies, as China is by far the largest bilateral lender to the continent, and Chinese companies dominate Africa’s lucrative infrastructure construction sector. Chinese eavesdropping could gain valuable information on African governments’ negotiating strategies, competitors’ bids, and other relevant information: There are reports of Chinese hackers stealing just that sort of information in other parts of the world.
As noted earlier, it is also possible Chinese surveillance of such buildings could collect damaging or embarrassing information about a country’s senior leadership. That material could be used as leverage to ensure African leaders’ pliability, to the harm of the countries they represent.
It Is Not Just Buildings
There are other elements of the counterintelligence problem the U.S. faces in Africa. Huawei has built more than 70 percent of the 4G telecom networks in Africa and is proceeding with plans to deploy 5G networks on the continent. Huawei, ZTE (another Chinese telecommunications giant), and other Chinese telecoms have built and/or equipped at least 14 government networks, including dedicated military and police telecoms systems.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has donated office equipment, including computers, to at least 35 African governments over the years. It is difficult to believe the Chinese government did not take the opportunity to make those computers vulnerable to Chinese spying before gifting them.
African leaders are likely aware of at least some of the vulnerabilities such Chinese gifts bring—and are either too far under the influence of Beijing to resist, believe that Beijing’s surveillance does not matter, or that they can manage the challenge. A Zambian government official said that his government had “changed the locks” after Huawei finished constructing Zambia’s national data center that processes and stores all government data. Yet intelligence officials from some of the world’s most sophisticated cyber powers such as the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and Germany do not believe their countries can adequately protect against the intelligence threat posed by Huawei-built systems. If those countries, with their extensive budgets and advanced capabilities cannot, it is unlikely African countries with far fewer resources can.
Steps for Addressing a Serious Problem
Protecting U.S. interests requires an American response as determined and holistic as the CCP’s efforts to reshape the global order and should include, whenever possible, pushing back against damaging Chinese activity everywhere it occurs.
In Africa, that means not simply acquiescing to broad Chinese surveillance access to the continent. For the foreseeable future, it will be impossible to fully protect against Chinese spying in Africa, as Beijing’s access there is enabled by its successful, long-running influence-building campaign on the continent. The problem that reality poses for American interests can only be addressed by a comprehensive U.S. strategy.
Yet Washington can take a number of immediate steps to complicate Chinese surveillance in Africa, including the following:
- Assume that all communication with African government counterparts is vulnerable to Chinese exploitation. This should be the baseline assumption for all American officials operating in Africa.
- Develop government-wide counterintelligence protocols and training for operating in Africa. Every U.S. official visiting or posted to Africa should receive a standardized training on techniques for combatting Chinese surveillance. Such training should be supplemented with country-specific information on the unique risks different countries pose. It will be impossible to always fully defeat Chinese surveillance in Africa, but the U.S. can and should make it harder.
- Task all U.S. embassies in Africa with developing a digital hygiene outreach program as a key part of their host-country engagement. Embassies should offer assistance to host-country governments with protecting their vital digital networks and infrastructure. This could include best-practices training or technical support for sweeping networks or buildings. If a government is interested in assistance beyond the embassy’s capabilities, the embassy could solicit help from other U.S. agencies with the requisite expertise.
- Map potential vectors of Chinese surveillance and influence. U.S. embassies and other U.S. agencies active on the continent should document potential entry points for Chinese surveillance, such as Chinese-built government buildings and telecommunications networks. That information should be compiled and made accessible to policymakers to better understand the contours of Chinese engagement in a particular country or region, the risks it poses, and possible countermeasures.
- Educate U.S. companies on the surveillance risks in specific countries. A standard part of any briefing a U.S. embassy gives to American companies interested in or already operating in a particular African country should include best practices for protecting themselves as much as possible from Chinese surveillance. The embassy should share any unclassified, relevant data with American companies operating in the country.
- Expect little help—and perhaps even resistance—from some African states. Given how adroitly the CCP has built influence in Africa and the many examples of African countries fearing to defy Beijing, the U.S. should not expect these governments to offer much assistance in ameliorating America’s counterintelligence problem in Africa. Some, if asked, or in an attempt to curry CCP favor, may even actively collaborate with Beijing to hinder American efforts to protect its interests on the continent.
A Broader Challenge
Africa may be the most permissive region on earth for Chinese spying and espionage. Beijing and its companies have enormous sway over many African governments, whether because of personal inducements to African leaders or because of African countries’ economic enmeshment with China—something Beijing increasingly uses as a weapon. This suggests some African governments might hesitate to be appropriately skeptical of Chinese intentions.
African countries also have limited cyber-defense capabilities. All of this is in addition to the extraordinary potential for surveillance access the CCP has from the computers it donates to African governments and the Chinese companies building government buildings and sensitive (including intra-governmental) communications networks.
The CCP’s surveillance of Africa is only one part of the much larger challenge an increasingly globally assertive China poses for the U.S. Yet it contributes to the problem, and Washington should respond. It can start by working to understand the nature of Chinese surveillance and how it contributes to Beijing’s influence operations on the continent, educating U.S. companies on the risks, and training its officials on techniques to complicate Beijing’s information gathering on the continent.
Joshua Meservey is Senior Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.