Analysts: China Expanding Influence in Africa Via Telecom Network Deals
August 16, 2021
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
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
“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.
China has a history of financing and supplying telecom and information and
computer technology (ICT) throughout Africa, according to an April 2021 report
from the Atlantic Council’s African Center.
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
By 2018, China had expanded to at least 40 African nations, according to Africa
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
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.
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
“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
“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.’ ”