Learning Along the Digital Silk Road? Technology Transfer, Power, and Chinese ICT Corporations in North Africa

Tin Hinane El-Kadi


While much attention has been paid to how China’s rise as a digital superpower could threaten US hegemony over cyberspace, much less has been written on what the Digital Silk Road, or the presence of Chinese tech firms in developing countries more broadly, means for technological upgrading and development. This paper contributes to filling this gap by investigating the technology spillovers emanating from two Chinese tech giants – Huawei and ZTE – in Algeria and Egypt.

Using a political economy framework that combines insights from structuralist economic development and techno-politics and drawing on over 70 semi-structured interviews and field-observations, the paper argues that despite localising activities that bear the promise of generating significant linkages, the two Chinese tech firms created no meaningful learning opportunities that contribute to technological upgrading. What could at first seem like developmental connections that promote technology transfers are found to be linkages diffusing Chinese infrastructures, hardware, software, processes and standards that shape distinct digital systems. Without pro-active policies from host governments, the Digital Silk Road risks creating new technological dependencies, locking local ICT actors into activities and relationships captured and defined by Chinese tech giants.

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