Checking China’s Economic Excess in Africa: Institutional and Civic Strategies

They harvested the rare stand of rosewood beside a small dam under the cover of darkness, cutting the wood into precise lengths, and loading it directly into a nearby container, to be transported to the port 400 kilometres away and then shipped straight to China.

When local police arrested them, a small group of local citizens demonstrated outside the municipal office, intently observed by their sponsors, Chinese nationals in an SUV across the road. At the same time, a senior government official in the capital of this Sub-Saharan African nation called the mayor, aggressively pressuring him to release the detainees. An appointee of the governing party, the mayor eventually let the perpetrators go. But he also triggered a conversation among his peers on how to combat emerging illegal harvesting networks. As China’s rise to neo-colonial dominance in Sub-Saharan Africa accelerates, kicked into a higher gear by the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative  (BRI), African leaders from village to statehouse are seeking effective ways of checking Chinese economic excess on their sovereign lands.

True, China’s engagement has brought important benefits. The past decade of growing investments in Africa by China has produced gleaming new, and often much-needed, infrastructure.  Modern roads, bridges, airports, energy grids, and ports are all essential to a positive future for the continent.  

However, these projects have been executed by Chinese state-owned firms, financed by lines of credit provided to African governments, and almost always built by Chinese labour, and sometimes, by Chinese prisoners.

As the BRI has penetrated the continent, African debt to China continues to accumulate at alarming levels, especially in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, which are of strategic importance to Belt and Road connectivity by sea and rail.  In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, for example, China has been all too eager to reduce local debt in exchange for permanent Chinese control over key ports and other facilities.    

The core question for African leaders is how to moderate the behaviour of a powerful external actor with global momentum backed by seemingly unlimited capital, facilitated by corruption at home and abroad, with a track record of undermining independent courts, reducing civic and political freedom, violating human rights and restricting freedom of the press.  

Indeed, these are the basic elements of the Chinese model for its own domestic economic growth: The transaction offered by the Communist Party of China to Chinese citizens is, essentially, large capital investments and the mass creation of jobs in exchange for limited political and civic freedoms.  

But the core answer  to checking China’s economic excess in Africa is to strengthen precisely those institutions and practices rejected and undermined by the Chinese model, by:

  1. Redoubling the fight against corrupt local politicians and business executives, including large financial penalties and harsh prison sentencing;
  2. Using national security forces and local police to identify, round up and return Chinese criminals to China;
  3. Tightening and making more transparent national business-ownership laws;
  4. Educating the judiciary and the broader legal system, and systematizing case law on illegal business practices backed by Chinese interests;
  5. Supporting municipal governments to enforce local resource-management policies;
  6. Encouraging local philanthropic funding of citizen groups monitoring the mining, forestry and agriculture sectors;
  7. Protecting the rights of independent local media to provide critical coverage of cases of Chinese-backed excess;
  8. Rejecting Chinese advice and expertise to control or shut-down local-citizen access to the internet, or use electronic surveillance technology on the local population;
  9. Encouraging international media, environmental and human rights groups to monitor, expose, name and shame cases of illegal Chinese resource exploitation;
  10. Re-engaging with other foreign powers and multilateral institutions to provide countervailing economic resources, political influence and greater commitment to transparency and the rule of law. 

In Hong Kong, amid plumes of tear gas, activists fighting a proposed extradition treaty with China are sacrificing themselves to defend the freedoms they still have and that their family and friends in mainland China have never known.

Across the world, from Cambodia to Malaysia and Sri Lanka’s citizens and government leaders alike are asking hard questions about the costs and benefits of China’s new hegemony in the global economy, and, in what seems to be an international learning moment, are starting to talk to each other.

The next decade is likely to see the tip of the spear for the Belt and Road Initiative revealed.  To secure its BRI investments and sustain trade flows, China can be expected to establish a network of new military bases across Africa.  Djibouti is the site of the first Chinese military base on the continent; there almost certainly will be more.  

In the meantime, this learning moment should not be wasted.  In order to protect the autonomy of the economies as well as the civil and human rights of their citizens, African leaders and citizens should work together to build new institutional and civic strategies to curb Chinese economic excess.  

Edward Jackson is a university professor and management consultant with long experience in Africa. The author is grateful to Budd Hall, Marley Monacello, Brian Rowe, Magda Seydegart and Ian Smillie for their comments on an earlier draft.