China and Africa: The Real Barriers to Win-Win

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus.

March 9, 2007

Over the last five years, Angola has lost to graft as much as $4 billion in oil revenues -- equivalent to 10% of its GDP. As a result of this misgovernance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was determined to include transparency measures to curb corruption in its 2004 loan to Angola. However, as the IMF pressed for agreement, the Angolan government suddenly stopped negotiations. It had received a counter-offer of a $2 billion loan from China’s export-credit agency. The deal came with an interest rate repayment of a mere 1.5% over 17 years. Angola also agreed to supply China with 10,000 barrels per day of crude oil -- later to increase to 40,000 barrels per day -- as well substantial construction contracts.

This Chinese offer provoked consternation within Angola’s nascent indigenous business sector. “There is a condition in the loan that 30% will be subcontracted to Angolan firms, but that still leaves 70%,” explains Angolan economist José Cerqueira. “Angolan businessmen are very worried about this, because they don’t get the business, and the construction sector is one in which Angolans hope they can find work.” Thus the real cost of the loan is higher, because the exclusion of non-Chinese suppliers will negatively affect the prices of goods and services imports. Furthermore, none of the IMF’s conditionalities regarding corruption or graft was included in the loan’s details. Luanda was thus able to overcome the refusal by Western donors to bankroll a donor’s conference until Angola had reached agreement with the IMF and concluded a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper. Critics of the Bretton Woods institutions might think putting the World Bank or IMF in their place is a good thing. But ordinary Africans will not likely see any tangible benefits of cutting these institutions out of the picture. The Angolan case illustrates the hazards of Chinese investment in Africa.

Beijing can easily facilitate corruption, negotiate lopsided contracts, and reinforce existing patronage systems. For many elites in Africa, wealth generation and survival does not depend on productive development on a nationwide scale. Elite survival depends on access to rents to distribute to patronage networks, thereby generating key support, but this network can encompass a relatively limited geographic area. In other words, the advancement of policies that bring in revenue for the elites but that also benefit broad swathes of the population, such as general agricultural policies that raise up large sections of the community, is not required. Consequently, China’s economic and political support could offer African politicians increasing leeway in misusing public funds and manipulating institutions to preserve their own power. Sovereignty and Human Rights There is a great deal of convergence between Chinese rhetoric on human rights and democracy and much African practice. According to one report, “In fact, China and Africa to a large extent share the same attitude towards human rights. By and large, they put economic rights over political rights and assign the highest priority to the right to development.” 1

It is certainly true that China and African presidents to a large degree share the same attitude toward human rights and good governance. But this is not because African leaders put economic rights over political rights or because they allocate the maximum precedence to national development. National development and a broad-based productive economy are far less a concern to elites within most African political systems than the continuation of the gainful utilization of resources for the individual advantage of the ruler and his clientele networks. In fact, development might stimulate opposition. “On the one hand, economic development is a goal that every head of state must pursue,” Bertrand Badie explains. “On the other hand, an overly active policy of development risks producing several negative results: it would valorize the competence of the technocratic elite relative to that of the fragile political elite, break up social spaces and favor the constitution of a civil society capable of counterbalancing the political system, and indeed, neutralize neo-patrimonial strategies.” 2

China’s policy of non-interference in domestic affairs is, of course, long standing and not specific to Africa. It is historically rooted in China’s years of humiliation in the 19th century, and non-interference was early on established as a mainstay of Beijing’s foreign policy. The first plenary session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference indeed asserted that “the principle of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China is protection of the independence, freedom, integrity of territory and sovereignty of the country.” This, combined with particular understandings and interpretations of what constitutes human rights and democracy, explains China’s current stance, whether in Africa or elsewhere. China emphasizes collective development as the key human right, rather than individual civil and political liberties. In this regard, much criticism heaped on China for its Africa policy vis-à-vis human rights and governance is rather misplaced -- the policies are not particular to Africa. China’s positions converge with those of African leaders themselves, who are more than happy to have an ally that does not demand conditions, that doesn’t require answers to where the money is going or the number of political prisoners or the lack of elections. From Beijing’s perspective, China is simply acting in a pragmatic and self-interested manner and following its own understandings of particular concepts. But from an African autocrat’s point of view, the Chinese outlook is highly attractive in helping to reinforce what is often an unstable grasp on power in many states across the continent. Thus in this sense, condemning China’s policies in Africa misses the point. The problem is not necessarily Beijing, but is rather found in the nature and edifice of many African nations. Obviously, there is justifiable disquiet that Beijing’s Africa policies may undermine political and economic reform on the continent, as well as nascent attempts to advance such movement, as arguably crystallized in the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Before critiquing China’s role in Africa vis-à-vis governance and human rights, however, analysts need to understand both China’s particular human rights discourse and the nature of most African states, for it is here where the real problem lies. Human Rights vs. Development? Yet there is a certain illogicality in China’s position on human rights in its Sino-African diplomacy. It is acceptable to recognize that different conceptions of human rights as well as different interpretation of the Universal Declaration exist. The Chinese discourse on human rights prioritizes the right to food, clothing, shelter, and economic development, and Beijing has been quite active in asserting that its primary mission is to develop productive forces. From this perspective, the liberal conceptions of human rights advocated by the West potentially threaten the much-desired stability that Chinese policymakers view as essential to advancing development. China certainly communicates this message in its Africa policies. But what if Chinese diplomacy and activities in engaging with certain African regimes not only clashes with the advancement of universal (i.e. Western) norms of human rights but actually helps to further undermine development, ostensibly essential to Beijing’s own definition of human rights?

Even if we accept China’s alternative readings, Beijing’s diplomacy in Africa may in fact help to consolidate governments that, as explained above, actively obstruct development because it threatens elites. According to China’s non-interference policy, sovereignty trumps everything and so it is up to each country to decide what to do with Beijing’s assistance. But if sovereignty is the guarantor of human rights and that sovereignty is being used to effectively undermine developmentalism, then there is a profound contradiction at the heart of China’s discourse on human rights. Surely in such cases China is complicit in not only siding with autocrats and undermining a nascent human rights regime (one now supported by a number of African states). It is also undermining its own conception of human rights based on development, as well as its own interpretation of the linkage between human rights and sovereignty.

It is clear, for instance, that Mugabe’s government not only tramples on civil and political rights (as per Western ideas of human rights), but also subverts Zimbabweans’ economic and social rights (as per China’s discourse on human rights). Of course, the Chinese government can return to the importance of sovereignty by noting that sovereign African states are free to deal with China or not as they so desire. But if China's leaders genuinely believe that China’s engagement of Africa will not repeat the crimes and misdemeanors of European colonizers, then engaging without damaging remains one of China’s greatest challenges and vulnerabilities in its current African diplomacy. It is here that African civil society must play a most important role. End Notes

1. New Straits Times (Singapore), January 5, 2007.

2. Bertrand Badie, The Imported State: The Westernization of the Political Order (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 19.

Ian Taylor is a professor of international relations at the University of St. Andrews, the author of China and Africa: Engagement and Compromise (London/New York: Routledge, 2006), and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (