The report by the Heritage Foundation, a U.S.-based conservative think tank, found that Chinese companies built at least 186 government buildings in Africa and 14 “sensitive intragovernmental telecommunications networks.” These buildings include residences for heads of state, parliamentary offices, and police or military headquarters.
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 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 Chinese ruling party
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.
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.
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
Risks to African governments
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.
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. 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