Chinese-Built Public Buildings are Being Used to Spy on African Governments – Report

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SWITZERLAND, MAY 30 – Public buildings constructed by the Chinese may be serving as conduits for spying on African governments, the Heritage Foundation, an American research and educational institution , based in Washington, D.C has asserted.

In a new report published on the foundation’s website on Saturday, Joshua Meservey, Senior Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation wrote that Beijing may have better surveillance access to Africa than anywhere else in the worldas Chinese companies have constructed or renovated (or both) at least 186 sensitive African government buildings.

Below are excerpts from the report:

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:

  1. Facilitate Beijing’s influence operations on the continent;
  2. Recruit intelligence assets at senior levels of African governments;
  3. Gain insight into U.S. diplomatic strategies, military counterterrorism operations, or joint military exercises; and
  4. 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.

The 186 number includes three regional and one pan-African building: the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC) Parliament, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) headquarters, the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) headquarters, and the African Union (AU) headquarters, respectively. Construction of the ECOWAS headquarters was slated to begin in January 2020, but it is unclear if construction has started. Nine other buildings appear to still be under construction. 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.5

A year and a half before the Le Monde expose, a 2016 report mentioned rumors that the Chinese had bugged the AU headquarters. 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.

Read the rest of the report here:

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