CREDIT: Confucius, courtesy of <a href="" target=_blank>Project Gutenberg</a>.
CREDIT: Confucius, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The China Factor in African Ethics

Dec 21, 2006

This article appeared in Carnegie Council's online magazine Policy Innovations, which ran from 2006-2016.

African states find relations with China attractive because there is no colonial baggage. In some cases, especially in southern Africa, there are close Chinese ties going back to solidarity with national liberation movements. Africans perceive China as a developing country that seeks to build south-south relationships.

For its part, China sees itself as a global power and leader of the developing world. For both political and economic reasons, it wants to cultivate good relations with the 53 nations in Africa. In several African countries, close links to China is a way to minimize Western and, especially, American hegemony.

African elites argue that the Chinese generally treat them as equals. They point out that the Chinese are investing in areas like infrastructure, the key to Africa’s future, a sector that tends to be avoided by Western aid and investment. Africans appreciate this and also note the Chinese are careful where they invest.

Many African governments perceive China as a welcome counterpoint to the United States and the West in general, especially when the latter criticizes African human rights practices in Africa. From the Western perspective, China’s record on ethics and human rights and the way they play out in Africa constitute a highly negative influence. Most African governments, however, are neither troubled by China’s human rights record nor its human rights policy towards Africa.

African countries with the worst human rights records welcome Chinese non-involvement in their affairs and seek Chinese support in the UN Security Council and UN Human Rights Council, where China and thirteen African countries are members. The support cuts both ways. Most African countries on the Human Rights Council are equally reluctant to criticize China’s human rights record.

At the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, the two sides welcomed the establishment of the new UN Human Rights Council and resolved “to enhance cooperation in the Council and make concerted efforts to ensure that the Council respects the historical, cultural and religious background of all countries and regions and is committed to advancing dialogue among different civilizations, cultures and religions.”

This declaration was a clear marker that China and Africa have a different view of human rights than the one practiced or at least preached in the West. Westerners look at the China-Africa relationship through the optic of Western ethical and human rights values.

Many Africans do not share these values in precisely the same way and, therefore, evaluate relations with China differently. If the West fails to take these different perceptions into account, it will never deal effectively with the challenges posed by China in Africa.

Westerners might conclude that the Chinese wish to remove human rights as either a tool of diplomacy or as an issue on the foreign policy agenda. That would be a misunderstanding of Chinese policy. Human rights are an integral part of Chinese diplomacy. They just wish to refocus the issue.

Drawing on Confucian principles, China emphasizes the family and society’s collective interests over the interests of the individual. China is less concerned about individual civil and political liberties and more concerned with collective human rights and their impact on economic matters. China’s stated goal is a society free from want and one that eventually achieves moderate prosperity. This approach provides China with an alternative human rights theory to the one encouraged by the West.

China and Africa also tend to place a high priority on the doctrine of sovereignty. China translates this principle into almost unconditional support for a state’s existing political order. This helps explain why China avoids conditionality, with the important exception of insisting on the acceptance of the One China policy, in its relations with African countries.

China also operates on a state-centric basis with an emphasis on government-to-government ties. It is not yet fully comfortable with the role of nongovernmental organizations in the policy process.

Relating these values to trade and investment, many in the West perceive the African response to China’s approach as anathema. But it is equally important to see it from the African perspective.

Sierra Leone’s ambassador to China recently summed up the position of many Africans on China’s role in Africa when he noted that the Chinese are doing more than the G-8 to make poverty history. If a G-8 country proposes a project for Sierra Leone, there is an environmental assessment and evaluation of the human rights and governance situation. The Chinese just come and do it.

“I’m not saying that it’s right, just that Chinese investments are succeeding because they don’t set high benchmarks,” the ambassador added. Sudan’s energy minister commented similarly: “With the Chinese, we don’t feel any interference in our Sudanese traditions, beliefs or politics or behaviors. Business is business.” China’s trade and investment in Africa must be kept in perspective. On one hand, Africa constitutes only about three percent of China’s global trade. On the other hand, China buys ten percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports and Africa provides China 32 percent of its oil imports. China is now Africa’s third largest trading partner after the U.S. and France.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been critical of Chinese support for countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, which have serious human rights problems. China has significant oil investments in Sudan and political involvement that goes back to the 1970s. It has a personal connection with President Mugabe of Zimbabwe that dates back to the liberation period and it has established recent mineral interests.

