The first billboard that greets passengers arriving at the airport in Lusaka, before Pepsi’s “Welcome to Zambia,” is an advertisement for Bank of China. Nearby, a Chinese company is building a sleek terminal. On the road into the capital city, near the office of Chinese telecom company ZTE Corp., another billboard features surveillance cameras made by Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology Co. At the national data center built by Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese man in a bright orange vest walks toward a building that houses government servers.
This southern African nation, a former British colony rich in copper and cobalt, is spending $1 billion on Chinese-made telecommunications, broadcasting, and surveillance technology. It’s all part of China’s “Digital Silk Road,” a subset of its “Belt and Road” initiative that contributes an estimated $79 billion in projects around the world, according to RWR Advisory Group, a Washington consulting firm that tracks Chinese investment. That funding has boosted development in Zambia and many other countries, but it comes at a price.
Most of the digital infrastructure projects in Zambia, like the more visible airport terminals and highways, are being built and financed by China, putting the country at what the International Monetary Fund calls a high risk of debt distress. It’s also given rise to fears that what has long been a thriving and stable multiparty democracy is veering toward a Chinese model of repression.
Zambian government officials defend their reliance on Chinese technology and deny it’s being used for political purposes. “The government has the responsibility to invest in infrastructure,” says Dora Siliya, the information minister. “Zambia’s model for development is neither the West’s nor China’s but an attempt to take the best from both. We have a Zambia model.” The Chinese Embassy in Lusaka didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
What’s playing out in Zambia is part of a larger contest between the U.S. and China for dominance over the future of technology and global influence. Companies from both countries sell tech products around the world, but Chinese businesses are offering a wide range of gear and relatively cheap financing in countries from Zimbabwe to Vietnam. They have an advantage in developing nations such as Zambia, which are looking to modernize their technology infrastructure.
The rivalry risks dividing the world with a digital iron curtain. The potential for bifurcation is already noticeable, as U.S. allies including Australia and New Zealand have banned Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment for 5G wireless technology on national security grounds and Canada arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in December on allegations she defrauded banks to violate Iranian sanctions. Huawei and ZTE are both private companies and have pushed back against allegations that they’re pawns of the Chinese government.