China’s political influence activities in Sub-Saharan Africa

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China’s engagement in Africa rarely misses the spotlight. Its role as a development partner tends to evoke a mixed response and is always subjected to public scrutiny. Chinese development finance is one of the major reasons why the African continent has been able to reduce its massive annual US$100 billion infrastructure deficit. From the period of 2000 to 2018, Beijing extended US$148 billion of loans, mostly for infrastructure development across many African countries. But there are growing speculations that China is likely to cut back on its infrastructure lending to Africa in the post-COVID era amidst mounting debt sustainability concerns.

Chinese creditors are understandably becoming cautious about providing new loans as more countries struggle to repay their debts. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes that there are currently seven African countries that are in debt distress (Chad, the Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe). This presents a sombre picture of the future trajectory of Sino-African relations. Yet, there are signs that China is willing to play a positive role in developing countries’ debt restructuring process.

In August 2022, Beijing announced its intention to waive 23 interest-free loans to 17African countries that reached their maturity at the end of 2021. This announcement was certainly welcomed, but interest-free loans make up only a minute portion of China’s lending to Africa. According to AidData, interest-free loans accounted for less than 5 percent of the US$ 843 billion in Chinese loan commitments to 165 governments globally between the period of 2000 to 2017. Therefore, such debt forgiveness, which China has practised for more than two decades, comes as no surprise.

While Chinese debt in Africa continues to be extensively scrutinised in the media, another aspect of China’s engagement in Africa is equally intriguing for observers: Beijing’s ideological and political influence activities. This takes place in various forms ranging from political party training, training media elites, and engaging with the diplomatic corps, to securing access to strategic information and resources.

A brief history of CCP in Sub-Saharan Africa
During the decolonisation period when African countries started attaining independence, China wanted to develop relations with most African countries. However, cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan was a precondition for developing ties with China. Until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tended to establish party-to-party ties only with left-leaning liberation movements and African Communist parties. At that time, these parties tended to be mostly opposition rather than ruling parties.

Since the beginning of China’s reform era, especially from 1990 onwards, the CCP began to change its strategy. Now, two discernible trends of CCP’s engagement in Africa became visible. Firstly, the CCP preferred to engage with African countries that matter to the Chinese economy. Secondly, as opposed to the policy earlier, the CCP now preferred to engage with their ruling parties rather than opposition parties. In addition to sidelining Taiwan, most of Chinese efforts in Africa are focused on extracting mineral resources, increasing market access, and enhancing its overall influence on the continent.

For that purpose, the CCP-International Liaison Department (CCP-ILD), the bureaucracy whose primary job is to maintain and promote party-to-party relations, significantly increased its engagement with Sub-Saharan African political parties. They invited local party officials to undertake “study tours”, follow training sessions, or attend seminars in China. Such activities facilitate the access of the Chinese government to the African political elites, create additional channels of communication, and provide an opportunity to leverage its own domestic economic “success story” to export the CCP’s governance, management, and administrative systems.

The CCP also focuses its efforts on cultivating closer ties with local ethnic Chinese communities in Africa whose numbers increased significantly during the decade of 2000. Today, Chinese communities now residing in the continent are diverse whether in terms of their profession (miners, railway and construction workers, medical personnel, teachers) or their geographic origins (including Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu). They tend to play the role of crucial “bridges” to facilitate the development of China-Africa relations and shape a positive image of China.

CCP’s methods to exert political influence
In Africa, the Chinese government and CCP continue to promote their own political system and criticise the weakness of “western” democracy. To reach these goals, they employ five distinct methods as laid down by Jean-Pierre Cabestan in an article for a report titled “Political Front Lines: China’s Pursuit of Influence in Africa”

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