China has sold significant quantities of arms, including military aircraft and helicopters, to Sudan in recent decades. This equipment helped fuel the civil war in the South and now plays a role in Darfur where crimes against humanity are taking place. China’s investment in Sudan’s oil industry is extensive and China relies on Sudan for about six percent of its imported oil.

Many in the West condemn China for blocking significant action against Sudan as a result of the crisis in Darfur. While China has carried water for Sudan in the UN, it has allowed watered-down resolutions against Sudan to move through the Security Council and may have been more helpful behind the scenes than is acknowledged.

Chinese President Hu Jintao said last month that the Darfur issue is at a critical stage and China understands Sudan’s concerns about Western desires to send UN peacekeepers there. While sympathetic to Sudan’s objections, however, Hu nudged Sudan towards a diplomatic accommodation. China has supported financially the African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Hu added he hopes Sudan will maintain dialogue with all parties in the conflict, adjust its position, and improve the humanitarian situation in the region. It is too early to tell how significant this apparent shift is in China’s position on Darfur.

Zambia, the world’s eleventh largest copper producer, offers a recent example where China stumbled over a domestic political issue. A major player in Zambia’s copper industry, China gained a reputation of paying low wages and ignoring the safety of Zambian workers in Chinese-operated mines.

Lack of Chinese concern for Africa’s environment has come under fire, especially in the case of the timber industry. China is the largest importer of forest products in the world. Most of the log exports from Africa originate in West and Central Africa; China purchased 42 percent of the exports from this region in 2003.

The environmental concern should not end with China’s role in the timber trade. At least one-half of all timber imports into China are processed and then exported as finished products. The United States is the largest market for China’s finished forest products, mainly hardwoods for furniture and hardwood plywood. There is no process in place to guarantee that only legal timber is being exported from China to the U.S.

Chinese business practices raise questions from a Western and perhaps African perspective. Chinese companies have allowed poor labor practices, low wages, and poor standards of corporate governance to prevail. China has a generally better record on dealing with corruption than is the case in most African countries, but this is still an area to watch.

The World Bank and IMF have expressed concern that Chinese financial support to countries like Kenya, Chad, and Angola has reduced their leverage in implementing economic policy reform and instituting comprehensive anti-corruption strategies. There are concerns about the ability to take a Chinese company to court when it is believed to have engaged in illegal practices.

Finally, at the grassroots level there seems to be growing anti-Chinese sentiment when large numbers of Chinese are employed on Chinese projects and as Chinese traders move increasingly into the African market. There are, for example, an estimated 30,000 Chinese migrants in Zambia and as many as 300,000 in South Africa.

China has a reputation for paying greater attention to long-term strategy than is the case in the West. Its approach toward Africa is a long-term one. But the issue of human rights many be one of those areas where it is not thinking as long-term as it should, at least if one accepts the validity of the Western concept of human rights.

Civil society is more developed in most African countries than it is in China. Although China and Africa have a greater tendency to emphasize the centrality of the family and community, there is growing concern in Africa about the need for individual freedoms and rights.

Successful business depends over the long-term on good governance. If China ignores this aspect of the relationship, it may jeopardize its investment in Africa. The West has no monopoly on good governance, but it has a lot to offer. If China follows a narrow interpretation of what constitutes acceptable governance and human rights, it risks alienating itself from many Africans.

A final challenge for China is the deep spiritually—Christianity, Islam, and indigenous religions—of Africans. There is no spiritual component to the Chinese presence in Africa. It remains to be seen how this will impact the long-term nature of the China-Africa relationship.

You may also like

A Dangerous Master book cover. CREDIT: Sentient Publications.

APR 18, 2024 Article

A Dangerous Master: Welcome to the World of Emerging Technologies

In this preface to the paperback edition of his book "A Dangerous Master," Wendell Wallach discusses breakthroughs and ethical issues in AI and emerging technologies.

APR 11, 2024 Podcast

The Ubiquity of An Aging Global Elite, with Jon Emont

"Wall Street Journal" reporter Jon Emont joins "The Doorstep" to discuss the systems and structures that keep aging leaders in power in autocracies and democracies.

APR 9, 2024 Video

Algorithms of War: The Use of AI in Armed Conflict

From Gaza to Ukraine, the military applications of AI are fundamentally reshaping the ethics of war. How should policymakers navigate AI’s inherent trade-offs?

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation