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date: 21 January 2021

China and Political Governance in Africafree

  • Ian TaylorIan TaylorDepartment of International Studies, University of St Andrews


China’s engagement in Africa since around 2000 has been exponential, and Beijing is now perhaps the major player on the continent. With this has come criticism, mainly but not exclusively from the West, which has berated China for turning a blind eye to malgovernance. Initially, China sought to pretend that it was only in Africa for economic reasons and that politics were irrelevant. However, as China’s stake in different African countries developed, Beijing was forced to acknowledge that governance was indeed a factor that needed consideration. This realization was perhaps crystallized around the situation in Sudan. A relative shift in China’s position was hence observed. Under Xi Jinping, however, a newly confident China has been promoting its own definitions of governance, something that enjoys broad support among many African leaders. A clash of definitions as to what constitutes governance and development between China and the West is now quite apparent.


Chinese expansion into Africa has not been met with universal acclaim. Although the Chinese are agreeable to expanding economic and political relations with poor and frequently volatile African states anxious for foreign direct investment (FDI) (just as all other countries do), their approach to governance is sometimes at odds with the dominant Western-inspired polices regarding rights and development. The resulting censure and criticism has come from both the West (which may be somewhat dismissed as hypocritical) but also from some African quarters. At times, China has been held up as the scapegoat for everything that has gone wrong with the postcolonial experiment in Africa, but equally there have been occasions when the behavior of Chinese actors (immediately and problematically collapsed into a unitary “China”) have arguably had a negative impact upon governance. The ensuing criticism was initially dismissed by many Chinese spokesmen (both official and academic—the differences in terms of stance are invariably minimal) as mere Western “jealousy” of China’s “success.” However, the critique did have an effect, and there was an interesting (if limited) evolution of Beijing’s foreign policies toward Africa, something that became apparent as Beijing scrambled to deal with the situation in Darfur, Sudan. Recent developments in China under the presidency of Xi Jinping, however, suggest that a degree of pushback from Beijing has begun, and a new assertive foreign policy is now much more confident in promoting China’s understanding of what constitutes “governance.”

The Wider African Context

Before discussing the specific topic of China’s role in African governance, the issue of Africa’s widespread malgovernance needs to be briefly outlined, as this is the context within which Chinese actors find themselves. In this regard, as Claude Ake (1991, p. 316) argues, “We are never going to understand the current crisis in Africa . . . as long as we continue to think of it as an economic crisis.” In other words, many of the crises that the continent faces can be located in the institutions and norms of African states. Indeed, one of the fundamental problems in much of postcolonial Africa is that the ruling classes lack control that extends beyond mere domination. The early years of nationalism saw an attempt to build a consensual project, but it quickly failed, collapsing into autocracy in many countries. Moral and political methods that rise above pure economic interests are generally absent; the ethico-political feature that helps construct legitimacy is generally absent. Consequently, those in power articulate their supremacy through both the threat and the use of violence, as well as the distribution of substantial advantages to allies in neo-patrimonial regimes (Bratton & van de Walle, 1994). Without these twin strategies, the African ruling elite cannot govern.

An issue for the continent with regards to governance is that “the struggle for power has become so intense and so absorbing that it has overshadowed everything else, including the pursuit of development” (Ake, 1991, p. 318). Indeed, many African states are trapped in a cycle of underdevelopment, which stimulates further malgovernance. Thus far, Chinese policymakers have chosen to ignore or overlook this and do not seem to understand the complexities of African politics. The analysis of most Chinese academics who claim to study Africa follows suit. Yet, given that China is largely focused on state-to-state relations, the fact that Beijing is often dealing with “quasi-states” (Jackson, 1993) is massively problematic for a Chinese policy that claims to want to advance development.

Of course, in China the party is the government, and the government is the state: there is a blur between the interests of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chinese state. This is the de facto situation in parts of Africa where the interests of the ruling clique are conflated with those of the state. Thus, the concept of politics in China is very similar to that in many African countries, and the Chinese have been accused of personalizing their political engagement with African leaders, hence reifying the extant neo-patrimonial regimes. For instance, China is famed for building presidential palaces and national stadiums across the continent. These gestures inflate the egos of many African leaders, creating in them an affinity for and sense of gratitude toward Beijing. In some ways, these sorts of personalized activities are similar to those in which the French, with their own policy of presidentialism and culture of personalization, engage. The net result, however, has been that Beijing has been accused of seeking to exploit the personalization and informalization that are the hallmarks of politics in many African states.

