China’s ascent into the global economy can be traced back to 1978, when a series of market-oriented reforms were introduced by Communist Party of China leader, Deng Xiaoping, with a view to modernize the economy. These included opening up the market to foreign investments, encouraging private enterprise, and improving agricultural productivity. Also, China’s digital economy was driven by the rapid growth of internet users, mobile devices, and e-commerce. From Alibaba to Tencent, Didi to ByteDance, China’s digital giants have been significantly reshaping the landscape of the digital world. Even with a decline in economic growth in recent times, the country continues to be a dominant force in the global economy.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), commonly known as the ‘New Silk Road’, is an ambitious plan to connect China with over 60, mostly developing, countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Unveiled first by President Xi Jinping in 2013, it has been seen as a means for China to extend its economic and political influence, and secure access to key resources and markets, while also ostensibly fostering development in partner countries.

As a result, China has become a major player in Africa’s tech infrastructure, with investments that have positioned the region as a hub for Chinese technological outreach. According to McKinsey, over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are operating in Africa, with the total value of Chinese businesses in Africa since 2005 amounting to more than USD 2 trillion. Huawei has built and is operating 3G and 4G networks across the continent, and is developing 5G technology for the region. ZTE is another major player, with projects in over 40 African countries. Transsion, a Chinese-owned phone manufacturer, is the top-selling phone maker in Africa, with its brands Infinix, Tecno, and Itel dominating the low-end and mid-range segments. China Telecom has invested heavily in the continent, expanding its presence, providing internet backbone services and satellite communications. Furthermore, the African entertainment industry has seen an influx of Chinese-owned companies such as StarTimes and Boomplay.

According to McKinsey, over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are operating in Africa, with the total value of Chinese businesses in Africa since 2005 amounting to more than USD 2 trillion.

However, with China’s growing presence in Africa’s digital sector and its infrastructure, a critical question that is often posed is whether China is truly a genuine development partner, or are we witnessing an older pattern of colonialism enacted through digital means. The answer is not black and white. The implications of China’s investments and influence in Africa are complex and multifaceted, and the debate over the country’s role in the continent continues to evolve.

The China-Africa Equation: A Complex Engagement

The relationship between China and the African region has a long and complex history. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, China had limited interactions with Africa as the continent was occupied by colonial powers. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, China became a vocal advocate for decolonization and supported African countries’ independence movements, providing political and economic support to them as they gained got rid of colonial rule.

In more recent years, China has significantly increased its economic and political engagement with Africa, becoming one of the continent’s largest trade partners and a significant source of investment and development aid. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), established in 2000, provides a platform for regular high-level discussions and policy coordination between China and African countries.

“The Chinese are a welcome partner in Africa. They have cooperated and advanced key industries and resources across Africa, where mainly other Western countries have abandoned,’’ observes James Ngari, a policy expert with Devimpact. This is a large-scale view with many conceding that the relationship provides much-needed investments, supporting economic growth in the continent. However, critics have raised concerns about the nature of the engagement being unbalanced and exploitative, with African countries being seen as sources of raw materials and markets for Chinese goods rather than as equal partners.

African countries have become increasingly economically dependent on China in the last decade due to the large trade and investment flows between China and Africa, and the country’s growing presence on the continent through the BRI. The initiative, also known as the One Belt One Road initiative, is a massive infrastructure development project launched by the Chinese government in 2013. The project aims to build a network of trade and infrastructure links between China and the rest of the world, including Africa. As part of the BRI, China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects across Africa, including highways, ports, railways, and power plants. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) pegs China’s investment in construction as part of the BRI in sub-Sahara Africa alone at USD 170.7 billion.

However, when we dig deeper, some of these economic gains are coming at heavy costs, bringing into question the sustainability of this relationship. Many African countries have taken on significant debt to finance BRI, and other infrastructure projects and investments. According to a Council on Foreign Relations report, several African countries have seen their external debt to China increase significantly from 2014 to 2017, such as Angola (from USD 19.8 billion to USD 25.1 billion), Ethiopia (from USD 6.5 billion to USD 13.5 billion), Kenya (from USD 4.9 billion to USD 7.9 billion), and Djibouti (from USD 0.9 billion to USD 1.4 billion). China’s lending for BRI projects also peaked at USD 29.5 billion in 2016.

“The Chinese are a welcome partner in Africa. They have cooperated and advanced key industries and resources across Africa, where mainly other Western countries have abandoned.” – James Ngari

While the loans have injected much-needed capital, there are concerns that some African countries have become highly reliant on Chinese lending, and that the debt will be unsustainable in the long term. There are also issues about the need for more information to citizens on the terms and conditions of loans and investments from China, and the potential impact of these agreements on African economies and societies.

