Is China Changing Information Societies in Africa?

5 July 2018

China’s growing interest in supporting the development of Africa’s telecom infrastructure has been met with suspicion in some quarters. Is such engagement favouring the emergence of an authoritarian version of the information society on the continent?

Huawei, China’s leading telecom equipment company, recently announced its intention to begin operations on a new submarine telecom system connecting Asia and Africa. The project, Pakistan East Africa Cable Express (PEACE), is a vivid example of the Belt and Road Initiative in action. It signals China’s determination to strengthen and expand its ties with Africa and to step up its role in supporting the development of the continent’s information societies. This begs the question: is China imposing its information society model on the continent?

This engagement in Africa’s development has taken multiple forms on the ground, including foreign direct investment by private and state-owned enterprises, and concessional state loans and export credits. Little of this is formally considered “aid” by the OECD’s definition. But it still contributes to development goals for African countries, as it has resulted in substantial infrastructural upgrades in areas such as transportation and energy production. However, unlike that in big dams, highways, and railways, Chinese economic involvement in information and communications technologies (ICTs) has not manifested visibly to African populations at large. This invisibility, together with other factors, has aroused feelings of suspicion, often resulting in China being blamed for some of the changes in Africa’s information societies.

Nationally rooted visions of the information society

China’s first steps in Africa’s ICT sector have been met with accusations that Beijing may be trying to export its model abroad, engendering a more authoritarian version of the internet. The analysis of different cases in China’s contributions to the shaping of ICTs in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Ghana, offers little support to this hypothesis. China seems to have kept true to its pledge to support nationally rooted visions of the information society, rather than promoting template approaches.

This means China has to address a variety of requests. In the cases mentioned above, these included the aspirations of the governments of Ghana and Kenya to strengthen infrastructure and the capacity of the state to deliver services in a competitive environment, as well as the ambition of the Ethiopian leadership to expand access under a monopoly. In all instances, relationships seem to have been driven by African rather than Chinese actors, with the Chinese government and companies offering financial and technical backing to projects envisioned at the local level.

In addition, it appears that China has not selected specific allies in Africa according to their compatibility in reinforcing a particular vision of the information society. Rather, it has interpreted ICTs as yet another opportunity to multiply its allies on the continent. For example, the apparatus of control and surveillance created by the Rwandan government presents the closest analogue to the complex model developed by China. And yet, Rwanda is one of the few countries in Africa where China has not built a strong presence – to date – in the ICT sector, leaving room for another Asian country, South Korea, to significantly contribute to the development of the national ICT infrastructure.

All stakeholders should play a role

In all these cases, however, cooperation has invariably been directed towards the state, rather than other actors involved in the shaping of functioning information societies. In authoritarian Ethiopia, China’s Exim Bank has made available more than US$3 billion to support the government-owned Ethio-telecom in the overhaul of its telecommunications infrastructure. In democratic Ghana, where the telecommunications market is liberalised, China intervened by boosting the capacity of the state to own infrastructure and gain an edge over other players. This element throws a wrench into the argument that China is backing locally rooted visions of the information society, and raises important questions about China’s motivations.

It is clear that the involvement of different actors is essential in shaping a positive future for the Internet – governments, private companies, and civil society organisations all have valuable roles. In Kenya, the private sector has played a paramount role in pushing the boundaries of innovation, breaking previous frameworks set by the state to regulate telecommunications and banking. It was civil society, however, that shifted innovation not just in the direction of better access and greater profits, but also towards the creation of applications and strategies to counter corruption, map violence, and combat hate speech. A famous example is the early-warning platform Ushahidi, developed initially to allow citizens to report cases of violence in the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 elections. It has since been deployed to help coordinate efforts after natural disasters and political crises.

Globally, there are countless instances of conflicts between different types of actors that eventually lead to constructive change in information societies. For example, the European Union brought to light how behemoths of innovation like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have exploited their global nature to avoid taxation, denying European citizens a due share of the profits made in their countries. The mobilisation of civil society stopped US legislation that could have given extreme powers to the music and movie industries to block online content. German regulation forced Facebook to take a more aggressive stance against fake news.

By reinforcing the capabilities of the state, rather than those of other stakeholders, to shape the evolution of ICTs, Chinese actors have been supporting a vision of telecommunications that is skewed towards public institutions. This stands in contrast to the issues-based approach favored by other countries when it comes to foreign intervention, particularly in aid. Other countries tend to first pinpoint specific agendas, then select in-country partners that could best help achieve these goals. China’s actor-based approach, while legitimate, could have serious consequences.

