Chinese aid is different from Western aid: It is unconditional, meaning it comes with no strings attached. Western aid typically requires progress on the donor’s agenda, such as support for democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, and poverty reduction. President Xi’s visit to Zimbabwe is particularly striking as a counterpoint to Western countries’ relations with the country as the EU’s sanctions against Zimbabwe began in 2002 over electoral fraud and human rights abuses.
China doesn’t impose its political views, ideals, or principles onto countries to which it gives aid. In what’s known as its “non-interference policy,” the Chinese government pointedly says that it is not trying to influence the political decisions of African regimes. As evidence, China often gives aid directly to state leaders and regimes, who are allowed to use it as they wish.
This policy has had dire consequences. A recent study found that African leaders are almost three times more likely to spend Chinese development aid in areas where they have ethnic ties, not necessarily where aid is most needed.
Further, and most critical, is that when Chinese aid to a country increases, political violence rates involving state forces also increase. We suggest that receiving high levels of Chinese aid has a harmful effect on human rights and on economic and political competition across Africa.
When China sends aid, a country’s government becomes more violent toward its citizens.
In a new working paper on Chinese Aid and Africa’s Pariah States, we find that Chinese aid to African states increase the risk of civilian abuse by giving state leaders and politicians access to funds with which to carry out this violence. As a nation receives more Chinese aid, its military increases its violence against civilians (including bombing them).
State leaders and regimes further use this aid to finance their hold on power by repressing political competitors, such as other political parties and opponents, through tactics such as increased surveillance, detaining and jailing individuals, suppressing peaceful protests, and forced displacement. In countries that receive different and varying levels of Chinese and Western aid, receipt of Chinese aid is followed by increases in police and military violence. Western aid is not followed by any such increase in violence.
That’s not because China funds countries that were already violent. Chinese aid does not disproportionately go to countries that typically have high rates of repression, such as dictatorships or countries well-endowed with natural resources. China’s political agenda shapes who gets aid. For example, African states that recognize Taiwan will not receive any aid from China.
How do we study Chinese aid and violence against civilians?
We use conflict data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, which makes it possible to distinguish the different rates, types and perpetrators of violence. We then compare those rates between states with different combinations of Western and Chinese aid flows.
ACLED is the most comprehensive public collection of real-time political violence data for developing states, and is intended for policy, academic, and media users. Because it produces information on the specific dates and locations of political violence, the types of events, the groups involved, fatalities, and changes in territorial control, it is flexible to make comparisons across countries and aid types. The frequency of conflict and different types are mapped over the levels of Chinese aid to African states in the figure below (Chinese Aid data extend to 2011).
So why does Chinese aid increase violence?
To understand why Chinese aid increases African conflict while Western aid does not, it’s important to understand who perpetrates political violence.
When countries receive large amounts of unrestricted aid, that may attract opponents who want to get their hands on those funds. How a government distributes aid can be unequal and biased. If groups and regions believe they have not received a fair share, they can riot or attack their rivals for those funds.
But while greedy opposition forces may be a problem, the most critical issue is, how a government and its security forces respond to aid.
Consider Ethiopia, which has been criticized for human rights abuses and for forcing the migration of people living in the Eastern area. The government is insisting on that exodus so it can develop large infrastructure for solar, wind, and water energy projects, with the goal of positioning itself as a major power producer. Aid from the West comes with specific conditions on not moving communities and on continually assessing the environment and social well-being.
But Chinese aid requires no such thing — and so when the Chinese send money to Ethiopia more civilians are harmed.
Or consider the country President Xi is visiting: Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe has long upset traditional donors; he has been accused of human rights abuses against opposition supporters and oversaw a controversial land transfer program. In response to international uproar over his national economic and political mismanagement, Mugabe has been courting aid from China. Mugabe has reportedly used Chinese aid to build Zimbabwe’s surveillance capacity, so that he can watch and repress other political parties, journalists, civil society, and opposition supporters.
Finally, consider Uganda. When its traditional donors revolted because of the country’s draconian laws on homosexuality, including Scandinavian states as well as the United States, Uganda began to focus more on encouraging Chinese aid.
That’s why some African leaders (such as Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya or Mugabe of Zimbabwe) have been turning to China for aid. First, they want to acknowledge China’s growing influence in the region. And second, some African leaders will go to tremendous lengths to remain in power, especially through repressing competition.
In a recent piece in Monkey Cage, Dreher and four co-authors argue that “Many in the West fear Chinese aid to Africa. They’re wrong.” We disagree. Chinese aid causes problems.
China itself is increasingly concerned with its aid; in response to a call by Chinese observers and scholars to reform its foreign aid policies and systems, the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) has initiated a campaign to reassess its aids’ intent, structure, and oversight.
China doesn’t want the bad publicity, and is considering weakening its non-interference policy. If it undertakes such a change, it would start far more monitoring and evaluation. In line with its own financial concerns, China and its citizens may believe that the best bet for future relationships is to help foster stable regimes that have fewer incentives and reasons to use excessive patronage and repression as a tactic to stay in power.
Roudabeh Kishi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sussex working on the Geographies of Political Violence (GEOPV) project. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter @roudabehkishi.