Problematically for the continent’s development, resources obtained from the state or the economy are deployed as the means to maintain support and legitimacy in this system, with the concomitant effect that control of the state is equivalent to control of resources, which, in turn, is crucial for maintaining power. Control of the state serves the twin purposes of lubricating the patronage networks and satisfying the selfish desire of the elite to enrich themselves, often in quite spectacular fashion. Greed is what often lies at the heart of the overpowering reluctance of most African presidents to hand over power voluntarily and what causes many African regimes to end messily, often in coups. In most cases, the democratic option is either absent or is not respected by the loser—the stakes simply are too high. Once one is out of the loop regarding access to state resources, the prolongation of one’s status as a Big Man becomes practically impossible. Politics in Africa thus tends to be a zero-sum game (Flanary, 1998).

In terms of governance, the fact is that a project that embraces national development and a broad-based, diversified, and productive economy is far less a concern within neo-patrimonial systems (which may in fact oppose such notions) than is continued management over resources for the advantage of the ruler and his clientelistic networks. Paradoxically, “intense processes of class formation based on the struggle to death between contending blocs to capture the state for the establishment of predatory rule and the utter dependence of African societies on external constellations of financial and military power have ultimately contributed to the decay of the African state” (Fatton, 1999, p. 4). The parts external actors play in this scenario must be carefully considered if they are not merely to reinforce some of the negative trajectories that have defined Africa’s postcolonial history.

In simple terms, under a neo-patrimonial system, the separation of the public from the private is recognized, at least nominally, and is certainly manifested in the symbols of the rational-bureaucratic state: there are flags, borders, governments, bureaucracies, and so on. These are what China’s leaders generally encounter when they invite delegations to Beijing or visit Africa. However, in practical terms, the private and public spheres are largely attached, and the outward manifestations of statehood are façades hiding the real workings of the system. This has proven a problem for Beijing as it has attempted to construct coherent, long-term developmental relationships according to its stated foreign policy goals in Africa (although short-term commercial exchanges of mutual benefit to the African elite and Chinese corporations are eminently possible).

Chinese Conceptions of Governance and Rights

According to Wan Ming (2001, p. 1), “Few issues in the relations between China and the West invoke as much passion as human rights.” Negative focus is usually placed on China’s transgressions of the norms adopted by the United Nations. However, it would be erroneous to regard what Chinese sources call China’s human rights outlook, which is grounded in native tradition, as one-dimensional—and thus, by inference, inimical to the international human rights regime. As Albert Chen (2000, p. 2) points out:

When we turn to the Chinese tradition, we can, as in the case of the West, find . . . elements that have affinities with, or can contribute to, the modern conception of human rights as well as elements that contradict that conception. The former elements include the Confucian principle of benevolence as the basic norm governing relations between human beings [and] the idea of the equality of all human beings in terms of the capacity for moral cultivation and growth.

Traditionally, the dominant Chinese discourse on rights and governance has focused on the obligations and responsibilities of citizens in building a rich and strong society. This emphasis has underpinned most official Chinese positions since 1949 and dominates Beijing policymakers’ thinking on the subject. Very briefly summarized, China’s discourse on human rights is characterized by a communitarian emphasis on solidarity and duty toward others, which coincides with the Confucian concern for promoting harmony. The perception within China by the leadership that the country is unstable also leads to Beijing’s prioritization of social stability. In short, this discourse is informed by pragmatic nationalism, with a strong emphasis on developmentalism. This was most notable in Xi Jinping’s 2018 New Year speech:

We are now one big step closer to the completion of a moderately prosperous society in all respects. . . . It is our solemn commitment to lift all rural residents living below the current poverty line out of poverty by 2020. Once made, a promise is as weighty as a thousand ounces of gold. It is only 3 years left before 2020, so the whole society shall take joint actions, strive to the best of our capabilities, and implement targeted measures for more success. If we win the battle against poverty three years later on schedule, that will mark the first entire elimination of absolute impoverishment in the Chinese nation's history which has lasted for thousands of years.

