The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has made huge inroads in Africa in recent years even as the United States urges its allies around the world to avoid working with the firm over cybersecurity concerns.
Huawei has built about 70 percent of the continent’s 4G networks, vastly outpacing European rivals, according to Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. The construction is often accompanied by loans from Chinese state banks, which are approved faster and with fewer conditions than loans from international institutions.
While concerns about Huawei are shared by other countries around the world, in Africa they are largely overshadowed by the imperative for greater internet access. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and its population is expected to double by 2050.
“At least for the time being, Africa doesn’t have any other cost or competency alternatives,” said Howard French, who teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism and has been the New York Times bureau chief in West and Central Africa and in China.
The United States believes Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies that build critical infrastructure around the world might be installing so-called backdoors and using them to spy on behalf of the Chinese government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to withhold intelligence from countries that use Chinese networks.
Huawei’s founder has told the Wall Street Journal that his company has never spied for China. But some experts are skeptical.
“This idea that Huawei would never reveal anything to the Chinese state if asked is implausible because any Chinese company has to operate within the rules of the Chinese state,” said French, the author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.
In January 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Beijing had bugged the headquarters of the African Union—whose construction was paid for and built by China. Every night for five years the entire contents of the building’s computer systems—which were installed by Huawei—were reportedly transferred to China. Microphones were found embedded in the desks and walls, according to the report. Both China and the African Union dismissed the allegations.
“Most policymakers and politicians in Africa, they don’t really care,” said Emeka Umejei, who teaches journalism at the American University of Nigeria. “Africa is a pawn on the global chessboard in the ongoing geopolitical context. Everybody spies on Africa,” he said.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, said that for many Africans, the suspicion is, “if the Americans are peddling this argument, they have their own vested interests.”
In Africa, where internet penetration lags behind the global average at 35.2 percent, Huawei’s compact rural cell towers have brought internet access to remote regions while the M-Pesa cellphone banking system, run on Huawei’s Mobile Money platform, has been lauded for helping millions in East Africa move into the formal financial system.
“The moment the networks are up, they kick off a whole host of other economies,” said van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
As Chinese-built internet expands across Africa, many fear that the continent’s authoritarian leaders will seek to curb the internet’s ability to spread popular discontent by adopting a Chinese style restricted web.
“The Chinese are explicitly pushing this idea of internet governance,” said Joshua Meservey, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation. “They frame it as a sovereignty issue, but what they are really talking about is the ability of a state to control the free flow of information online.”
China has encouraged foreign officials to follow its lead on internet control, conducting large-scale training for officials around the world, according to Freedom House’s 2018 “Freedom on the Net” report. The U.S. government-funded watchdog noted that increased activity by Chinese officials in Africa was followed by the passage of restrictive cybercrime and media laws in Tanzania and Uganda.
Last year, the government of Zimbabwe signed a deal with the Chinese company CloudWalk to build a nationwide facial recognition system. The data will flow back to China as a way of training its AI systems to recognize and track people from different ethnic backgrounds.
Being the only viable provider of internet connectivity can also give China significant leverage over African governments, said Andrew Davenport, the chief operating officer of the RWR Advisory Group, a Washington-based consulting firm that tracks Chinese investment.
“Beyond just espionage, there’s leverage that comes with being the low-cost solution provider to a country whose political leadership might, in part, derive popular support from being able to offer connectivity to their population,” he said.
With so much of the continent’s telecoms infrastructure in Huawei’s hands, it’s going to be difficult for African countries to disentangle themselves from China, said Meservey of the Heritage Foundation.
“The U.S. is going to have to be strategic about how they approach this challenge. You can’t just blunder in and say, ‘It’s us or them.’ China does provide things that the continent needs,” he said.
When U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy in December 2018, it was interpreted mainly as a strategy to counter China’s influence on the continent. The United States continues to be the largest donor to Africa, but many questioned whether the U.S. resources allocated there would be sufficient to implement the kind of strategy Bolton envisioned.
In lieu of having a viable technological alternative to offer in Africa, French of Columbia University said that the United States should make a positive, values-based case to encourage a move away from Huawei.
“In authoritarian countries there is a real divide between the rulers and the populace, and I think on this issue I’m pretty sure the populace in most of these countries if given the choice would prefer an open internet regime,” he said.
Bolton announced the new U.S. Africa strategy at a speech at a Washington-based think tank. When Chinese leader Xi Jinping unveiled China’s Second Africa Policy in 2015, by contrast, he did it in South Africa, surrounded by African leaders who had gathered for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, noted Joshua Eisenman, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.
“That’s going to get attention. But John Bolton standing in Washington and giving a talk, then going back to his office to work on more important matters? There needs to be a follow-through,” Eisenman said.