ANDREA PERRINO | Africa is currently the continent with the strongest annual digital growth worldwide: between 2018 and 2019 mobile subscriptions went up to +5.2% and internet users grew by 8.7% [i]. Under this lens, there is a great interest for foreign digital companies to invest there: the relative technological virginity in many of the local developing countries is filled by the specular demand for digitalization, which comes from high population growth and urbanization rate, as well as from the lack of know-how for an autonomous digital development: all of this makes of Africa the continent of the future, where to invest now to gain the strategic leverage for tomorrow’s economic power. The Western companies are aware of the opportunities at stake and are running to acquire the biggest share possible of an under-construction market: Facebook’s space flag “2Africa project” aims at building 37000km of cables in the continent, and Google’s EQUIANO will focus on the African Western Coast[ii]. Notwithstanding this, China is winning the race for the conquest of African digitalization: with the Digital Silk Road and the secular arm of gigantic firms such as Huawei, ZTE and China Telecom[iii], Beijing is building everything that the African market is demanding, ranging from infrastructures to knowledge and e-clouds, hence monopolising these strategic sectors. The animosity of the Dragon in Africa is resulting in concern about the possible political consequences of opaque investments, espionage records, power and know-how asymmetry, and collaboration with like-minded authoritarian partners. Many experts are indeed denouncing digital colonization led by the Chinese. Although discordant opinions also tend to justify China as an actor in search of mere business affairs, some facts inevitably corroborate the fear of an unfair digital Great Game with Beijing as its front-runner.
Nowadays, 95% of world data goes through submarine communications cables[iv]. In Africa, this strategic infrastructure still needs to be built, and Google and Facebook have been trying to raise their empire in Africa by solving this gap. It does not matter whether African people are too poor for smartphones and connection: the hi-tech companies are adopting a solution to build a massive market ex Novo. This asymmetric supply resembles a colonialist modality, since “technologies are value-laden, whoever is behind the development of these technologies will have their value inculcated in these particular technologies”[v]. Google is perceived as a Western company with huge ambitions and a tinge of neo-colonialism. A big alternative to the Western hi-tech companies comes from China: the giant Huawei has already created one-hundred submarine cables connecting Africa, and the most recent cabling project is PEACE: 15000 Km that, starting from the Gwadar port (Pakistan), will connect Asia, Africa, and Europe, bringing the broadband in many new areas[vi]. PEACE is part of the Digital Silk Road, which falls in the wider Belt and Road Initiative. The Digital Silk Road has the win-win aim to prompt the export of the enterprises involved and help the digital emancipation of the member countries[vii]. Why is this opportunity so important for Africa?
- China is becoming a high-tech powerhouse through a national program called “Made in China 2025” (MiC2025)[viii]: the aim is to have technology companies able to compete abroad and to reduce China’s reliance on ICT imports. More than 40% of Chinese exports already specialise in machinery and high-tech production[ix]. One of the general purposes of the Belt and Road Initiative is to export the Chinese over-production abroad, especially in times when the GDP growth rate seems to decrease. Chinese companies are therefore ready to answer the demand for digital infrastructure and connectivity in Africa and the world, with high-quality hi-tech products[x].
- Chinese products are generally cheaper, which is paramount for African countries that would not be otherwise able to afford them[xi].
- China has no colonial ties as Europe had with Africa. On the contrary, Beijing has supported many liberation movements during the decolonization process. The gameplay between Africa and China is South-South cooperation, praised for being an alternative to the logic of the North-South relations. There is a special relationship between China and Africa, as confirmed by the tradition of the Chinese foreign ministers, which dates to 1991, consisting of choosing Africa as the destination of the first trip abroad after assuming their post[xii].
China has also been able to create a whole narrative to solidify ties with Africa: the Chinese found that some people in Kenya are Chinese descendants due to the sunk of the ship of the legendary admiral Zheng He in the 15th century in the Lamu Peninsula[xiii].