(Xi, 2017b)

Actually, under Xi Jinping a new assertiveness over the nature of China’s governance system has become ever more discernible. Since taking over as general secretary of the CPC in November 2012 and then as president of China in March 2013, Xi Jinping has centralized power under his leadership to a considerable extent (Lam, 2015). Xi’s vision for China has in fact been crystallized in two books titled The Governance of China (Xi, 2014b, 2017a). In these volumes, Xi discusses in detail anticorruption, economic reform, and foreign policy. But more importantly for the purpose of this discussion, Xi dismisses those who “yearn for Western social systems and values” (Xi, 2017a, p. 463). Rather, by promoting the ubiquitous socialism with Chinese characteristics, Xi aims to develop China into a prosperous country by 2049, the centenary year of the formation of Communist China.

If one accepts the Chinese discourse on human rights and the centrality of development, then one might argue that China has made considerable progress over the past few decades in terms of governance:

It would be churlish of Western commentators to underestimate the enormous achievement, in the context of China’s recent history, [that] is represented by the current economic development and material improvement in the day-to-day life of the Chinese population, albeit largely urban. . . . It has lifted over 150 million people out of poverty in less than a decade. By way of corroboration, according to figures from UNICEF, the UN, and UNESCO, China does better than India, a country with a similar population level, in infant mortality, life expectancy, and primary school enrolment. There are many more statistics indicating that although China is a lower-middle-income country, it outperforms a number of other countries in its class in relation to the basic economic, social, and cultural indicators.

(Lee, 2007, p. 448)

Indeed, as Daniel Burstein and Arne de Keijzer (1999, p. 136) point out, “To the Chinese, the human rights to food, clothing, shelter, economic development, and security . . . are paramount over traditional Western-style individual political liberties. Judged by this standard, China in the last twenty years is a leader, not a laggard, in promoting the human rights of its people.” Randall Peerenboom concurs:

[The U.S. State Department] reports for China invariably start with a description of the nature of the political regime, as if that were the most significant determinant for rights in the country. [For example,] the 2004 report on China begins: “The People’s Republic of China . . . is an authoritarian state in which . . . the Chinese Communist Party . . . is the paramount source of power.” Imagine if it began instead: “Human rights and other indicators of well-being across the board are highly correlated with wealth. China outperforms the average country in its lower-middle income category on every major indicator except civil and political rights (as is generally true for other East Asian countries).”

(Peerenboom, 2007, p. 173)

In fact, adds Peerenboom, the rule of law, good governance, and the codification of most rights (including civil and political rights) correlate to relatively high levels of wealth. Thus a comparison of China to the developed world unsurprisingly reveals that the former has more departures from the rule of law, weaker state institutions, more corruption, and fewer individual freedoms than its Western counterparts. Peerenboom (2007) offers a variety of explanations for his view that the comparison is unfair and that China is held to higher (or even double) standards than other lower-middle-income countries. Among these is that the Western-dominated international human rights community is biased toward democracies that promote liberal, civil, and political rights, holding nondemocratic countries to the same standards despite their differing needs and values. China is also singled out because of its potential threat to U.S. domination; Beijing’s growing economic and geopolitical muscle is seen to pose a normative challenge to the liberal human rights regime insofar as China’s elite could deploy it to defend and advance rights-based policies and ideals that clash with those of the West, predicated as they are on secular liberalism (Ikenberry, 2005). The idea that U.S. hegemony might be challenged by Beijing reduces some commentators to near apoplexy (e.g., Fingleton, 2008).

In short, it is an ideological clash with the liberal West over what constitutes governance that China finds itself caught up in with regard to its policies in Africa. With its strong emphasis on social stability, Beijing sees the notion that states must guarantee freedom and liberty for individuals as an abstraction at best and a danger at worst. This is in contrast to Western countries, where huge emphasis is put on individuals’ rights while the collective welfare of society as a whole is arguably overlooked. Indeed, a focus on collective rights and how governance should be practiced has been central to the Chinese defense of its policies in Africa. For instance, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, “asked about China’s investment in nations with records of human rights abuses—notably Sudan and the Central African Republic—replied: ‘Do you know what the meaning of human rights is? The basic meaning of human rights is survival—and development’” (Callimachi, 2007).

This argument is very much based on the need to contextualize levels of development and the concomitant possibilities that are then engendered vis-à-vis styles of governance. Such a position is the effective opposite of the standard Western cookie-cutter approach to what constitutes governance and which demands that the ultra-liberal values of advanced capitalist economies be adopted willy-nilly by all. China rejects this approach—as Xi Jinping stated in July 2018 when visiting Senegal, “China supports [Africa] in choosing a development path in line with [its] national conditions” (Xi, 2018). This position is central to Beijing’s position on human rights too, with Xi Jinping asserting that “human rights must and can only be promoted in light of specific national conditions and people’s needs” (quoted in Gao, 2017).

