A file photo of the China-constructed African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Xinhua

China planted a portal in computers at the headquarters of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa that sent secret data back to servers in Shanghai for five years, France’s Le Monde reported.

The newspaper said that after the building opened in 2012 technicians noticed a spike in data usage between midnight and 2am every day, when the building was empty, and brought in IT experts.

An Algerian team discovered that the Chinese-supplied computers had a portal that gave hackers backdoor access to files and other documents.  They saw data being copied and transferred and were able to trace the transmissions to servers in Shanghai, some 8,800 kilometres away.

Experts also found sensitive wiretapping devices hidden beneath tables and inside walls throughout the 132,000 square-metre complex, which  consists of a conference centre and a 20-storey office tower.

China’s ambassador to the AU, Kwang Weilin, dismissed the reports as  “absurd” and “preposterous,” and warned they would “create problems for China-Africa relations”. Kwang said they were another example of the West’s belief that China was pulling strings in Africa.

China offered to help upgrade the firewalls, but not surprisingly its offer was politely turned down

The bugs are believed to have been planted during construction of the US$200 million complex, which was funded entirely by Chinese capital and built by the China State Construction Engineering Corp. All IT and encrypted communication systems had to be reinstalled in January 2017, the newspaper reported. China offered to help upgrade the firewalls, but not surprisingly its offer was politely turned down.

News of the apparent cybersecurity breach was hushed up for almost a year until the exposé by Le Monde, which said it had been tipped off by sources within the African Union.

The opening ceremony in 2012 was attended by Jia Qinglin, the then-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Chinese Communist Party’s fourth highest-ranking official. National leaders from African countries were also present.

Built to house representatives of all 55 countries on the continent, the project was included in a slew of aid programs announced by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006 that were designed to symbolize his country’s growing presence and influence in Africa.

The African Union’s new chairman, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, said he was unaware of Beijing’s apparent eavesdropping and that he did not think China usually spied on its friends. Kagame also said the union had “had no secrets” since its establishment in 2001.

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