In 2017, a computer scientist discovered that China, which had built the computer network at the African Union (AU), had also built a backdoor that allowed it to transfer data from the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to servers in China every night. The operation had gone on for 5 years. The $200-million headquarters had been built for free by the Chinese government, as a continental gift, and was seen as a symbolic gesture to foster Sino-African relations. Despite China’s denial of spying on the AU, the incident has raised questions about the East Asian country’s “real” intent in Africa’s tech ecosystem.
As of 2020, China-based Huawei controls 31% of the global telecom infrastructure market and has the most number of contracts—91 of them—to build 5G networks across the world. Now, China’s biggest critic, the US, which is in a race with it for dominance over the future of technology, has tried to convince its allied countries not to use Chinese technology as it would expose them to Chinese surveillance. It labelled 5 Chinese telecommunication companies, including ZTE Corps, Hikvision, and Huawei, as a “threat to national security”.
By the end of 2020, due to growing cybersecurity concerns that could see countries’ data be controlled by the Chinese government, and mounting pressure from the US, over a dozen European countries opted to no longer use Huawei. The US even created a coalition of countries called Clean Network to further drive home the dangers of working with Huawei. In Lithuania, the government appealed to its citizens to “get rid of” their Chinese phones.
Unlike in Europe and the US, however, African governments have not shunned Chinese technologies because of an imperative for greater connectivity among African countries.
Africa, but made in China
In Africa, subsidiaries of Huawei own up to 70% of 4G networks across the continent, and Huawei already has a significant lead in building Africa’s 5G network. Huawei telecommunications equipment is low-cost, thanks to the Chinese government’s subsidies, and, at the moment, there is no popular alternative that offers Huawei’s quality at the same cost to African countries. Another Chinese company, Transsion—with its three brands, Tecno, Infinix, and Itel—sold nearly half of all the smartphones in Africa last year. Last week, Ethiopia celebrated the launch of its first 5G network, powered by Huawei. In Angola, a 2-decade-old Unitel—the country’s largest telecommunication company, accounting for 87% of the country’s 7 million internet users—is closely linked with Huawei as Huawei is investing $60 million, in partnership with Unitel, to teach digital skills to public school students, in a bid to develop the country’s digital economy.
A couple of days before Ethiopia’s introduction of a Huawei-developed 5G network, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, on a visit to Angola, tweeted that Africell, the US-backed telecommunication company, will help expand 5G access in Angola with “trusted technology components”. With the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) as its biggest external investor, Africell has invested $150 million in the Angolan market to deliver a 5G network with a starting capacity of 6 million subscribers and has, according to Sherman, amassed 2 million users since its launch last month. But it seems the US is late to the party in Angola and in Africa’s tech scene already dominated by Chinese companies.
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Chinese companies such as ZTE and Huawei are heavily backed by the Chinese government. Huawei’s massive growth over the years is helped by up to $75 billion in government subsidies; and Hikvision has received up to $694 million in government subsidies in 2013 alone, which allows it to sell its equipment for up to 30% less than its competitors.
Apart from heavy government funding, critics of Chinese tech firms believe that the government can cite the National Intelligence Law, enacted in June 2017, to demand access to sensitive information that flows through these Chinese firms. The National Intelligence Law mandates citizens and institutions to assist the government in its intelligence-gathering efforts.
In parts of Africa, Chinese influence on tech is worrying. Earlier in June, Senegal commissioned the Diamniadio National Datacenter to house government data and digital platforms, which had originally flowed through foreign servers—a move geared towards boosting Senegal’s digital sovereignty. But the irony is that Huawei was building and supplying all the centre’s equipment after Senegal received a $79 million loan from the Chinese government to build the data centre.
Despite having about 17% of the world’s population, Africa has less than 1% of total available global data centre capacity. The African Data Centre Association (ADC) estimates that Africa needs 1,000MW capacity and 700 new centres to fill this digital infrastructure gap—and African countries are turning to the Chinese to help build this. These African countries turn to China due to a huge infrastructure gap, a shared history of anti-colonial struggles, a growing population, and, most especially, China’s low to zero interest loans. Currently, Huawei is building multiple multi-million-dollar data centres and cloud services across Africa, including in Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
In Africa, where dictatorial governments are rife, China’s dominance means that it is able to export its digital governance style to African countries and further threaten an already fragile free speech climate. It is this kind of surveillance that has earned China a reputation among digital advocates as “the worst abuser of internet freedom”.
Southern African country, Zambia, owes China $6.6 billion—or 30% of its GDP—and enjoys billions of dollars in Chinese surveillance technology, broadcasting, and telecommunication that has helped its government to potentially spy on the opposition and block websites publishing dissenting views against the government.
As a Chinese-built internet expands across Africa, many fear that the continent’s authoritarian leaders will seek to use it as an opportunity to repress dissent and adopt a Chinese-style restricted internet.
In 2019, The Wall Street Journal reported on how Huawei spied on the smartphones of Ugandan presidential aspirants for the government in power. The repressive tendencies of the Ugandan government make it worrying that a “safe or smart city”—a city or space constantly monitored by surveillance cameras that use facial recognition technology—is being built in Uganda. A growing concern globally is how the data from these safe cities will be stored and used by their Chinese manufacturers.
Perhaps as a counter to China’s tech dominance in Africa, the US government, through the DFC, invested $300 million in South Africa-based Liquid Telecom’s Africa Data Centre. And the European Union also launched a $340 billion alternative to the Chinese’s BRI, last December. For analysts, more players in the game might mean an eventual curtailment of Chinese dominance. But for Africans, the continent might just be reliving its perpetual foreign-aid predicament, this time from multiple players.
Western Big Tech companies do bring their share of problems to the continent; a Western saviour complex will not solve Africa’s digital sovereignty problems. So, African leaders must care about their countries’ digital futures to prevent a digital dystopia, where the world’s poorest countries without access to important data could suffer discrimination and exclusion from autocratic capitalism powered by advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, predictive algorithms, and 5G. African countries must also encourage the growth of local digital infrastructure and manufacturing companies.
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Sultan Quadri, Staff Writer, TechCabal.