Human Rights “With Chinese Characteristics”

An integral aspect of China’s approach to Africa with regard to governance is its approach to human rights and democracy. Until the ascent of Xi Jinping, China was often on the defensive in this matter. However, under Xi China has been much more assertive and has actively promoted its own understanding of such issues. In January 2017, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi Jinping traveled to Geneva to deliver a speech at the United Nations’ Palais des Nations. The speech, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” positioned China as an emergent global leader and a champion of free trade, climate protection, nuclear disarmament, and global health. The idea of “building a community of shared future for all humankind” has been a frequent motif in Xi Jinping’s speeches at international events and is essentially a new official motto for Beijing’s developing global leadership role. The importance of Xi’s Geneva speech was that it sought to outline China’s new position on global human rights governance. This is essentially that, as a Chinese source put it, “the idea of a community of shared future for mankind in the context of human rights governance . . . cannot be taken out of their cultural contexts” (“China Holds,” 2017).

The “cultural context” element is premised on the promotion of sovereign equality and noninterference. Thus in his speech Xi Jinping asserted that:

Sovereign equality is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries and the cardinal principle observed by the United Nations and all other international organizations . . . [A]ll countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected, their internal affairs allow no interference and they have the right to independently choose their social system and development path.

(Xi, 2017b)

At the UN Office in Geneva, Chinese representatives have been energetically promoting this view on human rights at the Human Rights Council through resolutions, statements, and workshops, all under the principle of “a community of shared future.” This assertive message is that the right to development and economic rights should trump individual civil and political rights, something that many (most?) African societies would subscribe to. Beijing’s position is essentially relativistic, in that, in the Chinese view, human rights must be grounded on each individual country’s history, culture and values, political system, and level of development.

Although this position is consistent with previous iterations of China’s view on human rights and governance, what is new is the forcefulness with which Beijing has been promoting this position. China has actually been relatively successful in this regard: the slogan of “building a community of shared future” has been incorporated into two resolutions adopted during the Human Rights Council’s 34th session (HCR34) in March 2017. One of these was a resolution on the “question of the realization in all countries of economic social and cultural rights” (UN Human Rights Council, 2017a) and the other a resolution on “The right to food” (UN Human Rights Council, 2017b). A Chinese source approvingly asserted that the two resolutions demonstrate “China's growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance. China will actively participate in and advance global human rights governance and promote the sustained and sound development of the international human rights cause, with the goal of building a ‘community of shared future for human beings’” (“Build a Community,” 2017). Later, Chinese diplomats organized side events and meetings to issue joint statements, often signed up to by more than 140 countries, to reiterate China’s position. Clearly, Beijing has tapped into a groundswell of opinion in the developing world as to what should properly constitute governance and human rights.

China’s position, that development is a prerequisite for governance and human rights, obviously destabilizes the dominant “consensus” language promoted by the liberal West, which essentially ignores the issue of levels of development and instead insists on the entire world adopting the values of the Western world. This was perhaps made graphically clear in June 2017 when China sponsored the resolution “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” which was subsequently adopted (UN Human Rights Council, 2017c). The resolution was notable in that it asserted that “development and the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” and that human rights should “take into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respect national policies and priorities.” In response, the United States called for a vote on the resolution (most resolutions are adopted without a vote). The resolution was adopted with a vote of 30 to 13, with three abstentions. Emblematically, although those voting against or abstaining were all developed states, underdeveloped nations rallied behind China, with 13 of the 30 pro votes being African. A People’s Daily editorial contextualized this vote in this fashion:

For a long time, the international human rights agenda and voice have been monopolized by Western countries. Some people in the West often use the guise of human rights to export their values and even interfere in internal affairs on these grounds. As early as 1986, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Right to Development. However, some countries in the West deliberately ignore the key fundamental role of development in the promotion and protection of human rights. Its “double standards” on human rights issues are unacceptable. Even when the United Nations Human Rights Council discussed the adoption of the resolution on the “right to development,” some Western countries have repeatedly opposed and obstructed.

