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Zimbabwe. Big Brother is watching you with a little help from China.

The country is embarking on a vast Cybercity project and on the promotion of digital technology. The downside of it is that this technology is used to build a surveillance state.

Zimbabwe is entering the digital age with determination. On the last 20 July, President Emmerson Mnangagwa launched the US. $ 500 million Cybercity project in the Mount Hampden area, 26 km northwest of Harare which will be financed by the United Arab Emirates-based Mulk International company. The future city will be surrounded by surveillance cameras for purposes of security. Similar initiatives should take place elsewhere in the country over the next years with an aim to create a society with industrial, commercial, and residential areas, driven by digital technology. For such purpose, the government relies mainly on Chinese companies which are developing surveillance technology.

Harare City.

Chinese companies such as Huawei and Hikvision are installing everywhere facial recognition close-circuit television cameras on behalf of the Zimbabwean police in Harare and Bulawayo. Facial recognition technology from the Chinese firm Hikvision is already operational at airports and international border posts.
Zimbabwe’s state-owned fixed-line telephony operator TelOne inaugurated 2017, two data centres with cloud facilities in Harare and Mazowe as part of a wider US. $ 98 million network upgrading project implemented with Huawei. This Chinese company’s involvement in Zimbabwe traces back to 2013, when Huawei helped to upgrade the Zimbabwe’s mobile network of the state-owned mobile phone company, NetOne with a $ 218 million dollar loan from the China Exim Bank. In 2017, Net-One secured another $ 71 dollar million loan from the same bank for further network expansion, also by Huawei.
Obviously, the Zimbabwean authorities do not care about the concerns over the security of Huawei’s telecommunication equipment voiced by the U.S. and U.K. governments which banned its use. It’s even the opposite: the tense relations between Harare on the one hand and the U.S. and the U.K. on the other, which imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe since 2002, only contributed to strengthening ties between the African country and China.
In February 2020, the Chinese company was even given an absolute tax exemption by the Zimbabwean Ministry of Finance.

President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Photo: Gov. Ag.)

Under a $100 dollar million deal, Hikvision and the artificial intelligence Guangzhou-based start-up Clouldwalk will supply facial recognition technology, to store and process in China biometric data of millions of Zimbabweans and set up a mass police state surveillance grid in collaboration with Huawei. Cloudwalk’s access to these biometric data will enable this company to correct common race-related errors in facial-recognition software and gain new market shares in other countries. The Zimbabwean state has insisted that these technologies would empower the state to fight crime and advance the state’s law enforcement ambitions. Yet, facial recognition technology poses risk to privacy and civil liberties, warn human rights organizations.
The process is based on an algorithm that detects a face and compares it to faces from a biometric dataset. Such an algorithm also captures skin pigmentation and eye colour.
Critics point out that these systems do not always operate perfectly and may result in false matches which can undermine civil liberties or in failures to match correct identification which can provoke a denial of access to services or jobs.
In 2015, Google Photos tagged two African-Americans as gorillas through facial recognition, discovered Forbes. Another source found that Google Photos was also confusing white faces with dogs and seals. In this context, CloudWalk’s penetration of the Zimbabwe market can help the Chinese start-up to improve its means of facial recognition, by gaining access to a black population, which can improve the identification of dark-skinned people worldwide and open new business opportunities. In a way, Zimbabweans have become the guinea pigs of the Chinese facial recognition industry in its quest for a comparative advantage over Western competitors.

photo: 123rf

Zimbabwe is only one of the targets of the Chinese facial recognition industry. In 2021, the Washington-based Heritage Foundation revealed that China had built or renovated more than 280 government, presidential, parliament, military offices and foreign affairs buildings in Africa. Namibia, Ghana, Angola, Uganda and Equatorial Guinea are amongst the largest recipients of official buildings built by Chinese firms. In Zimbabwe, China built namely the National Defence College and also financed the 650-seater Parliament House.
With the use of digital spyware, a few state security officers can trace a vast number of citizens, and capture and store their data without any controls, warns the anti-censorship network “global voices advocacy”. Accordingly, section 57 of Zimbabwe’s constitution provides for the right to privacy, yet this provision is being blatantly violated by the Harare government which spies on citizens and stores their information under the guise of biometric voter registration and likely uses this
data for political ends.
Such fear is not mere paranoia. During former President Mugabe’s rule, the government used laws and security structures to carry out surveillance of opponents and generalised mass surveillance of the population. The Interception of Communications Act as well as mandatory SIM-card registration regulations made it easier for the state to monitor communications.  Since 2018, Zimbabwe collected fingerprints, photos, addresses, and phone numbers, allegedly to clean up the voters’ roll, which was reportedly full of “ghost voters”. But this frightens members of the minority Ndebele ethnic group, who are still traumatized by the massacre in 1983 of some 20,000 people by the army when Mnangagwa  was head of the security. People fear data collection “is a way to re-identify and target us,” says Rodwin Sibanda of the Habakkuk Trust, a Christian NGO founded by church leaders in Bulawayo. The fact that in China itself, these technologies were used to steal data from the Uyghur community, adds to the anxiety of Zimbabwean rights activists.

