Data: An Integral Part of China’s New Belt and Road Initiative Strategy in Africa

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Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta secured a $1.75 billion Konza Data Center and Smart Cities deal to be undertaken by Huawei, during the just-completed second belt and road progress forum in Beijing, China.

President Uhuru was expected to finalize on a $3.68 billion loan for Phase II of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) but some argue that China refused to extend the funding due to “disagreements over the collateral Kenya offered, as well as doubts over the railway’s future prospects.” The government later declined these allegations and clarified that the SGR was not a top priority in their engagement with China.

Kenya is one of the few African countries that are part of China’s trillion dollar BRI project that is in form of loans and investment for projects across 65+ countries in South East Asia, Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South America. The SGR has been used severally by President Xi as the poster child for China’s BRI strategy in Africa. Why is it no longer a priority agenda?

China is de-prioritizing mega infrastructure financing for more state-aligned interests like becoming an Artificial Intelligence (AI) global leader by 2030

This is not only true for Kenya but also several other BRI states including Malaysia, which heavily criticized and suspended over $20 billion China-backed projects, but just this month, signed a $1 billion deal to create an AI hub with the help of Chinese AI unicorn SenseTime. Founded in 2014, SenseTime is the most valuable AI startup in the world at a $4.5 billion valuation. Its main application is its face recognition algorithm and has been used for surveillance by the local government.

This reflects a new BRI strategy that is focused less on mega-infrastructure financing and construction, which has been largely criticized as a form of debt-trap diplomacy. On the other hand, high-tech investment doesn’t involve large sums or major loans and aligns with the government’s interest in becoming an AI world leader by 2030.

Launched in 2017, China’s AI 2030 is a New Generation AI Development Plan that intends to mastery and make China a world reference in AI. Data is a vital component of AI and the winner of the AI race will need access to an enormous amount of information about real-life human behavior.

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