(“Singing,” 2017)

Essentially, China has become much more active in advancing the need to priorities development and its associated economic rights. This agenda, integral to China’s position on governance, is broadly supported in Africa. It is opposed by the West, possibly because “Human rights, as with power and money, [has] bec[o]me a means to an end of globalizing neoliberal democracy” (Hopgood, 2013).

“Noninterference” and China

The Chinese government continues to refer to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence as its foundation for Sino-African relations. Though these principles originally prescribed relations only between China and India, by the 1970s they had extended to relations with all states. It should be noted that at the conference to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the initiation of the Five Principles in 2014, Xi Jinping stated that “China will firmly pursue friendship and cooperation with all other countries on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” (Xi, 2014a). Noninterference and the importance of sovereignty—central to the Five Principles—have been explicitly connected to the issue of human rights. Historical perspective underpins the statement, quoted in Xinhua that:

In the humiliating old days, China was bullied by foreign powers. Its sovereignty was trampled on, and [so were] the Chinese people’s human rights. So the Chinese people know very well that sovereignty is a precondition to their enjoying human rights. In sum, there would be no human rights to speak of in the absence of sovereignty.

(Tian, 2005)

Of note, Beijing has been keen to assert that its own position is in line with that of the United Nations and international law:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the first international document ever to put forward the principle of respecting and guaranteeing the most fundamental of human rights, reflecting the importance attached by the international community to the promotion of human rights and basic freedom. China’s human-rights outlook is in keeping with the basic principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

(Tian, 2005)

Indeed, Beijing’s focus on economic and developmental rights does gel with some of the Declaration’s articles, notably Article 25, which asserts that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services” (United Nations, 1948). This fits comfortably with a focus on developmentalism. But it effectively deems other articles of the Declaration secondary; examples include Article 18, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion”; Article 19, whereby “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression”; and Article 20, which claims that “everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” (United Nations, 1948). It is a question of emphasis on economic as opposed to political rights; Beijing is no different from any other government in upholding some aspects of the Declaration while overlooking others.

China and Liberal Governance in Africa

Beijing has often made a point of blaming liberal democracy for many of Africa’s woes, going directly against the view of the Western mainstream that it is a lack of democratic governance that partly accounts for Africa’s maldevelopment. During the high-water mark of the democratic swell in Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a number of African autocrats were being peacefully removed via the ballot box, Chinese commentaries generally dismissed the electoral process as an obsession that diverted African nations away from the questions of development. Later, as the wave began to ebb, Chinese sources argued that liberal democratization had fueled social turmoil and ethnic conflicts. Indeed, following postelection violence in Kenya, the People’s Daily announced that:

Transplanted Western democracy [can]not take hold in Africa. The African people have been living on the continent for generations; have forged special links among different ethnic groups; and have cultivated a unique African culture long before falling victim to Western colonialism. . . . The postelection crisis in Kenya is a product of democracy bequeathed by Western hegemony and a manifestation of values clashing when democracy is transplanted onto disagreeable land.

(“Stability Comes First,” 2008)

Opinions of this sort are welcomed by various African leaders for reasons linked to their states’ modalities of governance. Although it is debatable whether stability generally “comes first in [a] country’s development” (as the People’s Daily put it), in the African context, “stability” usually means prioritizing elite interests, which has long proven problematic (Taylor, 2007). However, China’s position has not been static, and as Beijing’s interests in Africa have deepened, there has been a relative change in how China deals with poor governance on other countries, particularly if China’s reputation is perceived as being damaged. The most emblematic example in this regard was the way in which Beijing became drawn into the Darfur crisis in Sudan over the issue of human rights violations and how China eventually came to understand that a rigid policy of noninterference only undermined Chinese interest.

The Darfur Problem for China

Beijing’s relationship with Khartoum in the mid-2000s became a major cause célèbre and arguably threatened to tarnish China’s reputation as a responsible power, even while Chinese corporations desperately sought oil in Africa to service China’s burgeoning economy (Taylor, 2006). The campaign to link Chinese support for Khartoum and what is going on in Darfur with the 2008 Beijing Olympics was perhaps the most public manifestation of the growing unease within Western activist circles, although we should not make the mistake of seeing only Westerners as disturbed by Darfur and China’s role, as an editorial in the Nigerian Daily Champion made clear:

For a country without a defined history of colonialism, China should begin to know that its activities and complicity in Darfur could be interpreted as neo-colonial experimentation. Whatever the commercial policy China intends to explore in Africa where she is already doing multi-billion dollar businesses in relatively stable democracies, it is tantamount to double standard for China to continue to benefit from the tragedy that is Darfur.

