How Zimbabwe is building a Big Brother surveillance State using Chinese tech


Ever since the November 2017 coup, which ousted the late strongman Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has been experiencing democratic regression. Civic space previously had a veneer of state-acknowledged existence and tolerance by the government; however, under the stewardship of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the country’s civic space is shrinking both online and offline as the regime employs a raft of legal and extra-legal measures to thwart dissent. This process has been enabled by the use of expensive and advanced foreign surveillance technology, with most of it coming from Beijing under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI.) Research from the Unfreedom Monitor shows that the Zimbabwean government stands at the intersection of the security establishment and ruling party interests. This setup, aided by pervasive surveillance, helps the governing regime to maintain a tight grip on political power.

Dawn of a visual era On July 20, 2022, President Mnangagwa broke ground for the official launch of a USD 500 million Cybercity project to be built by an external entity. The project, about which Mnangagwa was visibly excited, is to be funded by one Shaji Ul Mulk, the chairperson of the multinational manufacturing company Mulk International from the United Arab Emirates. The blueprint of the project shows that the envisaged city will be surrounded by surveillance cameras for purposes of security and that similar initiatives will be rolled out in the rest of the country over the next few years.

The Mulk International project is only one among many others that the government is already eager to construct. The concept of Smart Cities is part of the government’s agenda to create a new society with industrial, commercial, and residential areas, driven by digital technology and the internet of things. The government has already approved the development of a Smart City in Melfort, located in Goromonzi, between the capital city Harare and the town of Marondera in the east. The idea behind this is to reduce the distance to the Robert Mugabe International Airport for investors and traffic from the east of the country. Other Smart Cities are expected to be built in the southern provinces of the country.

However, civil society members and activists fear that the deployment and use of surveillance cameras in the country means that Mnangagwa’s regime can quickly identify and eliminate dissenting voices who pose a risk to his political establishment. Interestingly, the Chinese government is already supporting Smart City initiatives through direct technological exchanges with Zimbabwe, hence the securing of such interests would include setting up a pervasive surveillance state modelled along the lines of the Chinese state. China’s provision of surveillance equipment and the infrastructure upon which local telecommunications networks rest remains a recurrent issue, because the government of Zimbabwe prioritises telecommunications projects from Chinese companies over Western countries deemed hostile in their foreign policies towards Mnangagwa’s government.

Chinese companies such as Huawei and Hikvision have taken the lead in rolling out facial recognition cameras in the main cities which creates a pervasive surveillance state. For example, the police installed CCTV cameras in opposition party stronghold cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Both cities are usually troublesome hotspots for the police as anti-government protests usually break out in these areas. Furthermore, Zimbabwe has been identified as a client of Israeli-manufactured invasive digital spyware, Pegasus, which is an effective weapon for clamping down on voices of dissent. The government has denied the allegation.

Tracing the surveillance cash trail Zimbabwe’s economy is imploding due to poor governance, institutionalised corruption, and hyperinflation. However, this has not deterred the state from pursuing surveillance initiatives as investors from China and the Middle East with deep pockets remain eager to roll out their technologies in the country.

In 2017, state-owned telecom operator TelOne launched two data centers with cloud facilities in Harare and Mazowe (38 km from Harare) at a cost of USD 1.6 million. The launch was part of a USD 98 million network upgrade project implemented with Chinese firm Huawei, funded by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. Another state-owned mobile network operator NetOne is in a USD 71 million partnership with Huawei for the rollout of 260 base stations, to improve network coverage including rural areas. Under the project, the base stations are being upgraded to 4G and 5G.

More importantly, Zimbabwe’s major network operators have used Chinese-backed loans to build and upgrade their telecommunications infrastructure. On February 26, 2021, President Mnangagwa commissioned the National Data Center (NDC) in Harare. The facility, which will be linked to databases with information from “key economic players and state institutions” is meant to digitise government services. It was also completed in partnership with the Chinese government. Mnangagwa’s regime is already using facial recognition technology from Chinese firm Hikvision at airports and international border posts. Hikvision software is being integrated with locally developed technology to drive an Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a national facial recognition system in Zimbabwe.

The deployment of surveillance technologies in Zimbabwe has outpaced democratic control. With the use of digital spyware, a few state security officers can trace, with precision, a vast number of citizens, and capture and store their data without any controls. The majority of media items used for research in the monitor revealed that the secretive nature of surveillance in Zimbabwe creates the risk of abuse by political actors. In 2020, Mnangagwa’s government spent USD 20 million (the first tranche of a USD 100 million contract set to end in 2025) on an initial phase of a mass police state surveillance grid in collaboration with Huawei. Under the deal, CloudWalk Technology and Hikvision will supply facial recognition technology, with the former company already harvesting the data of millions of Zimbabweans under biometric voter registration for storage and processing in China. Part of CloudWalk Technologies’s demands in the partnership included the establishment of strong and stable data communication networks as well as extensive camera deployment. This would mark the next step in the AI partnership with the government of Zimbabwe as the rollout of a facial recognition camera system vastly depends on reliable internet protocols.

Journalist Amy Hawkins notes in Foreign Policy that China’s intentions go beyond providing infrastructure and that Beijing is striving to export its ideology — especially around surveillance and control — to African countries through the BRI initiative.

Why does this all matter? The majority of citizens remain indifferent to the creation of a surveillance state that intrudes on privacy and other critical human rights, under the conviction that they are immune to the government’s excesses as long as they are not rights activists, political actors, or journalists. This belief that the infringement of human and digital rights does not concern them at all has created fertile ground for the emergence of pervasive surveillance in Zimbabwe.

The rollout of surveillance technologies in Zimbabwe is not about ensuring the safety of citizens or moving towards a modernised state as government narratives suggest. Rather, these technologies are highly useful for espionage and social influence through controlling narratives and shaping the way people should think about the ruling regime. A senior government official quoted in local media confirms that the government of Zimbabwe has, for years, been constructing an AI database of citizens using Chinese technologies.

Section 57 of Zimbabwe’s constitution provides for the right to privacy, yet this provision is being blatantly violated by the government of Zimbabwe as it spies on citizens, stores their information under the guise of biometric voter registration, and likely uses that data for political ends. Though Zimbabwe has a Data Protection Act, it is criticized by human rights advocates as a piece of legislation meant to criminalize free expression online and crack down on civic space, rather than help this situation. Surveillance encourages self-censorship on online platforms and also serves to undermine rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association, encapsulated in the constitution under Section 61 and Section 58 respectively.

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