A guest post by Alexandria Williams. Alexandria is a Nairobi-based journalist and podcast producer. Her work focuses on technology in China and the future of China’s tech giants in Africa. Follow her on Twitter: @AlexandriaSahai.
When I arrived in China for graduate school in 2017, China’s plucky young tech companies were starting to expand offices globally. To grow, they hired Chinese-speaking foreign students from China’s top universities. I spent the last year of my graduate studies in China writing my thesis on blockchain-administered smart contracts. I was fascinated by what I had learned and eager to start my own career in China’s tech industry. By graduation, I landed a job and started my journey as a tech worker in China.
As I worked inside an industry spun in the English-speaking media as a globalizing spy network, I observed a deep disconnect between the perceptions and realities of China’s tech ecosystem. Now, as a tech analyst covering the future of Chinese tech giants in Africa, I’m working to uncover the myths and the realities of China’s complex and evolving role in Africa’s dynamic tech market.
The ‘US-China Tech War’
Around the time that I started my job, TikTok’s worldwide success was the topic of discussion at tech companies all over Beijing. Their story became the blueprint for China-born apps making it abroad, yet TikTok’s global popularity brought a host of regulatory challenges. Though the company that I worked for was a newer entry to markets outside of China, the conversations and claims around its motivations and products were very similar to those focused on TikTok. While I was in meeting rooms with my colleagues working out strategies to launch a product abroad, global headlines were telling me I was part of a competition for global tech dominance called ‘the US-China tech war.’ I read articles about how China’s short video companies were conspiring to spy on the world’s teens, and as the only person from the US at my company at the time, it fell to me to translate and explain the headlines.
My coworkers and I found these narratives laughable. While there were and continue to be data privacy and security concerns — a problem that China’s regulators also recognize — the headlines did not resonate with what I saw happening on the ground. Much like many other companies, mine focused on high user growth targets and featured long, frenzied hours. Most days were spent in meetings discussing strategies to grow the business in China and abroad. Working in China’s tech industry instilled in me an aggressive work ethic: Work hard, then work harder. If you don’t know how to do it, teach yourself how. And you don’t have to get ready if you stay ready.
I felt ready. But when I looked towards the future, I couldn’t help but think that many Western commentators were missing other critical emergent stories. At the same time that China’s tech industry was gaining attention in the West, China was pursuing increasingly lucrative trade relationships with African nations. In fact, as an entry into a career in journalism, I completed a short documentary on Transsion, a Chinese tech company and top cell phone provider in Africa.
Everyone was so focused on the ‘US-China tech war’ narrative that few were paying attention to China’s role in the African continent’s expanding digital ecosystem. I was hungry to learn and write about Chinese tech in Africa. The next year, I received a fellowship from the American Mandarin Society to write on the topic and I moved to Kenya to see what I could find.
I realized that half-truths and misunderstandings abounded. In 2018, news of a Guangzhou-based company called Cloudwalk installing facial-recognition-enabled cameras on the streets of Zimbabwe hit the media. According to outlets reporting the story, China’s government was exporting digital authoritarianism to Africa and using the African population to train facial recognition tech. Arguments like these contained compelling insights but completely sidestepped citizens’ agency and the varied experience of different African nations, flatlining all residents into a monolithic category of oppressed experimental subjects. This oversight and lack of attention to the difference would become the defining characteristic of the narratives I encountered in my work in the years that followed.
Myths about China’s tech presence in Africa
African nations have been engaging with China for centuries. In the 1400s, Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He returned to China from a voyage to East Africa with a giraffe. China’s former premier Zhou Enlai toured ten countries in Africa in 1963, discussing anti-imperialism with African leaders along the way. In the modern era, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has paved the way for a host of new trade and infrastructure projects and connections on the continent. While this shared history has not always been mutually beneficial, it has helped build a sense of shared understanding which makes African governments and people more willing to take up Chinese technology.
As the ‘US-China tech war’ narrative has grown more mainstream, China’s tech companies have become increasingly aware of the distrust they face in Western markets. As a result, Africa has become a more attractive target, offering a market that has been historically ignored by tech companies (especially those based in the West). For example, while Twitter has been a popular platform in Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria for years, the San Francisco-based social media company only opened an Africa office in Ghana in 2021. Tiktok on the other hand, which began international operations in 2017, joined a co-working space in Nairobi in early 2020.
The view from on the ground
The other side of the argument is the assumption made by those covering China in Africa that China is the cause of rising digital authoritarianism in the region. I and others with experience in the region will tell you that this idea is unfounded, and erases complex histories on the continent. History shows us that a number of African governments have had decades of practice exercising authoritarianism without China’s help or influence.
The heart of the ‘Silicon Savannah,’ Kenya’s capital Nairobi, was a site for Huawei’s 2014 ‘Safe Cities project, a suite of technologies aimed at ‘leaders’ with the goal of making dangerous cities safer to live in. In Kenya, this meant 1,800 CCTVs set up around downtown Nairobi to be monitored by the national police. Official figures from Huawei claim that there was a 46 percent drop in crime in Nairobi in the project’s first year, but these numbers have not been externally validated and are often debated.
If you ask most people in Nairobi why officially reported crime numbers have declined over the past few years, they won’t point to Huawei. They’ll attribute it to increased securitization following multiple rounds of terrorist attacks from 2011–2014. It hasn’t always been the case, but today, posh neighborhoods and popular hangout spots are patrolled by private security companies, trained dogs, and the occasional rifle-wielding soldier. Whether a crime was caught on video or not has little to do with how a crime is prosecuted, who is criminalized, and how data is (or is not) collected and recorded.
Neighboring Uganda has also contracted with Huawei to install city-wide facial recognition-enabled CCTV cameras. But Uganda’s government has utilized their Huawei cameras and other technology to the fullest extent, reportedly enlisting the help of the company’s technicians to tap into opposition leader Bobi Wine’s phones and regulate his movements.
These two cases highlight the fact that how African governments employ the Chinese technology they license has much more to do with the governments themselves. Uganda, a country whose president has been in power for more than thirty-five years, is known to be a riskier environment for media workers. Though Kenya is regarded as a nation of (relative) freedom, speaking out against the state is still regulated, even without the help of Chinese tech.
For example, in early April, there was a debate among Kenyans on Twitter about International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. Kenyans flooded timelines, calling out the IMF for loaning money to the Kenyan government whom, they believed, was misappropriating funds. In the weeks that followed, one of the leaders of the Twitter movement was taken into custody. What led to his arrest was not China’s digital authoritarian influence, but rather Kenya’s very own Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act of 2018 which, among many things, prohibits the ‘false publication’ of information online.
Shirking the responsibility of rising digital authoritarianism in Africa by pinning the blame solely on China is dangerous. It fails to hold African governments and leaders accountable for their actions and agendas. Moreover, it misses a critical story: activists, journalists, and thinkers on the ground exercise their own agency and actively push back against suppression. Falling for the narrative that China has exported digital authoritarianism to Africa is a distraction that can be harmful to the future of tech, media, and journalism on the continent.