(“Sudan: China,” 2007)

In response, Chinese diplomats stepped up their efforts to defend China’s contribution to conflict resolution. This was partly because of the worsening situation in Darfur and partly because of negative perceptions about China’s role in protecting Khartoum from international censure and action.

In response to what was happening in Darfur, on July 30, 2004, the Security Council passed Resolution 1556, which called on the Khartoum government to conclude a ceasefire agreement without delay and facilitate international relief for the humanitarian disaster in Darfur. The Resolution also endorsed the deployment of international monitors and an African Union protection force, and urged UN member states to support the efforts led by the African Union. “China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yihan, said the resolution was too harsh and would be unhelpful” and Beijing abstained (“UN Threatens Sudan”). Later, in September 2004, the Council adopted Resolution 1564, calling for an International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to look into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. China weakened the Resolution, however, which would have sanctioned Sudan if the government failed to disarm pro-government militias, as, due to Chinese pressure, the final language of the Resolution was that the Council would “consider taking additional measures” instead of sanctioning Sudan.

Later, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur presented its report in January 2005, demonstrating that the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed were responsible for gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The violations were so prevalent and systematic that the Commission deemed them to constitute crimes against humanity. Resolution 1564 had also threatened Sudan with oil sanctions unless it stopped the violence in Darfur, but China left this meaningless by pledging to veto any bid to impose an embargo against Khartoum. Indeed, “in the winter of 2004, American and British diplomats started to gain information about the position of the other members of the Security Council with regard to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. In January, they issued three proposals for a resolution. China, however, made it clear that it would refuse to endorse them and announced informally that it would use its veto right if Chinese interests in Sudan came under threat” (“China’s Rise: Hope or Doom for Africa?”). Continually, China sought to water down and weaken UN resolutions. However, policy changed when Chinese policymakers realized that there might be a cost to such a position.

Fundamentally, as the crisis in Darfur deepened and as media attention to the ongoing violence continued, a grass-roots movement, primarily in the United States, began to call for a campaign to highlight China’s complicity in Darfur. This was then directly linked to Beijing’s hosting the 2008 Olympics, with campaigners renaming the event the “Genocide Olympics.” Editorials in the United States in late 2006 began declaring, “The Chinese leadership must be forced to make a choice: work now to halt genocide in Darfur, or see the Olympic Games used, at every turn, as a means of highlighting the Chinese role in sustaining the ultimate human crime” (Reeves, 2006). The Washington Post, for its part, ran an article entitled “Responsible China? Darfur Exposes Chinese Hypocrisy” (Washington Post, 2006).

China’s Relative Shift

Despite a somewhat arrogant attitude to foreign criticism, it is quite clear that policymakers on China increasingly became frightened by the possibility that China’s coming-out party might be tarnished. Consequently, Beijing embarked on a major public relations exercise to convince the world of its positive role in Sudan. This was particularly spurred on when, in April 2007,the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, and 96 other senators wrote a letter to Premier Hu Jintao, calling on China to use its influence to help end the violence in Darfur. Soon after, on May 10, 2007, the Chinese government appointed Ambassador Liu Guijin as the special representative of African affairs, with a particular remit for Darfur. Liu was a veteran diplomat to Africa, having served as the Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe, director general of the Department of African Affairs, and the Chinese ambassador to South Africa.

It was the Senate letter regarding Darfur and the Olympics that was the tipping point in galvanizing the Chinese government to act and shift position on the governance issue in Sudan. Western diplomats began to assert that there had been a sea change in China’s position. Thus American special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios, told a Senate panel that China had “been largely supportive of our efforts to resolve the Darfur situation” (Natsios, 2007). The then British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett joined in, asserting, “On Sudan, I know there has been some criticism of China, but actually China has played really quite a positive role, particularly in the negotiation of the Darfur peace agreement” (Dickie, 2007). Beijing began to publicly advise Sudan to be more “flexible” in accepting UN peace support personnel under a “AU/UN hybrid” proposal and began to give briefings on how much of a positive role China had been playing in Sudan. Behind the scenes, Chinese diplomats sought to move Khartoum to a more accommodative stance on Darfur and outside involvement.