Growing trade – which reached an all-time high of USD 254 billion in 2021 – between China and Africa, has, in turn, created new markets for African exports and provided African consumers access to Chinese goods and services, boosting the region’s economic activity. China has established bilateral trade agreements with African countries like Egypt, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa, and has signed a framework agreement with the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), comprising Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa. As a major partner of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), China has also pledged to support implementation and enhance cooperation vis-à-vis infrastructure, industrialization, digital economy, and sustainable development. In addition to traditional trade, China has also invested in e-commerce platforms such as Jumia and Kilimall, digital infrastructure, and payment systems like Alipay and WeChat Pay to facilitate cross-border transactions.

But Chinese interests in Africa are primarily focused on the acquisition of commodities, with African products representing only a small fraction of China’s overall imports. China mainly exports manufactured goods to Africa while importing raw materials and agricultural products. This has led to a situation where African countries are exporting large amounts of resources to China, while not receiving an equivalent amount of value in return. According to Chinese customs data, China’s exports to Africa were USD 164.49 billion in 2021, while China’s imports were USD 117.51 billion in the same period. This means China had a trade surplus of USD 46.98 billion with Africa in 2021.

This trade imbalance does not reflect mutual levels of benefit or account for crucial aspects such as technology transfer. Debatably, the economic engagement between African countries and the Chinese can be stated to be largely influenced by factors such as limited diversification and industrialization in African economies, non-tariff barriers, loan conditions, and resource extraction practices. These dependencies,in the long run, can allow China to incentivize African countries to align with its interests and policies through preferential market access, debt relief, and political support.

Another issue has been the need for more local procurement and value-added production in African countries. In some cases, Chinese companies operating in Africa have been accused of importing materials, goods, and labor from China, rather than procuring these items locally and allowing revenues to flow back within the continent. This reduces the impact of the Chinese investments on local economies and the potential for job creation.

Extractivism and Chinese Digital Advances in Africa

China’s resource extraction in Africa extends beyond natural resources to data, with or without the approval of governments. Through investments in Africa’s digital technologies, including in manufacturing, technology, and infrastructure, China has created a pathway for digital extractivism, which can exploit data, control key digital infrastructure, and assetize technology to gain a strategic advantage in the global economic and political spheres.

Several African countries have seen their external debt to China increase significantly from 2014 to 2017, such as Angola (from USD 19.8 billion to USD 25.1 billion), Ethiopia (from USD 6.5 billion to USD 13.5 billion)…

One of the ways that this has been implemented is through the construction of digital infrastructure through the BRI. In many African countries, China is building critical digital infrastructure, such as internet and communication networks, which can give it significant control over these assets and the flow of information within these countries. For instance, China has built critical digital infrastructure in Ethiopia and Kenya, including railway systems with fiberoptic communication, network expansion projects, and high-speed internet connectivity. China has also supported both countries’ digital transformation strategies, as well as Kenya’s digital innovation ecosystem.

Data collected through such digital infrastructure projects can be a vital source of insights into African markets, allowing China to gain a further competitive advantage in trade and investment. As pointed out by Avi Gopani, in his article questioning the digital sovereignty of Africa countries, ‘‘There’s also the obvious point of dependency where for many African countries, China now holds or will hold the infrastructural key to their digital connectivity, not only acceding to the latter leverage but compromising their digital sovereignty.’’

Just as with traditional resource extraction, where African countries often receive little or no benefit from having their natural resources extracted by foreign companies, there have been concerns that the same pattern is repeating with Chinese digital advances in Africa. E-commerce platforms, mobile payment systems, and artificial intelligence (AI) applications depend on the data and infrastructure of African countries, but the profits and other gains are not equitably shared with them. Moreover, African countries stand to be exploited for their digital resources, such as user data and network access, and compelled to waive away regulatory compliance, without having any say or control over how they are used or protected.

Furthermore, China has built and funded several data centers in Africa, such as in Senegal and Ethiopia, which host government data and digital platforms that may be vulnerable to Chinese surveillance or interference. A 2019 report by Quartz Africa revealed that Huawei technicians had helped the governments of Uganda and Zambia spy on their political opponents by hacking into their encrypted communications and social media accounts.

Another key issue has been technology transfer. While Chinese companies bring new technologies and innovations to Africa, there are currently no means by which these technologies can be adapted to local conditions or absorbed into the local circuits of knowledge production, thus furthering an already gaping dependency.

The Need for an African Digital Agenda

Given the many inequities and dependencies that are manifesting in the China-Africa equation, digital sovereignty as a policy agenda has become crucial for African nations. Taking control of their digital futures allows African countries to ensure equitable sharing of digital technologies and innovations for the benefit of their citizens and inclusion in the rapidly evolving digital world.

But this ambition faces several barriers. The lack of policy coordination and harmonization in regulations hampers domestic investment and innovation in the digital sector. Inadequate cybersecurity frameworks make African countries vulnerable to cyber threats. The absence of data protection and privacy laws allows foreign companies to exploit African users’ sensitive data without consent or compensation. The lack of digital skills and literacy further hinders Africans from fully benefiting from the digital economy.

