Undertones: Zimbabwe's cyberpunk cities fueled by China

Illustration by Global Voices using illustrated images of Zimbabwe's new capital, Zim Cyber City

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome back to Undertones, your source for thoughtful analysis of media narratives from around the world. In this edition, we're delving into the intricate issue of digital authoritarianism in Zimbabwe, as part of our ongoing project, the Unfreedom Monitor.

Zimbabwe is set to become Africa’s first country with a “smart” capital city built from scratch. Just outside the present-day capital, New Harare or Zim Cyber City is slated to become a state-of-the-art artificially intelligent city with interconnected government buildings, smooth traffic, round-the-clock security, prime real estate, and top-notch malls. At least, that’s what the government is promising. 

For many concerned citizens, New Harare’s plans for omnipresent facial recognition tech combined with AI will usher Zimbabwe into a dystopian era. The technology will be able to match a person’s live images with centralized databases and alert law enforcement when a suspected criminal is detected. 

In Zimbabwe, where freedoms are harshly curtailed by the regime of President Emerson Mnangagwa, there are also politically-motivated ulterior motives for this technology. In fact, CCTV (Closed-circuit television) cameras are already being placed in Zimbabwe’s cities where opposition movements are strong.

The tenders for Zimbabwe’s digital ambitions mainly go to Chinese surveillance giants, such as Huawei, Hikvision, and CloudWalk, which are backed by their government’s loans. New Harare’s parliament building has been funded by China. All these projects are part of China’s Digital Silk Road and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mega infrastructure project. Our researchers previously investigated BRI narratives, compiled in our “Framing China's Belt and Road Initiative” report. 

Deals for facial recognition technology in Zim Cyber City have also been made with Dubai-based Mulk International. Meanwhile, President Mnangagwa is developing relations with Belarussian leaders at digital security events. Zimbabwe’s government has also reportedly used targeted surveillance in the form of Pegasus spyware on politicians’ and journalists’ phones.

As Zimbabwe’s general elections are expected for July 2023, Mnangagwa’s government is promoting positive narratives about these multimillion-dollar investments. Zimbabwe citizens, however, are not convinced. “There is talk on social media, although not prominent, about the government's misplaced priorities in a faltering economy,” says our Zimbabwean researcher, who remains anonymous for safety reasons.

Screenshot from Africanews/Youtube

“Chinese money is necessary for modernization”

Pro-governmental voices argue that importing Chinese technology will propel Zimbabwe’s security, development, and economic growth. In a nutshell, they say that “China is exporting technology to help countries advance technologically.”

Zimbabwe’s trust in China’s goodwill goes back decades. China (as well as Russia) supported Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule throughout the 1960s and ’70s. State narratives pit China’s ‘benevolent influence’ against “imperialistic” Western powers who exercise double standards, especially when it comes to human rights. 

Human rights are seen as a fallacy crafted by the West to undermine the governments of the Global South. This narrative is also found in Rwanda, China, Cameroon, and countless other non-Western countries.

An editor from Herald, a state-owned local newspaper, wrote, for example, that the “U.S. lacks moral authority to lecture [Zimbabwe]” in response to a human rights report drafted by the United States’ embassy in Harare last year. He argued that the U.S. has a poor track record of human rights in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, refused to cooperate with the United Nations in 2019, and supplies arms to the Middle East.

But human rights are indeed at risk in Zimbabwe. Our research in the Unfreedom Monitor shows that Zimbabwe’s citizens are met with punitive measures when they exercise their rights, including freedom of expression and assembly.

“Considering the regime’s penchant for cracking down on dissenting voices as a tactic of power retention, the government’s adoption of surveillance technology bodes badly for opposition parties, activists, NGOs, and civil society,” our researcher says.  “Surveillance technology in Smart City projects will make it easier for the State to clamp down on dissenting voices using laws that go against freedom of assembly and expression.”

Few, but clear, opposing voices

Despite the risks, some critics voice their concern about their government’s plans to make cities “smarter”. Not only do they fear more censorship and a more efficient crackdown on dissidents and journalists through mass and targeted surveillance, but they also argue that China will have access to Zimbabweans’ biometric and communication data as part of a deal between the two countries to hone facial recognition AI for African people’s features. One of the leading voices for data and privacy rights is the Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, as well as niche defense publications.

The rest of the population, however, is less vocal in its opposition, and wary of reprisal. “There is a great level of fear in the population because they know the repercussions of speaking out against the government,” our Zimbabwean researcher says. “There is a lot of voter apathy, they won’t speak out about these things. There is a sense of disillusionment.”

China’s Digital Silk Road

The Digital Silk Road is the digital wing of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has become the global leader in surveillance-based governance at home, a model now being exported internationally. In Africa, China contributes more funding for information and communications technology than all major democracies and international organizations combined. If you are interested in the narratives surrounding China’s BRI, see our analyses from 2021 until today. Here are a few stories:

Editor's note: A previous version of this story mentioned that New Harare's parliament was under construction, when it is already built. We have corrected this.

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