Why African Dictators are Excited by China’s Tough Stance on Internet Usage

China invented its own reality, and for the Lulz named it the Internet.

This Chinese Internet is quite similar to the free and open and global web that the rest of us are privileged to have access to, but to what extent?

Dark Spectre

We thought that the worst abuse of the Internet at the hands of government was confined to communist China, but it seems that this tyranny has made its way to Africa.

The recent trend of clamping down on dissent in emerging markets shows that African dictators seem to be getting ideas from China in the form of strategic and technical influence on how to tackle issues that arise out of freedom of the open web.

For starters, over 600 million Chinese Internet users can access a cloned version of Twitter (Weibo), search using Baidu, certainly in position close to Google, and instant message each other using WeChat which is a WhatsApp of sorts. All these are policed and closely monitored.

Chinese authorities control social media and the Internet in two ways. First, certain websites like Google and Twitter are blocked, and traffic is redirected to bogus IP addresses or page not found error messages.

Secondly, they force locally operational Internet companies to censor content that the government deems “sensitive.” This could be works of an investigative journalist or activist, an outspoken artist, scientist, etc.

The Great Firewall

In 2006, China delivered on an ambitious eight year project dubbed the "Golden Shield", popularly known as the Great Firewall.

Ignoring the Great Firewall

Download the "Ignoring the Great Firewall of China".

The project consisted of robust infrastructure built to block any sort of Internet traffic from outside mainland China. It also incorporated high-tech surveillance features that automatically blacklist or shadow ban Internet users of dissenting views. It is testament to the lengths that the Chinese Communist Party will go to isolate and contain rogue elements online.

The ideals that the Internet was originally built on are the same ones that support a democratic dispensation of views and ideas. Of course, China’s Internet albeit being filtered and censored, shares the same foundations and protocols as Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web.

Lately, China has taken the lead in raising and supporting the notion of Internet sovereignty.

They argue that ultimately, the dissent spread online by the citizenry would spill offline, threatening the social order and national security. In stark contrast to the Western notion that information should flow freely across borders, the Chinese approach curtails internet freedom and limits the flow of information, justifying it as a means to maintain social order.

But China don’t wanna know. Not any of that.

Treacherous Path

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 first introduced the concept of sovereignty. It was a holistic measure that hoped to end or at least tone down the constant bickering and fighting that had become commonplace between states in 17th century Europe. The treaty led to an impasse, where one country would warn others to keep away from its turf, and it would in return keep away from theirs. Peace prevailed — at least, for that period of time.

China wants to apply these same principles to the internet. The scions of the China Communist Party under the leadership Xi Jinping were the first proponents. Where the great firewall’s rigor falls short, draconian policy and regulations come in to pick up the slack. The enforcers of these laws themselves are not held accountable for their actions.

It seems that Africa is going down the same treacherous path.

"Uganda blocked social media and mobile money access for four tense days during the presidential polls in February 2016. The same thing happened again on 11th May 2016, a day before the swearing in ceremony of the 'old' new president, showing that the country's internet infrastructure was subject to the whims of the ruling elite."

The Republic of Congo was not going to be left behind. The government ordered a complete shutdown of telephony and internet services just a few days to their presidential polls in March.

It’s feared that Kenya will certainly pull a similar stance in the forthcoming 2017 elections and yet, nobody will be held accountable.

As Africa witnesses the dilution of significant economic and political powers set against the decline of a decades-long hegemony of Western influence in the continent, China is fast becoming the continent's next strategic Big Brother.

The rise of innovation and technology in Africa has largely been driven by necessity as well as inefficiencies in service delivery by government. This innovation has emerged in the absence of laws and regulations, a combination that has created a perfect storm forward.

However, the lack of regulation has not only demobilized some genuinely open innovations, but it has also been abused by governments. Where a government’s absolute authority is threatened, switching off the elements deemed to be a threat, in this case social media and the internet, could lead to targeted repressive legislation and policies.

Consumers of the internet are not powerful individually.

Similarly, citizens as individuals wield no power. When they do aggregate and form a collective voice, they can daunt the mighty. Lawmakers in Nigeria’s senate just dropped the frivolous social media bill which was widely seen as a guise to gag freedom of expression on social media.

Political scientist Lawrence Britt wrote about the distinguishing features of state sponsored extremism — veiled under fascism — drawing from studies on de facto fascist regimes that once ruled Germany, Italy, Spain, Indonesia, and Chile.
Dr. Britt posited they all have the following 14 characteristic elements in common (in whole or in part):

  • Powerful and continuing nationalism;
  • Disdain for human rights;
  • Identification of enemies as a unifying cause;
  • Supremacy of the military;
  • Rampant sexism;
  • Controlled mass media;
  • Obsession with national security;
  • Religion and government intertwined;
  • Corporate power protected;
  • Labor power suppressed;
  • Disdain for intellectuals and the arts;
  • Obsession with crime and punishment;
  • Rampant cronyism and corruption;
  • Fraudulent elections.

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