Little is known about ancient relations between China and the African continent, though there is some evidence of early trade connections. Highlights of medieval contacts were the 14th century journey of Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan scholar and traveler, to parts of China; the visit of Sa’id of Mogadishu, the Somali scholar and explorer to China; and the Ming Dynasty voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He and his fleet, which rounded the coast of Somalia and followed the coast down to the Mozambique Channel.
Modern political and economic relations commenced in the era of Mao Zedong, the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party, following the Chinese Civil War. Starting in the 21st century, the modern state of the People’s Republic of China has built increasingly strong economic ties with Africa. There are an estimated one million Chinese citizens residing in Africa. By comparison, it has been estimated that 200,000 Africans are working in China.
How Africa brings to you the opinion of Sisipho from Durban about the Africa-China relations and its impacts on African Democracy.
Dear Eric & Cobus, One of the things that worries me the most about China-Africa relations is the impact it will have on African democracy. Are you worried about this too? Africa has been through so many wars and what it needs now is freedom and democracy – not China supporting dictators. Is China killing African democracy?
— Sisipho from Durban, South Africa via email
Sisipho, you’re completely right that China has a deserved reputation for supporting some nasty dictators in Africa. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe are only two examples of African dictators who have been received very friendly receptions in Beijing numerous times.
That said, you should keep one thing in mind. China is hardly alone in this practice. Western governments’ tendency to condemn repressive African governments is directly linked to how much they need from that government. So you have the unseemly spectacle of Obama administration officials praising the ‘vibrant democracy’ in Ethiopia, and the continuing cultivation of deeply problematic West African governments by France. Mugabe himself was recently embraced by Japan, even as China seems to be edging away slightly because his government has such problems repaying loans. So in condemning China’s explicit support of these dictators, one shouldn’t forget that the main difference between China and other global powers is not that the latter don’t support dictators, but simply that they keep that support on the down low. This is of course not true for all Western relations with Africa, but it shouldn’t be forgotten.
But this is well-trodden territory. The fundamental part of your question touches on a more complex issue: to which extent does more democracy mean more freedom? On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer: democracy means that people can make a choice about who they want as leaders, and because people want to be free, in a well-functioning democracy they will choose the leaders who can make them more free. Right?
Not so fast. This way of thinking has informed a lot of Western democracy promotion in Africa, but it has a blind spot: it under-estimates the impact of systemic under-development. A dominant assumption in this approach is that more democracy leads to more freedom, and that more freedom will kick-start economic development. However, in places like certain African countries where access to basic means is so constrained, there is the danger that this will lead to people simply clustering closer and closer to strong leaders, because one can only get the means of survival through those leaders. The danger then becomes that concentrating on democracy before development could actually make African countries less democratic.
The East Asian approach is the opposite: they tend to assume that instead of democracy leading to development, democracy is itself a developmental phase. East Asian states like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have generally become more democratic as they developed: development led to democracy, not the other way around. In the case of China, even that progression is in question, and China is frequently celebrated by African leaders for combining development with a one-party state.
More important for our discussion is that China knows the fundamental dangers of under-development in its daily life. In this sense it seems to me to be much more on Africa’s wavelength than the West. China thinks of the lack of access to, say, electricity, not as an abstract UN development goal, but as a daily lived reality with real political impacts. I think this is one reason why many African leaders have found such affinity with the Chinese model.
Does this mean that Chinese influence will necessarily make Africa more like China? This is so difficult to answer, because it depends a lot on the particular African country. The countries that are most closely adopting the Chinese (or rather – wider East Asian) development model, like Ethiopia and Rwanda, are indeed not models of democracy. And some of China’s biggest trading partners, like Angola, are deeply undemocratic, and China seems fine with that. On the other hand, some of Africa’s more democratic countries, like Kenya and South Africa, are also major trading partners with China. China seems to be more interested in doing business than in imposing a particular political system, and to a certain extent the influx of Chinese money seems to strengthen the tendencies of the political culture of the particular country.
I think the real issue is not what impact China will have on African democracy, but what kind of democracy Africans want. Whether Western-style democracy is right for Africa is a choice only Africans can make. As someone who lives here, I really hope they make the right one. — Cobus