- Non-Interference Principle: it is a policy elaborated in the 70s under Deng Xiaoping and which consists of having diplomatic and economic relations with other countries without touching their sovereignty and internal affairs[xiv].
The figures of the Digital Silk Road are impressive, and it seems a win-win project: by exporting technologies and creating positive diplomacy with other countries, Beijing is contributing to its “National Rejuvenation”[xv], whereas the African leaders hope to imitate the developing model of a country that in less than half of century has taken more than 800 million people out of poverty[xvi]. This is also the logic beneath the promise of creating a modern digital infrastructure that will project the African economies in the future. China is living up to Africa’s expectations in many cases, but a question arises by looking at the other face of the Moon: to what extent has China monopolised African digital development?
Huawei and ZTE (smartphone producers) have built almost 80% of the 3G infrastructure in Africa. Huawei has also realized almost 70% of the 4G in the continent and has already an almost monopoly on 5G[xvii]. The Chinese firms have realized products tailored for the African context: telephones with sand-resistant screens, more powerful batteries, and special cameras, whereas Huawei is realizing joint ventures with native firms to develop more feasible products for the local reality[xviii]. In 2020, the Chinese Tecno surpassed Samsung as Africa’s most-sold smartphone brand. The Chinese competitor of Uber, Didi Chuxing, has started its activity of ride-hailing in Cape Town[xix].
Where do the US and UE stand with regard to such a success? Western countries lack a common investment strategy, especially on the European side, and propagandize rhetoric that highlights the respect for human rights but ends up supporting authoritarian regimes that pander to their interests. The United States, instead of having a development strategy in Africa and listening to the demands of local governments, tend to move on the black continent with the sole objective of implementing a containment against China, sometimes binding its aid to political authorities. Therefore, while the activity and attention of Washington in Africa has been reduced in recent years, China instead offers mere commercial and infrastructural investment opportunities to the various states, regardless of political prejudices[xx]. One result is that the Horn of Africa is finding in China, for instance, a better alternative to the West. The Chinese strategy is much more effective than that of its counterparts: with the principle of non-interference, Beijing shows a pragmatic attitude that aims to develop mere commercial affairs, with both democratic and authoritarian interlocutors. China thus goes beyond the postcolonial narrative of assessing the value of countries under the lens of its own values. This assurance leads more African countries to trust Beijing. Nonetheless, China’s monopoly on building Africa’s digital infrastructure has shed light on suspicions and concerns for many reasons.
First off, the monopoly is disadvantageous for consumers. If China supplies all of the continent’s infrastructure, Beijing will likely be the only and best candidate to instruct African countries on how to use it. A decoupling between consumers and supplier would be very difficult for the former. Infrastructure such as backbone and end-mile cabling, the shifting to knowledge transfer, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, and smart city projects are all strategic investments[xxi]. China’s availability to grant favourable loans, good prices and even gifts, has a price.
Beijing is accused by many of espionage for its interests. This is very visible at the industrial level: rapidly improving the quality of the hi-tech industry to achieve the “Made in China 2025” goals and concretizing the narrative of the Chinese Renaissance is an ambitious pursuit, and Chinese industries need access to cutting-edge technologies of foreign competitors to make it through. The political authorities are conniving and proactive in supporting them in this: Beijing feeds its Chinese companies with stolen corporate data and intellectual property. It has been shown that this attitude of data theft interests, in the same way, both allies and foes[xxii]. The Digital Belt and Road and the digitalization monopoly of Africa is a gold mine for Beijing, mainly due to the imbalance between China and the recipient nations: there is a high risk for the privacy and cybersecurity of the African countries.
A resounding case comes from the headquarters of the African Union in Ethiopia, built by China as a freebie in 2012 (200 million dollars donated by Beijing). Five years later, computer scientists discovered that the AU servers were sending a huge amount of data between midnight and 2:00 am each night to an espionage centre in Shanghai. The computer systems were delivered ready to use, but with two digital backdoors. The episode was reported and mediatized by “Le Monde”. When the AU later brought new servers, the Chinese government reportedly offered to configure them – the offer was rejected[xxiii].
