Rethinking Chinese AI in Africa

A casual glance through the headlines of popular media publications — from Forbes bold declaration on AI, China, and the US — How the US is Losing the Technology War to Wired’s shuddering at an AI Cold War that Threatens Us All — reveals a general consensus that China has become a global leader in the development of artificial intelligence and, moreover, that the U.S. feels threatened by China’s global influence.

China’s role in Africa will be far-reaching and multi-faceted

At the same time that China has sedimented its position in AI research, it has also increased its presence in Africa. In the past decade alone, new infrastructure projects and massive loan packages have been handed out to numerous African countries, cementing China’s growing presence in the region (Kenyan schools will even teach Mandarin starting in 2020).

These emerging trends beg the question: what relationship exists between Africa and China with respect to the development of artificial intelligence? And how does the discourse around Africa-China relations auger a potentially new form of Orientalism?

In a recent Al-Jazeera article, Mehari Taddele Maru, an expert on governance and human rights, investigates the relationship between China and Africa with respect to the role of African leaders:

[President] Kagame [of Rwanda] argued that the cooperation between China and Africa is based on mutual respect and is for the benefit of both partners… However, despite the African leadership’s embrace of China as a valued partner, the view that Beijing is a “predatory” actor in Africa, attempting to recolonise the continent is also ubiquitous in foreign policy circles, media narratives and academia.

Maru goes on to describe and contextualize the two approaches to Chinese-African relations:

  1. a “Sino-phobic” perception (often promulgated in the West) in which China takes advantage of African nations;
  2. and a pro-China narrative that views China as a “savior-a trustworthy ally of Africa.”
Photo: Victor Garcia

The goal is not to determine which stance is right, but rather to examine the West’s own fraught relationship with African nations and carefully consider the language and metaphors that we use to describe Chinese growth: in press, industry and public discourse. By being more precise with our language, we can be more accurate about the particular local characteristics of this AI development, while recognizing the plurality of African nations and peoples.

Ultimately, Chinese-African relations cannot be easily pared down to claims of neo-colonialism. As BRICS nations help shepherd emergent South-South partnerships (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, based in Beijing), China’s role in Africa will be far-reaching and multi-faceted. Thinkers and practitioners will need to find the right language to make sense of China’s expansion throughout Africa, to account for the spread of state-driven corporate power, as well as the localized responses that will flourish in response.

- post by Renata Barreto