By Chris Zumani Zimba
Some scholars now call it “debt-trap diplomacy“ i.e. offer as many cheap infrastructure loans to poor states as they desire with an invisible trap of knowing that they may default to pay back since they are poor and then take over their strategic economic sectors. But the Chinese government has repeatedly refuted this ‘Western’ accusation by insisting that they are just all weather friends of the poor. During the Africa-China Presidential Conference in Beijing on 3rd September, 2018, Chinese President, Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in financing for projects in Africa in form of developmental assistance, investment and loans with what he said as “no political strings attached”. As China wants to open global markets through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Chinese leader noted that China is willing to create “common prosperity” that brings benefits to both the Chinese and African people as ‘unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise’.
It is from this perspective of the BRI that China justifies to give ‘unconditional’ loans to countries anywhere in the world to build or modernize their roads, airports, railway lines or seaports. As we speak, Chinese funded infrastructures are dotted across Africa, Asia and Latin America. While critics call it “debt trap diplomacy”, huge Chinese funded constructions of modern roads, airports, seaports, rail lines, schools, hospitals, stadiums, colleges, mining plants and factories are visibly underway almost in every country in Africa with many sitting governments busy contracting merger public debts from the East in high political praise of the ‘good’ Beijing government in comparison with the West.
But why are many African countries now worshipping China with pomp against the West? When many African leaders are in the Communist Peoples’ Republic of China, they feel at home as opposed to when they are in liberal democratic UK, France, Canada, Japan, Australia, Germany, the US, Norway or Sweden. China is a classical model state for many African presidents and politicians with a giant blossoming economy to take over the world, beautiful roads, hotels, houses, airports and general physical infrastructure, improved health and education sector as well as with trillions of dollars to lend any country at any time. This makes many African leaders to conclude that “the Chinese model of prioritizing to win development and modernization for the citizens without liberal democracy and human rights is what we need in Africa”. As many African leaders are not true democrats, authoritarian Chinese politics which has birthed massive development inspire them more than liberal English, French, American or German politics which equally has empirical wealth creation and modernization ramifications.
The most attractive value for most African leaders in China is being able to get as much loans and credit facilities as they desire without being asked to adhere to democracy, good governance and respect for human rights; the opposite of what they get from American and EU developmental aid and loans. When they are engaging the Beijing government, African governments sense ‘absolute freedom’ to borrow huge money for themselves and conduct their internal politics as they wish. Speaking during the 2018 Africa-China Conference, President Jinping said “China does not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs and does not impose its own will on Africa”. This is what most African presidents and politicians would love to hear today as democracy and good governance seem not to be their meat or butter.
Hence, the September 2018 Presidential Summit for African states and China saw 53 African presidents out of 54 as guests in Beijing including controversial leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) on war crime charges, which he denies. As King Mswati of Swaziland who maintains official diplomatic relations with Taiwan was the only one absent, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was defined by Beijing as its most important home diplomatic event the year 2018.
Chris Zumani Zimba is a Political Scientist, Author, PhD Scholar, Lecturer, Researcher and Consultant