New trajectories for ICT policy?

Some aspects of China’s involvement in developing Africa’s information societies have been undoubtedly positive. However, it has also allowed political elites to extend their control over their countries, reducing opportunities for alternative conceptions of the information society to emerge. A single too-powerful actor – in the case of China’s involvement in African ICTs, the state – in the domain of information may cause more harm than good. This configuration may prevent checks and balances from functioning at critical junctures, such as around elections, or when new legislation is proposed.

The accusation of China supporting an authoritarian version of the information society in Africa does not seem tenable in a strict sense. But the fact that states are being helped in asserting their own visions and projects over those of other actors may bring this accusation closer to the truth in the longer term. Are there ways to prevent this outcome from becoming a reality? Three possible trajectories can be imagined for actors in Africa, China, and the West to develop policies and strategies that can address this new configuration of forces in the African ICT sector and use it towards building more inclusive and innovative information societies.

First, China’s preference towards supporting the state is placing greater pressure on African polities to ensure their institutions are indeed democratic. As argued before, China cannot be accused of authoritarian bias. Despite accusations of an emerging Cold War over the Internet – including in Africa – China has supported projects in countries with the most diverse political systems. Ethiopia, the country with the largest Chinese support in ICTs on the continent, has recently undergone a process of substantial political transformation, with a new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, being appointed also in response to popular protests and demands. While it is still early to assess how this will actually affect the Ethiopian Internet, the new government has already promised liberalisations in numerous sectors, including telecommunications, an area that for decades Ethiopian leaders said to be untouchable. If this plan becomes a reality, it will be interesting to map whether this change will also lead Chinese actors involved in the Ethiopian ICT sector to change the course of their activities, adapting to new demands and taking on the new reform agenda. Ethiopia could thus become an example of how a country that was supported by China in its stubborn project to maintain monopoly over ICTs can transition towards creating a relatively more open information space, possibly still with China as its ally.

Second, China’s “no strings attached” policy, which has become a trope in its engagement with countries in Africa and globally, has begun to show some cracks and it may be time for some aspects of it to be rethought. This approach has supported locally rooted visions of the information society – as explained earlier – but it can also arguably be blamed as a way to relinquish responsibility for how things are implemented and for the outcomes produced. In my meetings with representatives of Huawei in Ethiopia, it was apparent how they had little faith in the Ethiopian project of maintaining a monopoly, but were not allowed to articulate their position in the open because of China’s official stance of non-interference. And yet, China could have had a lot to teach. As illustrated by numerous studies on China’s path towards innovation, China was quite successful in introducing reform and liberalising ICTs in a previously monopolistic regime, and displayed remarkable ability to localise foreign technologies and utilise aid and foreign direct investment to strengthen its domestic market and industries. China’s now massive exposure on the international stage makes hiding behind its non-interference policy more hypocritical. A more visible stance on the best practices in promoting the evolution of ICTs may expose China to greater criticism and failures, also from his partners, and not just its opponents, but that is what is expected from a power competing for global influence.

Finally, if Western donors, the US in particular, want to remain truthful to their pledges supporting the development of open information societies, they have to recognise some of their own mistakes and responsibilities, rather than just blaming their opponents. The US have accused Huawei to be hiding “backdoors” in their equipment and prevented them from operating within their borders. However, leaks from the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden have later revealed that the NSA itself tried to install backdoors in Huawei’s networks, giving to such accusations an ironic twist. As Thomas Rid succinctly put it, “there is now more publicly available evidence that the [US’] NSA exploited Huawei than there is public evidence that shows the PLA [the Chinese People's Liberation Army] or other Chinese agencies did so.” Some Western donors have begun to address these contradictions. The European Union has enforced tougher regulations towards European companies selling software for spying, censoring, and surveilling to authoritarian regimes.

China’s increased footprint in the ICT sector in Africa can represent a unique opportunity to reflect on some of the strategies and visions adopted to date to support the evolution of national information societies. This can only happen, however, if we develop appropriate tools to understand China’s role in its own terms, and let evidence of successes and failures emerge, rather than expecting that any collaboration will have pre-determined outcomes and lead to more closed information spaces and lesser freedoms.

This article build on a shorter piece initially published by AsiaGlobal Online.


Author: Iginio Gagliardone, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies, University of the Witwatersrand, and Associate Research Fellow in New Media and Human Rights, University of Oxford

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