What happens when China builds your country’s internet?


I’m in a back road in rural Zambia. As you can see, there’s basically nothing around here. Even so my phone has pretty good internet service here. Today, even the most remote parts of
Zambia have gone digital. To see that firsthand, we traveled a thousand
kilometers from the capital, Lusaka. In a car, on a plane, on another plane. And a boat, across a lake, and through a swamp,
to an isolated island. And it’s as connected to the
digital world as any other part of Africa. – Before, you needed to physically send messages to people you know by boat or by canoe. This is Kunda Mwila. He grew up on this island and has worked in the telecoms industry for decades. But now, with the 3G, we are able to just make a call on your mobile. Cell service, wifi, cable TV, satellite dishes. All of this has something in common: China. Private Chinese companies build the infrastructure, funded with loans from the Chinese government. Around the world, Chinese-built networks are connecting places to the digital economy for the first time. But China is also giving governments unprecedented power to control the information on those networks. For young democracies like Zambia,
that can be a blessing or a curse. We’re traveling around the world to find
out how China is changing basically everything. This week, the internet. I’m Nikhil Sonnad, reporting for Quartz. You’re watching Because China. China’s presence here is all part of its
plan to create what it calls a “digital silk road.” The goal is to build markets for its digital services and products in developing countries. A recent study of Chinese tech companies identified dozens of telecom projects like 4G networks, underway in Africa. China is also helping to build 20 smart cities across the continent, including in Zambia, which aim to digitize public services
and collect data on citizens. And there are plenty more in other parts of the world. These projects can make a huge difference in the lives of everyday people. But there’s another, more fundamental goal at work: China wants to reshape the way we think about the internet, around the idea of “digital sovereignty.” This says that every nation should decide
what kind of internet it wants. That’s different from the original conception, that every country would connect to one free and open internet. What’s unique about the Chinese model is that it puts the power to make these decisions fully in the hands of the local government. Not private companies, not civil groups, not individuals. For African governments that want to improve their infrastructure, this makes China a welcome alternative to its Western competitors: less
judgmental and more flexible. – I think unconsciously even,
the West are very patronizing. You know, they know better, they know best, and then they won’t give you this unless you look like them or sound like them or do things like them. Mulenga Kapwepwe is chair of the board for
Zambia’s public broadcaster, ZNBC, which received a Chinese loan for a major infrastructure project, the digitization of TV service nationwide. – So that for me, I think, is one of the attractive things that the Chinese also do come with. Asking you what you want and how you want it. China went further than just making
digital TV work. The loan allowed ZNBC to build these slick new studios. And a Chinese company is building its new nerve center to centralize data from bureaus around the country. But the deal has been controversial. It further strengthens ZNBC– which is state-owned and pushes a pro-government line– in a country where independent
reporting is already difficult. And this is how China usually works with other countries. It deals directly with governments, and only with governments, says Iginio Gagliardone, who studies the politics of technology in Africa. – The state, independently from its democratic or authoritarian credential, is the one that gets empowered. China doesn’t care what kind of government it helps, whether it’s through cheap loans, technical assistance, or brand-new digs for a public broadcaster. – This can have good and bad
outcomes. It can lead to schools and hospitals
being better connected. And when it comes to states and governments where checks and balances from other sources of power are not as effective, this could exaggerate authoritarian tendencies that already exist. A sovereign internet gives the Zambian government a powerful tool to control and manage information. In the battle between citizens and the state, it strengthens the hand of the state, putting extra stress on the country’s democracy. – China has consistently supported states in expanding their version of the internet. No matter how democratic or authoritarian the state is. And Zambia has been moving decidedly
in the direction of authoritarianism. Since 2014, its ranking in the
democracy index has slipped. Its internet is only considered “partly free.” In 2017, the government arrested the opposition party’s leader and charged him with treason. In 2016, the government made an
especially aggressive move: it shut down The Post, an independent newspaper known for its investigative reporting. Joan Chirwa, a journalist and founder of Zambia’s Free Press Initiative, was managing editor at the time. – So what happened with The Post in 2016? – We were getting ready for the next day’s edition, and the next thing we saw was some
armed policemen in some vehicles. There wasn’t any chance for
any talking or negotiation. They straight just went and told
everybody to leave the offices. Some people were crying, others were screaming and just not knowing what to do. Because you don’t know whether
you’ll be back in the morning. The government’s official reason for
closing the paper was unpaid taxes, but people here agree that it was its role as a challenger to state power that got it closed for good. In addition to having her publication shut down,
Joan is currently on trial for trumped-up charges of
“defamation of the president.” That authoritarian logic is extending
to social media, too: a teacher who insulted the president on Facebook was sentenced to two years in jail. These kinds of things make Joan uneasy about China’s role in shaping Zambia’s internet. – So those in the online space are the only ones left to sort of do some of the things that traditional media was previously doing. Joan and others worry that the government might
shut down such websites, or the whole internet altogether, during the next presidential election, in 2021. The Smart Zambia project, built with help from Huawei, could be used simply to improve public services, or it could start to look like the massive surveillance apparatus of the “smart cities” in western China. – There’s been some equipment which has been procured by government from China for the effort of controlling the flow of information. So the fear is genuine. – How would you diagnose the
health of Zambia’s democracy? It’s… ailing. I think we were almost there. But we got to a stage where our claim to be a democracy is being questioned in many places. China’s massive role in setting up Zambia’s internet infrastructure doesn’t have to be good or bad. Ultimately, it’ll come down to how the local government decides to wield its newfound power, and whether Zambians are able to hold them accountable.

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