Does China Have a Looming Africa Problem?


Does China have a looming Africa problem? Recently increasing domestic unrest in some of China’s largest and oldest partner states in Africa suggests this is the case. Historically sensitive to any impediments on national sovereignty, China has touted the “Beijing Consensus,” defined as a viable path to realize economic development without the need for democratization. Some of the most ardent supporters of and adherents to the “China Model” can be found in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfortunately, some of these same African states now find themselves mired in ever more complex domestic political crises. China’s apparently recent reevaluation of its relationship with Venezuela, due to that country’s instability, indicates that Chinese engagement in Africa could potentially undergo a similar revaluation.

On the surface, the China Model appears to come with fewer caveats than American foreign aid with its neoliberal economic implications of forced privatization policies and bureaucratic restructuring. The China Model is not philanthropy; it is soft power and commercial ventures in politically delicate countries. On one hand, the widely visible African infrastructure and industrial projects are co-invested with a great deal of the yield on the Chinese end of the balance sheet. On the other hand, an influx of foreign investment may serve to support domestically unpopular governments while fomenting political instability. China may be creating an environment that will threaten its long-term gains, leading to a situation where Beijing will be forced to cease funding and cut ties with countries that their investment helped destabilize.

There are several states in Africa whose political fortunes could radically change in the near and long term, to the detriment of Chinese foreign policy in Africa. First, the largest sustained and popularly supported protests since the end of minority rule have erupted in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s government has met these anti-Zanu PF protests with force and repression. While Beijing has consistently demonstrated it too has the time-tested ability of any great power to look the other way, the current crisis in Zimbabwe must alarm China. With an estimated direct investment in Zimbabwe of over $600 million by Chinese businesses, themselves often parastatals, China stands to suffer major financial losses.

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Growing unhappiness with the latest round of Mugabe’s “indigenization” efforts at further nationalization of the economy may cause state collapse in Zimbabwe and imperil these investments. Although the government in Harare is weathering the storm it has created, at some point Mugabe will leave the picture. It is anyone’s best guess what political situation will emerge from the long shadow of authoritarian rule that has suppressed and heightened internal ethnic divisions.

Second, Tanzania, long a favorite destination for foreign investors and aid programs due to its stable government, is facing renewed political crisis in the wake of unpopular repression of dissent by the government. President John Magafuli has implemented a broad range of measures aimed at decreasing governmental transparency and suppressing the primary opposition party. Unlike Zimbabwe, where deep ethnic tensions pre-date independence, Tanzania’s unrest has political origins related to the rise of the opposition party Chadema (the Swahili acronym for Party for Democracy and Progress) as an increasingly viable alternative to the incumbent, Party of the Revolution or Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM).

The CCM has led Tanzania since independence and remained popular following the introduction of multi-party rule in 1992. In fact, CCM is Africa’s longest ruling political party. Chadema’s popularity has grown primarily because of ceaseless campaigning against what it sees as deeply corrupted state institutions associated with the long ruling CCM.

With a roughly $4 billion trade relationship between the two nations, even China, with its immense currency reserves, would be affected by any serious civil unrest in Tanzania. In the event of serious unrest China’s presence itself could become a focal point for public anger. For example, Chinese workers have previously been attacked and abducted by anti-government militants in Sudan and Ethiopia.

For better or for worse, China fills a void in these two countries that desperately need filling. However, if one of its partner country destabilizes, China will likely adhere to the primary pillars of its foreign policy, which Beijing has held for the last 60 years: nonintervention and sovereignty. There is a chance that China would be forced to react to events in order to save face, or if domestic sentiments tip against its foreign policy, but don’t bet on it.

At the same time, China must mind its own backyard. Chinese foreign direct investment does not always play well in China. Much like U.S. foreign aid, the perennial argument is made that Beijing should support domestic infrastructure, industry, and commerce instead of giving away billions of dollars to foreign countries. Also, many of these joint ventures abroad are conducted through parastatals. If the investment fails, the Chinese government will likely shoulder the financial burden and make reparations to disenfranchised workers and corporations with an unfavorable public appraisal. All the while, Beijing is under constant pressure by the public to stimulate economic growth through innovative means, which includes these foreign ventures.

Considered individually these events are significant but not momentous; China is a major power with global interests, some of which are in Africa. However, like all great powers China prefers the status quo to any change, particularly chaotic political upheaval. If anti-authoritarian protests begin sweeping sub-Saharan Africa like the Arab Spring, then a key focus area of Chinese foreign policy could be imperiled. In the long term there are significant chances for sustained unrest in several of China’s other significant African partners that are facing increasing challenges to autocratic rule, like in Ethiopia.

One byproduct of an increasingly networked and globalized world is that people are less and less likely to tolerate the politics of repression that represent the outmoded ideals of bygone days. Worldwide there are numerous analogous situations that are simply awaiting a catalyst to initiate change. Seemingly innocuous events can lead to unintended outcomes, as the Arab Spring in North Africa has proven.

Perhaps even more important than what China is doing now will be what course of action China assumes when those forces of change are unlocked. Not only will the citizens of Zimbabwe and Tanzania examine their relationship with China in a new light but also, more importantly, those countries who are currently pursuing development along the Chinese model may decide there are better alternatives in the long run. Undoubtedly these events are commanding attention at the highest levels of Chinese business and government.

Porter Morgan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah who specializes in Chinese politics and Chinese Society.  Jason (Brad) Nicholson is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army and international relations doctoral student at the University of Utah (USA).

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