Of particular note was Hu Jintao’s February 2007 visit to Khartoum. Much was made of this visit as during the trip Hu offered up “Four Principles” on how to deal with the Darfur issue. The Four Principles were namely:


Respect Sudan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.


Solve the issue by peaceful means and by sticking to dialogue and coordination based on equality.


Take into consideration the overall situation and, from a long-term perspective, respect and address each other’s reasonable concerns.


It is imperative to improve the situation in Darfur and living conditions of local people (“Darfur Crisis Seen from China, Report”).

During the visit, it was carefully leaked to the media that Hu had urged Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to bring more Darfurian rebels into the peace process. This was given a high profile in Chinese media reports and was offered up as evidence that China had changed tack on Sudan. Indeed, it was evident that Beijing was pushing Khartoum to move on Darfur. China played a key role in setting up the hybrid force of 26,000 peacekeepers (United Nations—African Union Mission in Darfur [UNAMID]) and placing it under UN command. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing closely cooperated with the UN, AU, and the Sudanese government, and agreed to send 275 engineering troops to Darfur, as well as provide $10 million and other humanitarian support to the region. According to the Liu Guijin (China’s envoy to Sudan), “We have been playing a role of bridge [sic] . . . We have been trying to give advice and to persuade Sudan to be more flexible to accept the UN plan” (“China Urges Peacekeepers in Darfur,” 2007). As part of this process, Liu also held consultations with the AU Commission Chairman Alpha Oumar Konare in Addis Ababa and officials of the Arab League, and kept in frequent contact with Khartoum.

As 2008 unfolded, Beijing became far more vocal in publicly urging Khartoum to cooperate and resolve Darfur. In February 2008, Liu stated that Beijing was urging Sudan to eliminate obstacles blocking full deployment of UNAMID. This came within the context of the resignation of film director Steven Spielberg as an artistic adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on the grounds that China had not used enough of its influence over Khartoum vis-à-vis Darfur.

“But in a departure from Beijing’s usual public diplomatic vaguery, envoy Liu Guijin said Sudan should do more to end the bloodshed by cooperating more with a “hybrid” peacekeeping force backed by the United Nations and African Union. . . . First, the Sudan government should cooperate better with the international community and demonstrate greater flexibility on some technical issues. Next, anti-government organizations in the Darfur region should return to the negotiating table [said Liu]. (“China Urges Sudan,” 2008)

At the time of Spielberg’s resignation, amid increased focus on China’s role in Darfur, the Chinese ambassador to Sudan, Li Chengwen, asserted that “China helped push forward the Sudanese government, the AU and the UN reaching consensus on the resolution on the hybrid force to Darfur, which did not come easily and our efforts have been applauded by the international community” (“China Makes,” 2008).

When Sudan’s vice president, Ali Osman Taha, visited Beijing in June 2008, President Hu Jintao publicly called on Sudan to take steps toward peace in its Darfur region. “His comments Wednesday, were unusually strong given China’s close ties to Sudan, where it is a major investor in the oil industry and to whom it sells arms” (“China’s Hu,” 2008). Later, after Thomas Christensen and James Swan, American deputy assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and Africa, respectively, praised China for its efforts on the Darfur issue, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman replied that “China’s efforts on Darfur are no worse than and no less than any other country in the world.” The spokesman added that the top priority was to promote the resolution of Darfur through the three-party mechanism (the Sudanese government, the African Union, and the United Nations), and the double-track strategy of peacekeeping actions moving alongside a political process (“China Making,” 2008). From being seen to block all efforts at resolving Darfur, Beijing, as of mid-2008, makes a great deal of effort to be seen to be publicly pressing Khartoum to resolve the crisis.

Darfur as a Watershed

Why all of the this is important is because Darfur was the watershed when China slowly but perceptively moved from a rigid stance vis-à-vis governance issues in Africa, one predicated on a studious avoidance of any criticism, to one where China became a player in counseling a foreign government to address matters pertaining to the performance of political power. Although Chinese policymakers (and their echo chamber within Chinese academia) will vehemently deny it, Darfur indeed forced China to come to terms with the issue of poor governance and how Beijing should respond. When Chinese prestige was at stake, the concretized principles relating to noninterference in the domestic affairs of other nations slid away, and—albeit reluctantly—Beijing felt compelled to craft a new set of policies. These implicitly recognize that China cannot stand aloof from the governance factor in Sino-African relations. Governance is now on the policy agenda, although China’s definition is different from the dominant Western narrative. It would be a mistake to claim that Beijing is not interested in how African states are managed, as many Western critics of Sino-African policy do.

