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Book Reviews

Book Review: China’s Cyber Power

altThe cyber domain has become central to the struggle for strategic advantage between the US and the West on the one hand, and China and other authoritarian states on the other.

If there is any outsider, who can present a coherent view of China’s rise as a cyber power, it is the author of this short book. Nigel Inkster was the deputy chief of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, speaks Mandarain, is well versed in the country’s history and seems to show a good understanding of the psyche of Beijing’s leadership and its options. He is currently the Director of Future Conflict and Cyber Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Informing China’s stance is the Soviet era doctrine of information warfare as a tool to ensure internal political control and a favourable external narrative. The US, of course, has its own cyber war capacity, and its efficacy may have been damaged by Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on the US's extensive snooping programme. Where the West and the East importantly differ is the degree of liberty they are willing to tolerate in the cybersphere.

China’s Cyber Power argues that state control of the cyber domain is a critical factor in China’s pursuit of military strength and protection from internal and external threats. “What the leadership fear most of all is the prospect of an irrecoverable breakdown in internal order,” writes Inkster.

“There are signs that the Party’s ideologues may be developing a vision for the Chinese cyber domain that enables it to exercise control over citizens by both filtering the information they access and compiling such detailed electronic data on individuals – including their entire browsing history and all their social-media posts – that any perceived infractions can be used as leverage against them,” he writes.

“For now, China appears to believe that it can have its cake and eat it: gaining the economic benefits that come from with global connectivity while excluding information as seen as detrimental to political and social stability,” Inkster writes.

On the external front, Inkster believes that the Chinese are heavily engaged in cyber espionage as a means of dulling the West's technological edge. In the wake of an agreement between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese efforts to cyber-steal American intellectual property and business secrets seem to be declining. But the international fault lines on cyber issues remain clear, as does cyber's pivotal role in future armed conflicts.

In 2000, then US President Bill Clinton likened Chinese efforts to censor what was on the web to trying to “nail Jell-O to the wall.” Beijing's approach is nuanced as the authorities often refrain from censoring criticisms of the leadership, but do crack down on attempts to mobilize unauthorized public protest. The Chinese now live in what could be called a parallel web universe, overseen by a complex and multilayered monitoring and control system. This might strengthen the authoritarians' hold on power, although Inkster concludes, “it will be some time before any safe conclusions can be reached about this experiment.”

The recent example of Zimbabwe shows how the cat and mouse game is playing out in an African country. Robert Mugabe's regime is presently facing a challenge from Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #This Flag, a protest movement that makes extensive use of the internet and social media.

Shutting down the internet was probably considered too draconian, especially since opponents were likely to see it as sign of panic. When warnings about "misuse" of social media proved ineffective, says TechZim.co.zw, a Zimbabwean information technology site, the government opted instead to force Zimbabwe’s three mobile network operators to suspend sales of cheap data bundles. Eliminating special mobile data promotion bundles is the ultimate squeeze on protest, TechZim suggests.

Was Mugabe's government advised by the Chinese? Inkster believes that a large number of African countries may find the Chinese model of internet control attractive. China’s large footprint in Africa allows it to influence cyber policies through diplomatic pressure and help in telecommunications network development, he says. Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE have built major systems in around 30 African countries. Huawei has established training centres in seven African states, a research and development facility in South Africa, and a network operations base in Cairo. Human Rights Watch has criticised both companies for providing equipment used to conduct political surveillance.

“China may exploit its control of African telecommunications infrastructure for intelligence-gathering purposes," writes Inkster. "There is no hard evidence to support this proposition, but it would scarcely be surprising if China were engaged in such activities, whether independently or in conjunction with the states concerned."

“Chinese engagement appears to have been translated into political support for some of Beijing’s policies, a notable example being the 2015 cyber-security pact between the Chinese and South African governments, which made reference to collaboration on information security,” he says.

In July 2016 South Africa, along with others, supported China by voting against a UN resolution that would have required states to commit themselves to a policy of non-interference with the flow of online information. This diplomatic victory could be a sign that Beijing is winning the cyber Cold War in Africa.

For the public, communications can be hidden from prying eyes through encrypted services such as WhatsApp, the use of Virtual Private Networks, which can camouflage internet addresses, and Tor, software that can hide the source of internet traffic. These devices are certainly sufficient to force prying eyes to work a lot harder.

Publisher: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, for The International Institute for Strategic Studies (30 May 2016)
ISBN 978-1-138-21116-2
Softcover: 123 pages
A Kindle edition is also available


Book review: Recce: Small Team Missions Behind Enemy Lines

Recce by Koos Stadler.Professional soldier Koos Stadler has written a remarkable book chronicling his experiences as a special forces small reconnaissance team member operating behind enemy lines during the Border War period in Angola, South West Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Book Review: Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency

altMuch about the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is shrouded in mystery. Last week the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, claimed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was no longer the group’s leader and the man now in command was open to talks. Then day’s later Shekau released a recording saying he has not been replaced, helping further build the mystery.

