China has been building key government offices and facilities in African countries for decades and fitting them with gear that likely allows the Chinese government to spy on everyone, from presidents and prime ministers to judges and generals and beyond, according to a recent Heritage Foundation report.
The Palace of Justice in the Angolan capital of Luanda was built in 2012, while in the notorious kleptocracy of Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese erected the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in 2015. And in Zimbabwe, where its former leader, the late Robert Mugabe, once called Chinese leader Xi Jinping “a God-sent person,” China has built the country’s National Defense College and is constructing its parliament, according to the report.
In all, “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,” the report states.
That gives Beijing extraordinary access to gain insights into the most intimate workings of governments across Africa, and to the information that gives China clairvoyant-like powers to adjust its tactics to maximum advantage.
In conjunction with physical assets, China has also built 14 “intra-governmental telecommunication networks,” with Chinese-made systems such as those from Huawei. Meservey expects that those networks are all compromised in favor of China’s intelligence-gathering activities, giving the regime a significant advantage over not only its political and commercial competitors in Africa, but also over host-country officials who may themselves be liable for misdeeds.
The breadth and depth of intelligence coverage China has been able to achieve through its construction projects across Africa is a sign of the continent’s importance to Beijing’s geopolitical strategies, the report points out.
The suspicion that many of these facilities act as listening stations for Beijing is bolstered by two factors.
China has already been caught red-handed vacuuming up years of data from one of Africa’s most important public buildings. In 2018, first Le Monde and then the Financial Times ran stories exposing two systemic security breaches that China had hard-wired into the building it constructed and donated for the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The first was the discovery that the AU’s servers, also a Chinese gift, were uploading data to servers in Shanghai, nightly from midnight to 2 a.m.
The other breach at the AU was more tactile. A physical inspection of the AU building uncovered listening devices throughout the building.
Aside from the AU case, which offers direct evidence of China’s ability, and, more importantly, its willingness to spy on and compromise a friend, a second factor adds compelling circumstantial evidence to the likelihood that China is spying on Africa through the medium of its building infrastructure there.
That evidence is found in China, where for decades, apartment compounds and hotels were built that exclusively housed foreigners. In most if not all of those facilities, listening equipment was deployed to monitor conversations and movements of residents and guests, according to multiple Chinese Communist Party and foreign business and diplomatic sources. Those compounds include groups of diplomatic apartment buildings in Beijing, as well as hotels operating under major Western European and American brand names.
Indeed, even foreign students in China are known to have found microphones in their dormitories.
The high probability that China is using infrastructure that it builds in Africa to spy on political and business leaders and events should give the United States pause, the report suggests. If the capability to spy in Africa is being used, then it means that China “has better surveillance access to Africa” than any other nation operating on the continent, Meservey writes.
Using that access and the inside knowledge it provides gives China an advantage in competitive commercial negotiations.
It also tips Beijing about who in Africa can be influenced to make decisions favorable to China’s goals, and how to exert and recruit that influence.
But the scope of surveillance isn’t limited to Africans, the report points out. Anyone in a room built or equipped by China can be the subject of Beijing’s listening capabilities, including U.S. and other foreign officials.
In addition, activities that take place in those physical locations between a host country and any other foreign nation also become vulnerable to Chinese spying, compromising “diplomatic strategies, military counterterrorism operations, [and] joint military exercises.”
Which is why, Meservey advises, “the U.S. should try to complicate Beijing’s surveillance … as part of a strategic response to the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] effort to reshape the global order.”
In his May 22 press conference, Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, called the Heritage report’s claims “ridiculous” and “based on nothing but lies, illusions, and ideological bias,” in response to China Daily’s request to comment on the report.
In addition, “African leaders publicly refuted such rumors on multiple occasions,” Zhao said.
The Heritage report anticipated that response.
“Expect little help—and perhaps even resistance—from some African states. Given how adroitly the CCP has built influence in Africa and the many examples of African countries fearing to defy Beijing, the U.S. should not expect these governments to offer much assistance in ameliorating America’s counterintelligence problem in Africa,” the author writes.
In fact, “some, if asked, or in an attempt to curry CCP favor, may even actively collaborate with Beijing to hinder American efforts to protect its interests on the continent.”