Photo: Bulawayo News

Reports from Zambia and Uganda implicated Huawei employees in assisting governments in spying on their political opponents, subsequently leading to opponents’ arrests.
Steven Feldstein considers that China’s influence is driving the proliferation of AI surveillance technology and thereby contributes to the rise of authoritarianism in Africa.  The gap between the adoption of novel facial recognition tools and robust legal measures that prevent abuses – along with citizens’ inability to provide input on how this technology should be used  – allows for rampant exploitation by private companies and state actors in the facial recognition space, writes Bulelani Jili, Meta Research Ph.D. at Harvard University, in an article published by the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre. Another victim in the process is Africa’s sovereignty.
In 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde revealed that servers in the African Union’s building in Addis Ababa were secretly sending data to a computer in Shanghai.
In December 2020, Reuters reported that Chinese hackers secretly redirected surveillance footage from the AU headquarters so it could be viewed abroad. Prior to the 33rd AU Summit in February of that year, the Japanese cybersecurity firm Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) alerted AU technicians of the security breach, after it spotted unusual traffic between the AU and a Chinese hacking group known as “Bronze President”, pursues Reuters. The chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, denied however that any Chinese hacking took place while the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin dismissed the Reuters report as “an attempt to harm China-Africa relations”.

During the repression in Matabeland of 1983, China was Zimbabwe’s largest arms supplier.

China’s involvement in Zimbabwe’s cyber surveillance systems does not come as a coincidence. It aims at strengthening a strong relationship that traces back to the struggle for independence period, with the links between Robert Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and China. The Harare government has described the giant Asian country as an “all-weather-friend”.
During the repression in Matabeland of 1983, China was Zimbabwe’s largest arms supplier. Between 1980 and 1999, Zimbabwe imported 35 percent of its arms from China and the bilateral relationship deepened, as the EU and the US imposed sanctions to protest against the human rights violations under the Mugabe regime.
In 2015, Zimbabwe became the first foreign country to adopt the Chinese yuan as its primary international currency.
Bilateral trade is an important dimension of these links. In 2022, it amounted to US $ 2.24 billion with a $ 180 million surplus for Zimbabwe, making China, its third largest trading partner after South Africa and the United Arab Emirates. Zimbabwe’s main exports include gold, nickel ores, platinum group minerals, ferrochromium, tobacco and diamonds, while its main imports are machinery, vehicles, as well as iron and steel. China is also an important investor. The list includes the US$1 billion dollar steel manufacturing plant being constructed by Dinson Iron and Steel Company, a Zimbabwe-based subsidiary of the giant Chinese steel producer, Tsingshan Holdings whose subsidiary AfroChine, has made sizeable investments in the construction of chrome smelters.

Zimbabweans have become the guinea pigs of the Chinese facial recognition industry.

China also financed the US$ 1.4 billion Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion project. Beijing’s ambassador in Harare Guo Shaochun reminded that China also financed the National Pharmaceutical Warehouse, the Kariba South Hydro PowerStation Expansion and the upgrading of the Victoria Falls and Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airports, besides donating millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines.
China also heavily invested in the mining sector, especially in the highly strategic lithium mines particularly coveted by the automotive industry for the production of electric cars. According to the United States Geological Survey, Zimbabwe is currently Africa’s first producer and hosts the second-largest reserves on the continent.
In 2021, the Chinese company Zhejiang Huayou acquired controlling rights to the Arcadia mine. And in 2022, President Mnangagwa officiated the launch of Sinomine’s 200-million-dollar project to build another lithium mine and processing plant in Bikita, in the Masvingo Province. The Marange diamond fields which are one of the world’s richest deposits are being mined by a joint venture formed by the Chinese company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group and the Zimbabwean military’s investment vehicle Matt Bronze. Chinese investors are also involved in gold and nickel mining. China has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, whatever the price. The stakes are just too high. (Open Photo: 123rf)

François Misser

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