African countries must adopt a holistic and collaborative approach to digital transformation to overcome these challenges. This approach involves engaging all stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, civil society, and academia. African countries should invest in building their digital ecosystems, platforms, and solutions while promoting local innovation and entrepreneurship. Strengthening regional and continental integration and global partnerships is crucial to leverage collective bargaining power and influence in the digital arena. By striving towards digital sovereignty, African nations can ensure equitable benefits from digital technologies, advancing their economies and citizens’ interests.

Through investments in Africa’s digital technologies, including in manufacturing, technology, and infrastructure, China has created a pathway for digital extractivism.

There is a growing recognition of the importance of African countries developing their digital policies and strategies. According to Olayinka Taiwo, a senior manager at Paradigm Initiative, a Pan-African digital rights organization, African countries can advance cyber diplomacy while leveraging existing economic relationships through joint cyber projects. This can be achieved through various means such as high-level training, research and knowledge transfer, and investments in internet and satellite infrastructure. Taiwo believes that, ‘‘There is an opportunity to expand Africa’s technology infrastructure while simultaneously offering the West access to the continent’s vast human resources. For instance, domiciling the regional headquarters of global tech companies in Africa has helped. More companies need to see the value not only in the relatively cheap labor and cost of living, but also in the inclusion and diversity of knowledge that the African labor force contributes.’’

In the same vein, Uto Umanah, a China-Africa expert asserts,‘With the implementation of a continent-wide digital agenda, African countries can actively participate in the global digital economy and ensure that the benefits of digital technologies are shared equitably for the betterment of their citizens.’’

To safeguard personal information, regulate critical infrastructure, and harness digital technologies for economic, social, and political progress, the African Union must establish Pan-African data jurisprudence and practices, as noted by Taiwo. By doing so, African countries can retain control over their data and avoid outsourcing to vendors with ties to foreign entities that may engage in covert surveillance.

Investing in digital infrastructure and local talent in technology and science is crucial for African countries to reduce their reliance on China and take control of their digital futures. In this case, the role of digital infrastructure must be recognized in enabling African countries to participate in the global digital economy. Having control of their digital infrastructure will allow African countries to ensure that citizens can access fast and reliable internet without other countries mining their intellectual property and personal data. All these can be possible by establishing broadband networks, data centers, and skill development in cloud computing capabilities.

To safeguard personal information, regulate critical infrastructure, and harness digital technologies for economic, social, and political progress, the African Union must establish Pan-African data jurisprudence and practices

As Ngari states, ‘‘African countries face the challenges of educating their policymakers and leadership on the importance of digital sovereignty. You can’t currently host key government digital infrastructure on a server in Atlanta or Beijing. These sort of lackey practices have to go away this decade.’’

It is also important to develop a skilled and talented workforce that can use and develop digital technologies, along with supportive policy environments that promote domestic innovation and entrepreneurship.

The influence of existing economic relationships on digital sovereignty is significant. African nations looking to decrease their dependence on China need to assess their current economic relationships and determine which ones may be hindering their digital sovereignty. This can involve re-negotiating current agreements, establishing new partnerships, or forging new trade relationships prioritizing digital sovereignty. In 2021, the African Union adopted a Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) to create a harmonized, single digital market for Africa and foster regional integration and cooperation on digital issues. The strategy also envisages the development of an e-commerce protocol under AfCFTA, which would address various aspects of digital trade, such as electronic transactions, consumer protection, data protection, and cybersecurity. Umanah further adds, ‘‘China has been a very good partner to Africa and that relationship is not perfect or balanced. But as we explore and probe it, there are more opportunities to address these perceived imbalances.’’

Cyber diplomacy is vital in achieving digital sovereignty for African nations. Through engagement with other nations and international organizations, African countries can negotiate and establish the norms and regulations governing digital technology and the internet. Effective cyber diplomacy enables African nations to secure agreements that protect their digital sovereignty and guarantee that the advantages of digital innovations are fairly distributed and utilized for the benefit of their citizens. By cultivating strong economic connections with countries that align with their values and aspirations, African nations can minimize their reliance on China and take control of their digital future.

Africa and China already have strong economic ties that can serve as a foundation for enhancing their digital cooperation. China has the expertise and resources to help Africa in key areas such as knowledge transfer and IP sharing. However, Africa must also assert its digital sovereignty by developing its own cyber and digital regulations that balance attractiveness and respect for human rights. The European Union (EU) has taken steps to curb the influence of the Silicon Valley and other Big Tech companies to protect its sovereignty and data control through initiatives such as the Digital Services Act, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Digital Single Market. African nations can learn from the EU frameworks, as well as from southern frameworks emerging out of India and Brazil, and use them as a reference for their own proposals in this area.

This essay has been published as part of IT for Change’s Big Tech & Society Media Fellowship 2022.