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Blow to China: African Union discovers data theft, espionage; ditches Chinese servers

China has reponded characterstically, dismissing the allegation instead of trying to win back the trust.

Blow to China: African Union discovers data theft, espionage; ditches Chinese servers
'China's Gift to Friends of Africa', the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Data from all computers in the building were being copied to servers in Shanghai every night. (Picture: AU)

China's problems with building trust around the world just don't seem to have an end. The Asian superpower-wannabe was on Monday left dismissing accusations that it is copying data off the African Union's computers to servers in Shanghai.

The Chinese dismissal comes in response to a report in French newspaper Le Monde that all the data on the computers at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa were being copied out to servers in Shanghai every night.

The data theft and espionage on the apex African multinational body was discovered in January, when AU personnel noticed that data transfers on the AU network peaked between midnight and 2 am every night. What had struck them as strange was the fact that the offices were empty when this was happening.

The sources who spoke to Le Monde said this data theft of the AU's secrets and all other information had been happening for five years, from the building's inauguration in January 2012 to now. The Chinese had built the AU headquarters, set up all computer systems and networks and handed them over to the new occupants in a turnkey arrangement.

After learning of the wholesale daily leaks, the AU immediately acquired new servers and shifted to them. AU officials refused Chinese offers of assistance in configuring the new servers, the report said.

Security teams were also brought from Algeria to sweep the entire building for potential bugs aimed at eavesdropping. This led to the discovery of microphones in desks.

The discovery of the espionage came just days ahead of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government.

The African Union headquarters had cost about $200 million to build, and was called 'China's Gift to Friends of Africa'.

The scandal comes at a time when an increasing number of African countries have started making negative noises about Chinese business practices in their countries and others have already started complaining of having been led into debt-trap financing of Chinese-built infrastructure projects, which has already begun affecting countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). 

And China, with its persistent troubles with winning trust and soft power, made little effort to assuage fears. Kuang Weilin, China's Ambassador to the AU, dismissed the allegation as "absurd" and "hard to understand".

"I really question its (the report) intention," he was reported as saying. "I think it will undermine and send a very negative message to people… Certainly, it will create problems for China-Africa relations," Kuang added.

China has in recent years made huge investments in Africa, often with the promise that its presence would lead to economic growth. However, most of its projects are either construction or mining. And most of them face accusation that local labour is overlooked in favour of Chinese labourers.