What happens when China builds your country’s internet

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This story is part of an ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.

Before the Chambeshi River in northern Zambia feeds into the all-important Congo River, it takes a break, stopping to form the massive Lake Bangweulu. The name refers to “water that meets the sky.” It stretches so far that, when it’s still, cloud and lake get all mixed up at the horizon. At the center of this vast expanse, Zambians on tiny fishing boats take leisurely phone calls and send brisk WhatsApps.

Throughout Africa, countries are being connected to the digital economy for the first time, making the internet accessible where it once was not, like in the middle of Lake Bangweulu. In Zambia, communication, banking, and public services are all going digital. As in many African nations, this is all happening with the help of China. But China isn’t just spotting good investment opportunities; nor is it trying to win favors from smaller countries. It’s changing how we think about the internet.

Beneath Zambia’s ground and stretching into its sky are digital infrastructure projects built by Chinese companies, with funding from the Chinese government. Fiber-optic cables, satellite dishes, cell towers, data centers, the list goes on. The upsides of this are clear enough when Zambians tell you that, while it used to take several days to get a letter to a friend a few towns away, the whole country is now just a WhatsApp away. It’s also true that the new conception of the internet implicit in projects carried out by China could be a threat to fledgling democracies, Zambia included.

In China’s view, every nation should be able to create its own version of the internet. China itself has done just that, fostering its own versions of Google, Facebook, YouTube, and the rest and restricting access to the outside world. This is why Chinese digital infrastructure projects abroad are almost exclusively carried out through national governments—not private companies, not NGOs, not individual citizens. In Zambia, that is strengthening the hand of a government that is starting to look more and more authoritarian. Earlier this year, for example, a teacher was put in jail for insulting the president on Facebook.

Quartz went to Zambia for the latest installment of Because China, our video series on how the world’s newest superpower is changing everything. We found that the fact that China is building a country’s digital infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean that the country wants the restricted, censored Chinese model of the internet. But no matter what, it makes governments stronger, whether they are democratic, authoritarian, or something in between.