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Does China Have an African Technology Company Strategy?

By Guest Writer on October 26, 2023

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Strides taken by Chinese national champions undertaking extraction and infrastructure projects in Africa are not short of the media spotlight and scholarly scrutiny.

When talking about their venture to Africa, the experience of Chinese ICT firms has often been regarded as a source of aspiration for those seeking to pursue business opportunities and for policymakers to spread Chinese influence on the continent.

When the majority of businesses along China’s Southeast coast were sub-contracting for Western multinationals or struggling with domestic competition, ICT firms like Huawei and ZTE that were little known at home began their outreach to Africa.

Chinese Technology Firm Soft Power

Apart from product and institutional adaptations in driving the rapid expansion of these new players, their effort in cultivating soft power in Africa should not be overlooked.

Conceptualized by Nye, soft power is about the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, include culture, values and foreign policy, rather than deploying hard power through coercion. For many Western multinationals, the effective use of soft power has been the lynchpin to enable their global success.

Examples of use of soft power by Chinese ICT firms in Africa include:

  • By learning and adapting, Huawei has crafted its strategy by providing extensive cultural and language training to local employees that are working in partnership with tertiary education in Africa today.
  • Tecno, a relatively latecomer, known as Bird Mobile with its shrinking market share at home, revived by focusing on the African community in China to promote brand influence before tapping into the African continent.

While cherishing the commercial success of these ICT firms, the initiative of developing soft power has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese government in renewing their African strategy.

Chinese Government Technology Soft Power

In addition to inter-governmental deals in natural resources, infrastructure and foreign aid, cultural exchange has become an increasingly important pillar to extend China’s influence in Africa.

As just one example, the country hosted more than 70,000 students from 24 African countries in 2017 with many returned home after graduation to work for Chinese employers or start their own business. The adoption of Chinese social media apps in Africa is experiencing unprecedented growth.

Although the idea of building soft power was exercised by Chinese ICT firms when venturing to Africa in earlier days, the growing ambition of the Chinese government in fostering its influence in the global South is likely to make this activity continue.

Compared to the sizeable body of literature about Chinese firms’ engagement in Africa, an emerging research area is about the role of soft power in expanding the country’s geo-political and economic influence. This blog post highlights the need to include this topic in the future research agenda, including that on China and ICTs in Africa.

A lightly edited version of Chinese ICT firms and the spread of their soft power in Africa by Xia Han

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