students to study in China, next to hackathons and collaboration spaces. Exchange programmes have influenced perceptions of China, familiarising students with production possibilities in Shenzhen’s ICT hub and developing connections between communities of ICT professionals. Ethiopia has been importing

hardware and designs that appear “designed for another world”, local tech entrepreneur Hruy Tsegaye told US media organisation Quartz in 2020. The question is howsolutions can be tailored to the African market. One example is the USB FM dongle overcoming poor internet connectivity in rural Ethiopia, which matches Chinese aims. Besides, finding partners in emerging markets is an interesting strategy for Chinese businesses, as rising labour costs and increasing competition in China are driving many to seek out underserved markets outside China. Although the Ethiopian

government does not appear to stimulate collaboration through policy, government buy-in is vital to access the foreign currency required to pay external partners. In China, the AI development plan seeks to encourage domestic AI companies to “go out [...] and provide conveniences and services to powerful AI enterprises conducting foreign mergers or acquisitions, share investment, start-up investment, establishing foreign research centres [...] and encourage foreign AI enterprises and research institutes to establish research and development centres in China”, the country’s NewGeneration Artificial Intelligence Development Plan published in 2017 reads. While this likely includes

surveillance, it also targets AI applications for climate change and the sustainable development goals. Notable is the use of “public opinion guidance” training for policy-makers, in order to help themto “respond even better to social, theoretical, and legal challenges thatmay be brought about by the development of AI” the plan also reads.

Consequences for Ethiopia Chinese support for repressive capabilities in recipient states has partially proved a valid concern. Ethiopia’s telecommunications infrastructure,which includes surveillance software packages, was

April/May 2021

largely constructed by Chinese contractors. Notably, ZTE’s ZSmart tracks customers’ phone records while its deep package inspection tool (ZXMT)monitors data traffic. While ZSmart is a customer

management package with legitimate functions, such as billing customers, it is important to note that ZTE tends to bundle products in a single offer, including ZXMT. The surveillance-related components thus represent a relatively small part of a larger telecoms project, rather than a concerted push towards building Ethiopia’s surveillance capacity. No clear indications of more advanced technological surveillance collaboration are evident, in contrast to other BRI recipients, such as Zimbabwe and Ecuador. AI-related collaboration appears

to be a bottom-up process with young entrepreneurs suggesting projects and technologies. This aligns with Chinese efforts to move up the value chain fromits position as a low-cost supplier and assembler. Chinese suppliers are attempting to reduce their reliance on low-cost assembly of foreign-developed and produced components, and instead increase the use of domestically produced parts. Collaboration with Shenzhen

also poses a unique value proposal to Ethiopian developers: Shenzhen makes hardware development and open-source design is cheap and accessible. While the collaboration pushes products ‘designed in Ethiopia’, the country largely lacks Shenzhen’s production capacity. This increases demand for Chinese-produced components positioning China for expansion into the African market. This does not mean there are no

risks related to the expanding collaboration. A number of Ethiopian developers, ICT engineers and graduates from Chinese universities in other fields are exposed to Chinese cultural values. While this exposure may develop their skills, it may also socialise them in the Chinese value system As China’s market share grows,

so may its role in setting the standards that govern the use of ICT and AI. Of similar concern is training offered for engineers and public officials on so-called ‘public opinion guidance’, potentially proliferating a new concept of


freedom of expression and advanced censorship. Since the Ethiopian government previously relied on Western partners for its surveillance needs, these capabilities acquired from China may be understood as a continuation of an ongoing trend. Chinese involvement in Ethiopia

is significant, not only for Ethiopia, but also for the approach to south– south co-operation that China showcases in this regional diplomatic centre. There are no clear indications that China’s relations with Ethiopia is aimed at spreading an ideological interpretation or diffuse surveillance capabilities. Ethiopia’s partnership with China may be better understood as a continuation of an ongoing trend in Ethiopia’s surveillance model. While there are risks associated

with Chinese engagement in ICT in Ethiopia, the value generated through the partnerships and businesses it develops are tangible, domestically appreciated and frequently not a Chinese-centrally orchestrated push towards surveillance. Given the growing African market and wider developments in market leadership within the ICT sector, protectionist measures are not a productive approach on a business nor political level. Engagements not considering the real demand and development potential such collaboration taps into may be missing opportunities themselves. ■

JosMeesterisaseniorresearch fellowwithDutchinstituteof internationalrelationsClingendael.


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