Aye, there’s the rub! The episode contains per se the danger of China’s massive penetration of the strategic digital sector, but the issue of the market monopoly amplifies the problem of just one episode into a more structural vulnerability: the data traffic of the AU Head Quarter was in the end routed to an African firm, Ethio Telecom, the sole public operator in Ethiopia. The problem comes with the credentials of this enterprise, which is a state-owned Ethiopian company reportedly engaged in cyber surveillance and espionage with technology provided, again, by Chinese company ZTE.[xxiv]
The need for political intelligence, as well as economic gain, is not the only reason China steals sensitive data. Africa is the continent with the greatest genomic diversity in the world: There are over 3,000 different ethnic groups speaking more than 2,100 different languages[xxv]. This results in interesting biometric data that can be used to improve and produce new video surveillance equipment, which can be very useful for Beijing to better monitor the Uyghurs, a Turkic and Islamic minority living in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region[xxvi]. They are one of many ethnic groups called “sensitive peoples” by the Chinese technology company Cloud Walk: over these people, industries are creating surveillance technology that can better categorize and monitor them[xxvii]. Data exchange between China and Africa can happen above board: In 2018, the government of Zimbabwe struck a deal with the Cloud Walk industry to develop facial recognition devices in the country, in exchange it agreed to share all facial recognition data collected from its local databases with Cloud Walk for further analysis[xxviii]. This example shows how the Chinese government uses data supplied or leaked from Africa for domestic authoritarian aims.
Zimbabwe’s deal on the development of facial recognition is one of many initiatives by African governments aimed at strengthening community security in areas with long-lasting problems, ranging from wars to ethnic conflicts, including terrorism, theft, and trafficking. The claim to security, however, can be just a façade hiding a more subtle purpose: social control. In fact, the rise of technologies and social media have built new networks all around the world: news could travel fast to many new areas of the world, and some whipping Al Jazeera investigations have inflamed the spirits of corruption-weary North African and Asian people: The Arab Spring that arose from these protests had enough power to topple ancient and long-standing dictators from office. The incredible and unprecedented phenomenon of how technology can affect society and politics has greatly alarmed all those African leaderships that, while untouched by the unrest, have committed similar abuses against their own people.
While the modern media has helped people connect from all over the globe and become aware of injustices and to fight them, Beijing has championed the use of technology in the opposite way: the Skynet mass surveillance system[xxix]comprehends a system of millions of cameras with facial recognition. Every street has devices able to categorize whoever walks on it, and this is especially visible in Tibet and Xinjiang. Even inside the home, privacy is put at risk by the Internet of surveillance, especially given the ubiquity of the Internet of Things (IoT). Another way to control citizens is the newer social credit system.
This system of surveillance based on technology is attractive for African leaders: the same technology that can topple dictators can also be used to increase their power. The Digital Silk Road has become the primary channel for Beijing to spread its governance and surveillance tools abroad[xxx]. African governments are asking for a partnership for the creation of “Safe Cities” by Huawei’s flagship: they consist in integrating the urban centres with the use of a network of connected devices, or the Internet of Things (IoT) in a similar way to smart cities[xxxi]: but “with Chinese characteristics”. They are important for reducing crime and boosting counterterrorism in very unstable areas, but the risk is that this technology will be used by the government to control the population and persecute dissidents and journalists. Similar technologies are also sold by Western countries, as in the case of the Italian Hacking Team, which collaborated with Aby Ahmed’s government to spy on journalists abroad[xxxii]. The difference is that China does it in a more systemic way: according to RWR Advisor, between 2009 and 2018, among the countries that have adopted China’s safe city technologies, 41 out of 64 are classified as not or partially free[xxxiii]. A recent project between Burkina Faso and China was launched in 2021: Smart Burkina will cost 80 million euros, the construction will be entrusted to Huawei and CITCC, and will develop new traffic monitoring systems across the public roads of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, as well as decreasing the response time of the police in a country plagued by Islamic terrorism[xxxiv].
