FOCAC 2018 ended with little surprises for China-Africa cooperation in the realm of new technologies and innovation. This does not mean that China’s commitment in this area has decreased or become less relevant. Quite the opposite. Since the third FOCAC, in 2006, which represented a watershed moment in expanding partnerships to new sectors, with Information and Communication Technology (ICT) representing one of the most significant, cooperation in tech has become one of the new pillars of China-Africa cooperation. China has quietly raised in the ranks to become the single largest foreign investor in telecommunication infrastructure in Africa, with peaks in authoritarian Ethiopia, where telecom giants Huawei and ZTE have overhauled the country’s telecommunication systems, relaying on generous loans from China’s EXIM bank exceeding USD 3$ billion.
The relatively low profile adopted at FOCAC while confirming commitments to the development of ICTs in Africa is indicative of some broader trends that have come to characterize Chinese approach to innovation on the continent.
Despite the significance of the loans and grants provided in the past decade to support African governments building their national information infrastructures, Chinese authorities have refrained from boasting their role as the new benevolent tech partner for Africa. Media reports in African media as well as in Chinese media operating in Africa have regularly documented the launch of new partnerships in ICTs, but this reporting has often had the tones of dry diplomatic dispatches, rather than attempts to articulate a distinct vision for the development of African information societies.
Concerns have been raised about the possibility that China could export its authoritarian version of the Internet in Africa, but the Chinese government has done little to present its model as a better fit for the continent. Partnerships in ICTs have benefited both democratic and authoritarian regimes, and there is no evidence suggesting that funding from China has strengthened authoritarian tendencies.
Ethiopia presents an interesting testing ground in this regard. Since Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister in April this year, he initiated liberalisations in numerous sectors, including telecommunications, an area that for decades Ethiopian leaders said to be untouchable. If this plan becomes a reality, it will be interesting to map whether this change will also lead Chinese actors involved in the Ethiopian ICT sector to change the course of their activities, adapting to new demands and taking on the new reform agenda. Ethiopia could thus become an example of how a country that was supported by China in its stubborn project to maintain monopoly over ICTs can transition towards creating a relatively more open information space, possibly still with China as its ally.
The relative silence in marketing its strategies abroad, however, has been matched by an increasing presence of Chinese actors, projects, and ideas in global conversations on innovation and new technologies, motivated by events and processes taking place within China. After the end of FOCAC, when analyses of the event were occupying local and global media, Jack Ma, the co-founder and chairman of Alibaba, China’s leading e-commerce platform, announced its intention to step down and, following the example of other tech leaders – Bill Gates above all – shift his focus on philanthropy and education. Jack Ma has been praised by many as a unique figure among Chinese entrepreneurs, pushing the boundaries of innovation, even when this could have clashed with government’s policies. At the same time, one of Alibaba’s controlled companies, Ant Financial, has been the main player behind China’s most successful systems of social credit, sesame credit, promoted with the support of the government to score individuals based on their worthiness as consumers, but also as good citizens. While innovations like sesame credit have been often described as possibly leading to a dystopian future where corporate and government collude to achieve total surveillance, recent research among users has shown how most middle class Chinese perceive it as a useful tool to guide them online, adding trust to their transactions.
This is to remark how dichotomies portraying an authoritarian China seeking to impose its model against a “free world” led by the United States defending the ideal of an open Internet have become obsolete and largely unhelpful to understand global trends of innovation. China’s information society has become too diverse to be defined simply trough the lenses of the authoritarian grip of its government, which is certainly significant and has increased under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Its model is too complex – emerging from myriad waves of negotiation between bottom-up demands and top-down policies – to be exported elsewhere. At the same time, the increasing presence of Chinese innovation and innovators in global debates, is slowly expanding the interest from experts, and politicians, to seek understanding at least some elements of this larger and complex system. If China is to influence Africa in developing national information societies, this process is likely to emerge from the unique combinations of discourses, technologies, and actors found in each specific location, rather than from the uprooting of a supposedly coherent model in different spaces.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)