Today the Chinese are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party has much to boast of: three decades of economic growth, 400 million Chinese brought out of extreme poverty and high rates of literacy in what was once a peasant nation. But China’s rise as a major player on the global stage poses a threat to international efforts to promote democracy and good governance in the developing world. China’s rapidly expanding presence in Africa poses a threat to the progress the international community has made in the region since the end of the Cold War.
In the mid-1990s, the Chinese government, seeking to secure strategic resources for its growing economy and foreign markets for its goods, began leading a government and private investment surge in Africa. By 2000, trade between China and Africa stood at $10 billion and had risen past $100 billion just eight years later.
The United States and Europe are finding that their vision of an Africa ruled by representative democracies that respect the rule of law and human rights is being challenged by a Chinese investment strategy that doesn’t differentiate between democratic regimes and dictatorships, that doesn’t differentiate between corrupt and effective governments. China’s policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries has been praised by African leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, both of whom have cracked down on the independent media and opposition parties in their countries.
Africa’s authoritarian leaders tout the “China Model” — economic growth overseen by a one-party state — as an alternative to democratic governance with attendant Western aid and an investment system that attaches conditions on human rights and representative government. Chinese aid and investments reward repressive and destitute African dictatorships with infrastructure projects, government-subsidized investment deals and generous loans, strengthening regimes that might otherwise fall to public calls and movements for democracy.
China also actively protects authoritarian regimes by providing diplomatic cover, official development aid and military aid. China’s status as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council with veto power effectively shields its closest allies from effective U.N. intervention. Human Rights Watch recently released a report warning of China’s emerging role as a spoiler in international efforts to get governments to adhere to fundamental principles of human rights.
The United States and Europe need to devise a coordinated and comprehensive strategy to counter the rise of the China model in Africa. The current economic crisis gives China an opportunity to replace Western investments and economic programs with their own. In 2007, China was Africa’s third-largest trading partner. Today China is number one. We cannot let China fill the investment gap. Programs like the Millennium Challenge Account and the African Growth and Opportunity Act that reward good governance with long-term trade deals should be continued and expanded.
Western democracy promotion efforts need to focus on the grass roots — increasing the capacity of civil society in Africa. Democracy aid directed at the governmental level is often ineffective, resulting in regimes that hold elections but lack other characteristics that we associate with developed democracies. An organized, informed and respected civil society can protect citizens’ democratic rights, push for reforms and serve as a watchdog against creeping authoritarianism. Civil society organizations can educate citizens, provide aid to the poorest citizens, and ensure a free and independent media.
Western governments should also continue to apply sustained pressure on China to end its protection of Sudan and Zimbabwe. In 2005, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick called on China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in international affairs. International criticism of China’s relationship with Sudan forced Beijing to push the Sudanese to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force into the region. Though China’s actions in Sudan still leave much to be desired (China blocks sanctions and a strong peacekeeping force), we know now that China will respond to pressure.
China has made marked progress over the past 60 years. A newly confident Chinese government and investor class is now going abroad to do business. The West must not let the Yuan unravel hard-won but tenuous advances in democracy and human rights in Africa. We need to continue to engage with Africa, promoting a vibrant civil society and increasing economic linkages. We need to push China to become a responsible stakeholder, to stop stonewalling in countries where people need our help the most.
Jerry Wei is a senior in Davenport College.