Telecommunications networks funded and built by China are taking over Africa’s cyberspace, a dependence that analysts suggest puts Beijing in a position to exert political influence in some of the continent’s countries.
Bulelani Jili, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview that “Huawei is working and partnering with many governments across the continent, and it is those governments that are using quality technology to undermine democratic values.”
Huawei, the world’s leading seller of 5G technology and smartphones, is seen by the U.S. and other countries as “beholden to the Chinese government, which could use the company” for spying, an accusation Huawei denies, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank in Washington, reported in May that worldwide, “the majority of [Huawei’s] deals (57%) are in countries that are middle-income and partly free or not free.”
The CSIS report added that Huawei’s cloud infrastructure and e-government services are handling sensitive data, services that “could provide Chinese authorities with intelligence and even coercive leverage.”
The “intelligence and even coercive leverage” language stems from China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which stipulated that any organization and Chinese citizen should “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” The law does not limit these activities to China.
Goals and needs
The African Union has set the goal of connecting every individual, business and government on the continent by 2030, an expansion that is supported by the World Bank Group.
Africa needs 1,000 megawatts (MW) of new facility capacity or about 700 new data center facilities to meet growing demand in the continent, according to the Africa Data Centers Association.
The scale of need for data centers to meet population growth “is astoundingly significant,” Guy Zibi, principal analyst at Xalam Analytics, who is tracking the African data center boom, told the website DataCenterKnowledge.
On June 22, the West African nation of Senegal opened a national data center just outside Dakar, the capital. Financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, the center was built with equipment and technical backing from Huawei. Senegal’s status declined from free to partly free in the Freedom in the World 2020 report from Freedom House.
In July 2020, Cameroon completed a government data center on the outskirts of Yaounde, the capital. It was funded by the Export-Import Bank of China, built by the Beijing-controlled China Shenyang International Economic & Technical Cooperation Corporation and equipped with Huawei gear. Freedom House in 2020 rated Cameroon as not free.
In April 2019, Kenya and Huawei signed a deal for a data center, a smart city and surveillance project, according to DataCenterDynamics. The site also reported Huawei was working with the government of Zambia on a $75 million data center. Freedom House rated Kenya as partly free in 2020.
Huawei’s e-government services include elections, document digitization, national ID systems and tax services, according to the CSIS report.
While the digitization of government records may allow greater surveillance, it can also mean more effective tax collection and less corruption, according to a March 2021 post on a tech site of the Brookings Institution a Washington think tank.
“As the continent recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, its leaders face a choice between harnessing emerging technology to improve government effectiveness, increase transparency and foster inclusion, or as a tool of repression, division and conflict,” said the TechStream post.
Over the past two decades, Huawei has built about 50% of Africa’s 3G networks and 70% of its 4G networks, according to the report.
The expansion began in 1999, when China launched its Go Out policy, which pushed Chinese companies to invest abroad and strengthen China’s global business presence.
By 2018, China had expanded to at least 40 African nations, according to Africa Times.
Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the Johannesburg-based think tank South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), outlined why Chinese firms succeed in Africa.
“First is that the continent has very high demand for digital connectivity, at all levels, from network building to consumer handset sales,” he told VOA in an email.
Second, Chinese companies have easy access to large banks closely tied to Beijing. This, according to van Staden, means Chinese companies have the funding to roll out infrastructure quickly in a variety of environments.
Iginio Gagliardone, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, has done extensive research on the rise of China’s presence in Africa and is the author of China, Africa and the Future of the Internet.
He told VOA Mandarin that the relationship Chinese companies have with state-affiliated banks means the companies can lower their prices and maintain a competitive advantage over other bidders.
“The Export-Import Bank [of China] has been able to offer large loans, as part of deals with African governments, with the condition that these loans will be used to deploy technology using a Chinese company,” he said in a phone interview with VOA Mandarin.
Chinese state banks provide such generous financing to Huawei’s customers that most commercial banks cannot match the terms, “making Huawei equipment cheaper to deploy at any price,” according to a 2020 report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
A third factor, according to van Staden, is that there has been relatively little attention paid to Africa as an emerging tech market. “There aren’t many credible competitors to Chinese companies on the scene,” he added.
Because Chinese enterprises are known players in Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure, countries transitioning to 5G often remain with the companies they know, according to analysts.
“Although the Trump administration’s policies successfully curbed Chinese expansion in Western countries, they did not address the growing presence of Chinese technology infrastructure on the African continent,” according to the Atlantic Council’s report. “In African markets, a lack of local champions and infrastructure financing and construction capacity constraints have created a dependence on Chinese-financed projects.”
Van Staden said that the dependence raises the question of possible political influence.
“Research has shown that Chinese companies are responsive to local regulations and governance. In both authoritarian and democratic countries, Chinese contractors have tended to follow local laws and to provide the systems these governments wanted, be these open and inclusive, or centrally controlled,” he said.
“There isn’t proof that China is ‘exporting’ its own domestic system or pressuring countries to emulate it,” he continued. “The issue is less that China is using data networks to influence local politics, and more that its position as a network provider is just one aspect of a much broader trade and investment presence. China’s role as a major trade, financing and development partner to many African countries naturally makes these countries less willing to cross any of Beijing’s ‘red lines.’ ”