The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

African countries have started to push back against Chinese development aid. Here’s why.

Senegal President Macky Sall, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping inspect the honor guard during a state visit in Dakar, Senegal, on July 21, 2018. (AP)

Just how entrenched is China in Africa these days? The Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing in September highlighted China’s expansive economic diplomacy – and $60 billion pledge in “no-strings” attached development assistance.

But Zimbabwe’s historic election during the summer offered up a different view, and suggests that an increasing number of Africans have less enthusiasm for China’s assistance — and Chinese money. During the campaign, opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa of the MDC alliance evoked strong anti-China rhetoric in an effort to galvanize popular support against the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ZANU-PF. Chamisa promised to expel Chinese businesses if he won, though it’s unclear whether this threat influenced his 44.3 percent to 50.7 percent loss to Mnangagwa.

Opinion surveys and research on China-Africa ties are generally positive about Chinese engagements. So election rhetoric offers a way to chart anti-Chinese sentiment in Africa, which is increasingly harnessed for electoral gain. One often-cited example is Zambia’s 2011 election, when challenger Michael Sata frequently denounced Chinese businesspeople as “profiteers.” Sata’s anti-Chinese sentiment struck a chord with voters, and helped him defeat incumbent President Rupiah Banda. But is this an emerging pattern — or a sporadic political occurrence in African elections?

With China as a popular development partner for many African countries, and provider of infrastructure and financial resources, here are four reasons why anti-China rhetoric nevertheless has some appeal:

1. African elections are essentially about the economy, and China is a significant economic player.

Beijing has edged out Western economies to become the most crucial economic partner to many African countries — which have diverse needs and resources. With South Africa’s unemployment rate expected to reach more than 26 percent in 2018, even the continent’s top performers and Beijing’s major partners need to increase trade and investments, and build resilient economies that provide and protect jobs. The stakes are high, as over one-third of African workers fall below the poverty line of $1.90 a day.

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For pro-China African politicians and incumbents, China-Africa engagement means immense job creation, much-needed infrastructure and, most significantly, the chance to meet electoral promises with an injection of foreign capital with few conditions. The anti-China view, alternatively, sees the opportunity to remind voters of high rates of unemployment, particularly among the youth, and stir up popular anger to defeat incumbency.

Opponents can blame the incumbent’s willingness to accept an expanding Chinese economic influence that fails to address the country’s economic woes — but if they win, they may decide to follow through with their anti-China pronouncements, or not. Recently, newly installed President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone canceled a Chinese-funded airport project signed by his predecessor, after referring to Chinese projects as “a sham” during a campaign debate. 

2. African economies are largely extractive, and China is heavily engaged in this sector. According to the China Africa Research Initiative, the top three Chinese imports from Africa in 2015 were oil, copper and other ores. China’s oil purchases come from Angola, Congo and South Sudan, for instance. Zambia’s exports to China largely consist of copper, and its neighbor Zimbabwe sends nickel and other precious stones to China.

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As extractive sectors are often at the core of African economies, foreign involvement or domination of such sectors can easily elicit popular discontent. China’s increased interests in these sectors no doubt sparks intense political debates, especially when there are reports of mistreatment of local mine workers or increased Chinese involvement in unregulated mining activities. Sociologist Ching Kwan Lee, for example, details the hardships of Zambian mine workers in Chinese-owned mines, which explains the anti-China popular fury that fueled Michael Sata’s victory in 2011.

In Ghana, Chinese involvement in illegal artisanal gold mining incurred local resentment, which featured in the 2016 vote that elected Nana Akufo-Addo — who promised to deal with the situation. While some research shows that local population in proximity to Chinese-operated mines enjoy better infrastructure and social services, anti-Chinese sentiments are also highest around these areas, making the local residents prime anti-incumbent constituencies.

3. China has flooded African markets with poor-quality products.

A 2016 Afrobarometer survey of 35 African countries indicated an average of 35 percent of respondents perceived the quality of Chinese products in Africa as problematic for China’s image. Despite the benefits of providing cheaper options of products to African consumers with meager incomes, consumers don’t want to see substandard materials in infrastructure building, or risk purchasing fake pharmaceutical products.

And some African politicians often like to remind voters that cheap Chinese textiles and other goods compete with local products. African governments and their monitoring institutions may be complicit in this China-Africa issue, but this is an issue that can be exploited on the campaign trail to influence voters at the polls. 

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4. The ghost of colonialism hangs over China-Africa relations.

To some Western politicians, China’s increased engagement in Africa is nothing more than “new colonialism,” and growing indebtedness to Beijing should be a bigger concern. Deborah Brautigam, who directs the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, argues against the notion that Africans are powerlessly dependent on arrangements skewed in China’s favor. African politicians tend to make this association not only as a cautious reminder, but because this is a deeply emotive claim that encourages Africans to challenge a repeat of the continent’s not-too-distant history.

What does this mean for China, and for African nations? For a global China, the benefits of increased economic engagement in Africa and becoming the continent’s preferred development partner comes with the burden of ensuring the viability and sustainability of these projects. A politically stable Africa would likely enhance these benefits — but Africa’s vibrant democratic cultures may sometimes feature not-so-friendly political rhetoric. For Africans in an economically and politically dynamic continent, the current increase in Chinese investments and loans mean China may remain a major factor in future African elections.

Richard Aidoo is associate professor of politics and assistant dean at Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Coastal Carolina University.