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The African continent offers Huawei and other Chinese technology giants rich opportunities. Tom Bayes unpicks the stories of their rise in Africa and warns more is at stake than technology.

The African Union Headquarters in Ethopoia

Recent controversies about Huawei have centered on the developed world. But the influence of China’s emerging technology giants reaches well beyond the US and Europe. In Africa, China and its companies are shaping the tech sector – and through it the continent’s economies. With a surging population and wide digital shortfall, Africa offers rich opportunities to sell and innovate, water on the wheels of China’s strategy to become a “cyber superpower”. But with Beijing also keen to export its model of control through and of the internet, its ambitions reach beyond mere technology.

Huawei has come to dominate African networks

An understanding of China’s role in African tech – positive and problematic – is key to understanding what is likely to be one of the most important relationships of the 21st century. On one level, this is a story about large-scale infrastructure, just a less obvious kind than the familiar dams and railways. Since being encouraged to enter African markets under China’s 1999 “Going Out” policy, Huawei has come to dominate telecoms network installation in Africa. Displacing European rivals like Eriksson and Nokia, Huawei is the number one provider in Africa (and Chinese rival ZTE number five).

Huawei alone has installed 70% of African 4G networks. As well as large profit margins for Huawei, this has brought real benefits to its African clients, affordably connecting areas perhaps otherwise unreached – and stimulating economic activity perhaps otherwise left dormant. As an example of the oft-touted win-win partnership, this pays dividends for China-Africa diplomacy.

“Africa first”: Chinese companies tailoring products for the continent

On another level, this is a story about offering Africans innovative, affordable consumer electronics to exploit the new connectivity. The most striking example is Shenzhen-based Transsion. Though it has never sold a handset in its native China, its brands Tecno, iTel, and Infinix sell more smartphones than anyone else in Africa. Transsion has successfully pursued an “Africa first” policy by tailoring its products to consumers - long battery life, for example, to cope with patchy power supplies.

Having built networks and put phones in people’s pockets, Chinese companies are also looking to offer African consumers the services, apps, and platforms that exploit new technologies. China’s internet giants are closely involved. For example, roll-out of WeChat Pay and AliPay is gathering pace, particularly in southern and eastern Africa. High rates of “unbanked citizens and rising mobile phone ownership in Africa offer major opportunities for mobile payments and banking services.

But there is also a less upbeat story about China’s role in African tech: the potential for oppression through surveillance and espionage, and the promotion of restrictive internet governance.

The shine was taken off China’s gift of a USD 200 million headquarters for the African Union (AU) when Le Monde revealed in 2018 that the building’s Huawei data infrastructure had since 2012 been secretly sending the AU’s internal data to Shanghai servers (and the building liberally peppered with hidden microphones). The embarrassing episode dented trust in Chinese tech products – indeed the AU swiftly moved to install new, non-Chinese systems in the building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

China may one day be training “digital authoritarianism” in Africa

But it didn't stop Chinese-African tech cooperation. US government-backed Freedom House last year pointed to Beijing’s active program of training in “digital authoritarianism” for African and other government officials, sharing Chinese tools and techniques of internet censorship and surveillance. These activities align with a growing trend of restrictive internet governance by some African governments - from blackouts at moments of political sensitivity in the DRC, Sudan and elsewhere, to new, tighter internet and social media laws in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. China is actively promoting its vision of “cyber sovereignty” and in parts of Africa it is finding willing supporters.

As they help construct an ever-more high-tech surveillance state at home, Chinese companies are well positioned to export cutting edge surveillance technologies to Africa – including to governments with bleak governance and human rights records. In 2018, in the midst of a fraught transition from Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship, the Zimbabwean government signed a deal for Guangzhou-based Cloudwalk to build an AI facial recognition system for use by security and police forces.

Beyond the human rights concerns, the deal pointed to another angle to the China-Africa tech story: the quest for technological advantage. As one local outlet put it: “the Zimbabwe Government is sending our faces to China so China’s Artificial Intelligence can learn to see black faces”. Existing AI facial recognition technologies are principally trained on white and East Asian datasets; the Zimbabwe deal offered Cloudwalk valuable data for improving its recognition of other ethnicities – thereby strengthening the arsenal of surveillance tools available to authoritarian governments.

By expanding into African markets, China’s tech companies are gaining access to that sought-after commodity, data. Yes, these companies are playing a positive role in connecting African citizens, consumers, and businesses. But they also have another role helping Beijing to promote its model of the internet as a controlled space - and as a data-driven instrument of social and political control.

Tom Bayes was a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS from November 2018 until April 2019. His research focuses on China’s growing role in Africa’s peace and security. Prior to MERICS, he worked at the UK Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels and in business intelligence based in London, where he conducted investigations in Francophone Africa. Bayes was educated at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Zhengzhou University.