Photo: The African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa; source Getty Images

The government of China has long held an interest in building bridges with countries across Africa, which it sees as both a major opportunity for economic investment and a chance to project geopolitical power. But while mutual solidarity is nice and all, the Chinese want to leave as little to chance as possible in their influence-building project on the continent, per a recent investigation by French newspaper Le Monde.

According to the paper, China gifted the $200 million African Union headquarters building in Adis Ababa—where representatives from all 55 African countries meet—at full cost as an ostensible show of goodwill. But after AU staff discovered strange server activity between midnight and 2am local time in January 2017, subsequent investigation and sweeps of the building found that Chinese engineers left backdoors in computer servers allowing access to “all sensitive content” as well as left recording devices in desks and walls.

Le Monde alleges that use of the building may have allowed the Chinese government access to pretty much everything the AU was doing from January 2012 to January 2017—something potentially invaluable for a government looking to benefit from Africa’s massive development potential and vast resources. Sources told Le Monde that it can be an uphill battle to get government officials there to take cybersecurity seriously and the AU remains “very exposed” to both Chinese espionage as well as the intelligence services of many other interested powers.

According to the BBC, Kuang Weilin, the Chinese ambassador to the AU, told reporters in Ethiopia the “absurd” claim in France’s Le Monde was “very difficult to understand”.

He spoke out three days after the newspaper published an article claiming data from the Chinese-built AU building was being copied to Shanghai.

The article said the discovery resulted in all the AU servers being switched.

Le Monde spoke to a number of anonymous sources, who claimed the alleged transfer was taking place late at night, and was only spotted in January 2017 due to the spike in activity between midnight and 02:00, despite no-one being in the building.

It was suggested the alleged data transfer had been taking place since 2012, when the building, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, was opened.

Officials also brought in security experts from Algeria to sweep the entire headquarters for potential bugs, the newspaper said, leading to the discovery of microphones in desks.

But Mr Kuang – who hailed the headquarters as a “monument” to his country’s relationship with the continent – said it was entirely untrue.

He said that the report was inaccurate and “I really question its intention. I think it will undermine and send a very negative message to people. I think it is not good for the image of the newspaper itself … Certainly, it will create problems for China-Africa relations.”

“I really question its intention,” he told reporters on Monday. “I think it will undermine and send a very negative message to people. I think it is not good for the image of the newspaper itself.

“Certainly, it will create problems for China-Africa relations.”

According to Reuters, regional leaders like Rwandan President Paul Kagame have also denied the reports and insisted that nothing is done in the AU building that is particularly secretive anyhow.

“I don’t think spying is the specialty of the Chinese,” Kagame said. “We have spies all over the place in this world. But I will not have been worried about being spied on in this building.”

Credit: le Monde / Reuters / BBC