Indeed, since the Darfur turning point, other events support this analysis. For instance, in Zimbabwe in late 2017, President Robert Mugabe was dramatically removed from power and Emmerson Mnangagwa was installed as president. Much was made of the fact that then-Zimbabwean Defense Forces commander, General Constantino Chiwenga, was on an official visit in China immediately before returning to Zimbabwe to oversee the military takeover that led to Mugabe’s subsequent resignation. As one subsequent Zimbabwean report put it:

A visit to Beijing last Friday by Zimbabwe’s military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, has fuelled suspicions that may have given the green light to this week’s army takeover in Harare. If so, the world may just have witnessed the first example of a covert coup d’état of the kind once favoured by the CIA and Britain’s MI6, but conceived and executed with the tacit support of the 21st century’s new global superpower.

(“Zimbabwe” 2017)

One line of thought regarding China’s involvement in the coup is that Beijing had become increasingly concerned with the growing infighting within the Mugabe regime as the economy continued to decline, threatening Chinese investments. The indigenization law, which essentially threatened to appropriate all foreign-owned businesses and companies operating in Zimbabwe, including Chinese operations, was seen as a particularly problematic development. As Mugabe’s declining faculties became apparent, the risk to Beijing’s interests in allowing Grace Mugabe’s G40 faction to entrench themselves in power and/or engage in a bitter power struggle with Mnangagwa was too great (Wang, 2018). What the Zimbabwean situation demonstrated was that Beijing most certainly did have an interest in the governance of Zimbabwe.


Many Western commenters have critiqued China’s role in Africa as undermining “good governance.” To be fair to the Chinese, though, Chinese corporations and the Chinese state are not the only actors involved with unsavory regimes in Africa. It has long been the case that Western companies, with the tacit approval of their home governments, have used all sorts of means to craft favorable deals with African regimes and have overlooked notions of governance, democracy, and human rights. In some cases, this is not even tacit, but quite open, as the edifice known as La Françafrique attests. Thus it is somewhat outlandish to construct China’s engagement in Africa as “bad” for African governance while glossing over the duplicity displayed by Western governments and corporations in Africa.

As Chinese relations with Africa have developed, Beijing’s relations have evolved, and China’s noninterference policy is no longer as rigid as it once was. Beijing, in fact, will express interest in how poor governance undermines the economic performance of a country, particularly if Chinese interests are at stake. Beijing is most definitely an actor of considerable stature on the continent, and thus its pronouncements and policies on governance in Africa matter. Under Xi Jinping, a new assertiveness in advancing Chinese definitions of governance has become quite apparent, and these definitions are consciously linked to the issue of development. China’s argument is that the level of development in a country, alongside its unique history and culture, as well as its political system, determine what type of governance is practiced. This is a relativistic approach, which rejects the claimed universalism of most Western policies toward Africa and the rest of the undeveloped world. Thus though China has shifted its stance regarding a studious policy of noninterference, its current characterization of governance still grants plenty of space to the political elite in Africa to craft their own policies. Most governments on the continent understandably welcome this.

That said, there is a certain illogic to Beijing’s position that needs reflection. Let us accept that different conceptions of human rights as well as different interpretations of the Universal Declaration exist. Beijing privileges economic development and has been quite active in asserting this. From the perspective of Chinese policymakers, the liberal conception of human rights advocated by the West poses a potential threat to the stability essential to development. So far, so good. But what if China’s stance not only clashes with the advancement of “universal” (i.e., Western) norms regarding governance but actually manages to undermine the very development that is so essential to Beijing’s own position? What if Beijing’s diplomacy in Africa, for instance, helps to consolidate governments that actively obstruct development insofar as it threatens elite control? If, on the one hand, sovereignty is the guarantor of development, as the Chinese declare, but then, on the other, also a means to effectively undermine development, then there is a clear contradiction at the heart of the Chinese discourse on governance. Given the governance patterns in many African countries, this is a real contradiction. Can China seriously promote its vision of governance and development in African countries where neo-patrimonial logics and de facto anti-developmental regimes rule? Thus far, although the explanation of China’s stance on governance has been elucidated fairly clearly, the practical implementation of such principles within the African context remains much less clear.