Over the past few weeks, there have been news reports about developments related to Huawei and 5G networks in Ethiopia and Angola.
In Ethiopia, Reuters reported that State-owned operator Ethio Telecom launched a 5G mobile phone service, with Huawei as its equipment supplier for the network.
And VoA reported on a trip to Angola by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in which she visited U.S. mobile company Africell’s offices in Angola. As part of that trip, she said: "We believe that when countries choose Huawei, they are potentially giving up their sovereignty. They are turning over their data to another country. They may find themselves bringing in a surveillance capability they didn’t even know was there."
U.S./Western concerns about using Huawei and other Chinese companies for 5G networks, in Africa and around the world, have been growing for years. With regard to how these issues are perceived and are playing out in Africa specifically, CTM reached out to Arthur Gwagwa, a doctoral researcher at Utrecht University. We asked for his perspective on how African leaders and the general public think about decisions on whether to use Huawei products or Western alternatives, in terms of concerns about privacy, surveillance, geopolitics, etc.
At the outset, Gwagwa offered the following general assessment. He noted that Africa has a long history of political, economic, and cultural solidarity with people from outside of Europe "owing to a shared history of common suffering from European domination." Furthermore, he said, "China’s culture based on Confucianism’s emphasis on social order and hierarchy is similar to African patriarchal cultures based on social control, consensus and reconciliation," and China was "Africa’s natural ally of first choice during the liberation struggles."
In preferring Chinese technologies, he said, "African leaders are simply building on these historical alliances." They "applaud Chinese technologies as liberating and as a step forward on the road to data and technological sovereignty," and it "helps African countries to push back against what they perceive as the American imperial power."
Gwagwa also noted that some African governments justify the acquisition of Chinese technology as "a useful tool to fight dissent." For example, Zimbabwe "has since taken a number of cybersecurity legal and technological steps to emulate China’s norms."
CTM also asked Gwagwa more specifically about privacy and surveillance issues. In this regard, we raised the issue of whether African government officials and ordinary citizens have general concerns about tech products getting access to and using/selling their personal data, either as a matter of selling advertising to them or spying on them more generally; and if so, whether they see a difference between Chinese products and Western products in this regard.
Gwagwa responded that while there are concerns with the U.S. global technology companies’ monetization of data, African governments "have been slow to rebuke China because of their long relationship." China is viewed as a cultural and political friend. They share a common adversary, for example, China’s historical attempts to contest the U.S. liberal and neoliberal domination in Africa creates an obligation of indebtedness towards it by African states. Yet this indebtedness is also creating a new form of Chinese domination based on paternalism through which China extends its influence in the digital realm and also in the cultural, economic and political realms.
While some politicians see problems with China's behavior, they are reluctant to say anything because they benefit from the Chinese deals. Unlike European contracts that have to go through certain due diligence, politicians "can easily make personal gains out of Chinese contracts because of our shared permissive cultures."
Finally, on geopolitics, CTM asked Gwagwa how African countries see the competition between Chinese and Western companies/governments in this sector. Do they care whether they are on the Chinese side or the Western side?
Gwagwa said that African leaders "may see China’s sharp power and economic coercion but are slow to rebuke it because the politicians gain from the deals." Most African countries are more similar to China than they are to the United States, which brings them closer to the Chinese side of the competition.
He also noted that some politicians think China’s technological engagement and building in Africa is purely strategic: "African countries gain security and broadband technology, and China gains favor as an economic development partner and access to resources." Thus, China is less interested in spreading communism to Africa than capturing economic resources to feed its burgeoning economy.