The economic affairs carried out by China with the Digital Silk and Road go far beyond the economic consequences, and the political ones are not only the natural corollary of making the dutiful choice to recognise China and not Taiwan and to equip itself with the authoritarian surveillance tools disseminated by Beijing. China has elaborated its own Weltanschauung(vision) on the future of the Internet and the world: in 2019, Huawei engineers proposed the New IP (internet protocol) Plan to the delegates of over forty countries, with the aim of rethinking the Internet with a top-down design, giving more power to states in controlling digital property and population within their own land[xxxv]. It has to do with digital sovereignty: a state must be able to create borders to the digital network, with law enforcement within these boundaries. This project has already taken shape in China with the Golden shield of China, namely, a projection of the government that becomes e-government: it has branches such as a digital administration system, a criminal information system, and more, which with the Great Firewall of China, allows Beijing to regulate the Internet nationwide, limiting access to foreign sources such Wikipedia and Twitter, and to better control people in the cyber world. Through the Digital Silk Road, African countries could introduce the New IP model into their realities: it would increase the possibility of digital decoupling between China and the United States.
Is it possible, after analysing these phenomena, to say that China is perpetrating a sort of colonialism in Africa? Digital colonialism is defined as “the use of digital technology for political, economic, and social domination of another nation or territory”[xxxvi]. Although China conducts business in a predatory way, there are experts such as media studies professor Iginio Guigliardone, who argues that Chinese involvement in the development of African information societies “does not appear to have led to an increase of authoritarian tendencies”[xxxvii]. It is also true that Huawei’s New IP received only a few African votes within the international organization for standardisation[xxxviii]. There is a lack of specific political strategy behind the New Digital Silk Road as African countries have not had a revolutionary impact so far after Chinese investments in the digital sector[xxxix].
To conclude, it can be controversial to talk about digital colonisation when referring to China’s Digital Silk Road project in Africa, despite the great influence Beijing has gained. For sure, China uses its economic activities as a leverage to increase its soft and strategic power. However, this is no different from what other digital giants and Western countries do. There is a growing concern about the dangers of accepting the investments of the digital Silk Road, after so many cases of espionage and data theft: here the West could have some leeway to gain ground in development policies with Africa and thus compete with China. The big initiatives labelled Build Back Better World (B3W) (by the G7) and the EU’s Global Gateway, however, have so far not been effective and while the recently proposed Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) leaves still many doubts on whether it will be able to overcome the formers’ flaws, the Beijing Consensus seems much more feasible to implement with those African governments that share no interest in human rights and democracy. Surely, Africa is once again a potential giant in the body of a weak and fragmented actor to face the big capitalist companies on the one hand and the investments of China on the other, a country with asymmetrical power and unclear objectives. As some have proposed, the best way for the African people to emancipate themselves would be to cooperate for autonomous development, as many local initiatives have shown with the creation of original digital inventions. However, the implementation of autonomous African projects is complex, and the Digital Silk Road may appear a simpler and faster alternative.
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[v] 2nacheki, “Africa’s Digital Colonialism: How BigTech Exploits the Continent”, 2021.
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[vi] 2nacheki, “Africa’s Digital Colonialism: How BigTech Exploits the Continent”, 2021.
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[xxxv] C. Wright, “China’s Digital Colonialism: Espionage and Repression Along the Digital Silk Road”, Johns Hopkins University Press, Volume 41, Number 2, 2021, ppt. 89-113.
[xxxvii] S. Woodhams, “China, Africa, and the Private Surveillance Industry.”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 21.1: 158-65. Web., 2020.
[xxxviii] A. Colarizi, “Africa Rossa”, L’Asino d’oro edizioni s.r.l., 2022.