Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s market dominance in Africa can be exemplified by remarks made in 2016 by Pang Jimin, then-president of the company’s Global Government Affairs department.
“Of the several dozen available commercial 4G networks in Africa, more than 70 percent were built by Huawei,” Pang said at an industry conference in Egypt, according to African online business site African Business Central.
Since making forays into the African market in 1999, Huawei has strategically monopolized telecom infrastructure.
For the previous-generation technology 3G, China’s Ministry of Commerce claims that Huawei helped to build more than 50 networks in 36 countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
And when it comes to rolling out the next-generation 5G technology, Huawei has cooperated with many local telecom providers in Africa for trial runs, including MTN Group, Africa’s largest mobile operator; Vodacom, based in South Africa; and Safaricom, which is headquartered in Kenya.
Huawei also has been building up internet networks used by African governments—with security ramifications.
According to a December 2018 article by Kenya-based news site The East African, Huawei, along with fellow Chinese tech company ZTE, have built “national fiber-optic communications networks and e-government networks in more than 30 countries.”
That includes outfitting the headquarters of the African Union (AU). China fully funded and built the complex located in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
In January 2018, French newspaper Le Monde revealed that since 2012, every night, data has been transferred from computer systems at the headquarters to servers in Shanghai. Additionally, hidden microphones were found inside the desks and walls of the building. Huawei was named in connection to the alleged spying. China denied Le Monde’s claims.
According to an analysis by Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), citing content from Huawei’s own website and documents obtained from the African Union—including contracts for the union’s IT infrastructure—the Chinese tech giant had provided some of the headquarters building’s equipment, including computing and storage devices. The think tank pointed out that while it is possible Huawei was not aware of the alleged data theft, the company’s obliviousness would itself be cause for a “national security concern.” Huawei has since denied ASPI’s claims.
Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the U.S. think tank Heritage Foundation, told a March 2018 congressional hearing on Africa relations that “the risk for African governments is significant.”
Citing comments by former CIA head Michael Hayden, who said Huawei shared with Beijing “extensive knowledge of the foreign telecommunications systems it involved with,” Meservey said that he believed Beijing “has already taken advantage of this African vulnerability.”
State-Sponsored Strategy in Africa
Huawei’s interest in doing business in Africa is driven by its founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei—a former Chinese army engineer who headed the General Staff Department’s Information Engineering Academy—and to a great extent the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
According to a biography published by China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology Press in 2010, Ren often read the writings of former Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong and used Mao’s thoughts to set up Huawei’s business strategy. For example, Ren adopted a well-known Maoist strategy—seizing power in the countryside and then using rural bases to encircle and capture cities, a method honed during China’s civil war—to expand Huawei’s business both domestically and internationally.
Beginning in 1992—at a time when the Chinese telecom market was dominated by foreign firms such as Alcatel, Lucent, and Nortel—Huawei began to aggressively market its digital telephone switches in China’s rural areas, before expanding to the rest of China, according to the book.
Using the same Maoist strategy, Huawei first expanded into less-developed regions of the world, such as Africa, Southeast Asia, and western Asia, before expanding into major European and American markets.
The Chinese tech giant is also one of many Chinese companies that followed Beijing’s call for overseas expansion—the ”Go Out” strategy promulgated by former CCP leader Jiang Zemin (who ruled throughout the 1990s to early 2000s).
According to China’s state-run media, Jiang first suggested the strategy in July 1996, after visiting six African countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.
The concept of Go Out was mentioned again in December 1997, when Jiang said during a CCP work meeting, “We should aggressively lead and organize competent companies to go out, to invest and set up factories at other countries, and utilize their markets and resources.”
In May 1998, at another CCP work meeting, Jiang identified Africa, along with the Middle East, Central Asia, and Latin America, as regions for aggressive investment, as part of his Go Out strategy.
The concept eventually became an official element of China’s foreign policy in November 2002, when it was included in a political report during the 16th National Congress, a once-every-five-years conclave when the Party’s leadership transitions.
During this time, Huawei took up the mantle, first setting up a subsidiary in Nigeria in 1999.
The company also seeks to extend soft power through its corporate social responsibility program called Seeds for the Future, established in 2008 for the goal of developing local IT talents and promoting greater interest in the telecommunications sector. Usually, students studying in STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are selected.
Participants in the program receive Mandarin-language training at top universities in Beijing, according to Huawei’s website, as well as technical training at the company’s headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Many universities around the world have noted that Seeds for the Future is an “all-expense paid” program.
The program is available in many countries around the world, including the United States, and more than 20 countries in Africa, including Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa.
According to Huawei’s website, more than 30,000 students from more than 350 universities, representing 108 countries and regions, had participated in its program as of 2017.
But some experts believe these are more than just an education program. Huawei’s partnerships with top UK universities, including the Seeds for the Future program, have been called into question. Anthony Glees, a professor of politics at the University of Buckingham and a national security expert, called the relationships “deeply disturbing” and “absolutely classic Communist subversion tactics,” in a December 2018 article by The Daily Telegraph.
Glees explained that Huawei’s programs have a “military, political, and industrial component to it that people have not understood,” due to the company’s close ties with Beijing, and Ren’s ties to the Chinese military.
In a policy brief issued in July 2016, researchers at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University questioned the effectiveness of Huawei’s training programs.
“Are the training programs that Huawei labels as CSR programs truly focused on social and environmental well-being, or are they prudent cost saving, profitable business, or human resource development programs?” the policy brief asked.
Huawei’s forays into cloud data storage have also prompted espionage concerns. In November last year, the company unveiled its new cloud computing station in South Africa. On its website, the company touted itself as the first cloud service provider to operate a local data center in Africa.
Huawei also has inked deals with multiple information and technology firms around the world to provide cloud services to companies in Africa, including the South Africa-based Datacentrix, India-based Tech Mahindra, and Germany-based T-Systems.
Security concerns surrounding Huawei’s cloud computing products were raised way back in September 2013, when the Virginia-based analyst firm Defense Group Inc. published a report at the request of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The report, titled “Red Cloud Rising: Cloud Computing in China,” warned of cloud computing services set up by Chinese “national champion” corporations, such as Huawei and ZTE, noting that their efforts to sell their services outside of China could indirectly result in a “significant amount of U.S. corporate data ending up on servers under Chinese control.”