Around 15,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram’s campaign of armed attacks, bombings, and kidnappings launched in 2003.

Virginia Comolli, a Research Fellow of the International Institute of Security Studies in London, gives a sound account of the rise of militant Islam in West Africa. Boko Haram is part of a long history of violent radical Islam in northern Nigeria that dates back to the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. He began his holy war in 1804 and five years later established the Sokoto Caliphate, the most powerful West African state at the time. This is a considerable legacy on which jihadi groups can build inspiration.

The British governed through traditional rulers and permitted Sharia law, thereby helping defuse jihadi inspiration. But the seeds for jihadi mobilisation remained, and the Maitatsine uprising of the late 1970s and early 1980s was the first sizeable post-colonial confrontation of the Nigerian state with radical Islam.

Ideology and inspiration from the past combine with the splintering of Islamic groups, often driven by sheer charisma and the desire to gain political influence, to keep the strong jihadi tradition alive. Comolli casts doubt on the role of Islamic schools as an overwhelming driver, but does see the region’s rapid population growth rate and high youth unemployment, as well as the popular feeling that the North has been undermined by the South as key factors behind Boko Haram's growth.

Comolli also points out that the delayed campaign of the Nigerian security forces, which has often heavily relied on detention and torture, has contributed to the loss of hearts and minds.

Founded in 1995 at the University of Maiduguri, Boko Haram was initially a peaceful group, but new leadership seized control and put it onto a violent path in 2003. There are signs of splintering, with Ansaru, another jihadi group, being one known breakaway from Boko Haram.

Comolli admits she faced challenges in researching her topic. She was barred from talking to Boko Haram prisoners by the Nigerian authorities and had to rely heavily on government officials, NGOs, and academic research as sources. Interviews with present or past Boko Haram supporters, rather than relying so heavily on officials and heaps of academic research, would have made the book a gem.

Her book came out before a Northerner, General Muhammadu Buhari, was elected President, and promised to deal with the Boko Haram threat. Nevertheless she sees the campaign, as a long and difficult one, requiring a more subtle approach and close cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours that share the threat - Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Her conclusion may well be sadly realistic – even if Boko Haram is crushed, a new version will rise to feed on grievances and inequality.

Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Hurst; 1 edition (June 1, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1849044910
ISBN-13: 978-1849044912


Book Review: Raising The Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa

Raising the Bar - Hope and Renewal in South Africa. Raising the Bar is Songezo Zibi’s first book and seeks to provide a thorough, accurate analysis on the different issues preventing South Africa from moving forward.

Zibi’s writing explores aspects of South African society by identifying challenges to the country’s development and examining possible solutions which would manage and eliminate these challenges.

The book’s focus is divided across a broad range of topics such as race, education, ethics, leadership, politics, government, violence, the role of women and social taboos within South African society.

Throughout the book Zibi makes reference to instances in his own personal life, grounding his writing. In examining race relations in South Africa he makes interesting observations, in some cases based on his personal experiences. He examines the notion of “blackness”, a hotly contested subject in South Africa and argues that the term is intellectually dead and must be rethought. Definition renewal should be sought by examining key ethical and social values within black society which should give rise to an autonomous term rather than one dependent on “what whites do or do not do”.

Zibi also argues for ethics-based transformation where he states that transformation should address social justice, rather than focus purely on race. He presents various examples in illustrating his view; one is that of a black chauvinistic man hired into a senior position, a move which does not represent transformation because our constitution is built on gender equality.

In a critical review of South Africa’s politics he argues that the country’s leaders have destroyed any trust the public had for them as a result of high levels of corruption and tax evasion. There is also a dire need for more formal education within the country’s leadership, an element which is severely lacking. Until leaders can emerge who are trustworthy, well-educated and have real vision the country will continue to face a crisis of leadership, he believes.

The author’s views on violence, women and taboos within South African society are fascinating; again, many of his arguments are grounded in his own memories growing up. He shows how South Africa’s violent society is in many ways grounded in a history of violence. Zibi examines this while also incorporating the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s views on objective violence and subjective violence. In South Africa for instance, the physical strike action of miners represents objective violence, however there is this consistent failure in engaging with the subjective violence of the story, namely the conditions in which they work. As South African society is also one of entrenched patriarchy there must be a directed attempt towards eradicating the belief that many men have regarding their superiority to women, Zibi says.

When it comes to cultural beliefs and taboos the book highlights how South Africans shy away from uncomfortable societal truths, such as how religious beliefs conflict with the constitution, truthful conversations about behaviour during the armed struggle and discussions on white privilege as a result of apartheid. The author believes that these kinds of taboo topics have to be addressed if we are to move the country forward.

Raising the Bar is an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking book which seeks to answer the question: how can South Africa move forward? In his analysis Zibi provides insightful and strong arguments as to the country’s problems and how we can fix them. A great read for those wanting to expand their knowledge on making South Africa better and furthering the country’s development.


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