In advance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attendance at a China-Africa summit in Johannesburg last December, a flurry of news articles in African outlets—especially in Zimbabwe—optimistically highlighted the role China could play in helping African countries curb corruption. As previously discussed on the blog, in the first three years of his tenure, President Xi has made a crusade against corruption an important rhetorical part of his presidency, and backed up those words with actions (though some have questioned his techniques). It’s equally well-established that China has become very involved with Africa. China increasingly depends on Africa’s mineral resources to feed China’s growing industries, and Chinese businesses see Africa as a potentially lucrative export market. Many African countries seeks partners, like China, that are willing to invest in infrastructure and business development. Though there has been recent pushback to China’s actions, and even a decline in Chinese investment in Africa, President Xi’s $60 billion pledge at the summit indicates China will continue to be an important player in the region for the foreseeable future.
Many commentators hope that the combination of these two factors—China’s anticorruption campaign and its substantial economic engagement with Africa—will give a boost to anticorruption efforts in Africa. Alas, those hopes are overstated.
Let’s start by giving a fair hearing to the optimistic view. Why might China’s anticorruption campaign might have positive spillover effects in Africa? Three main reasons:
- First, China’s campaign may serve as a model and inspiration for the Africa’s more authoritarian leaders. China’s example may convince these leaders that undertaking a serious anticorruption campaign need not mean opening the door to full democracy. Further, President Xi is seen as having not just gone after officials at the lowest rungs of power, but also high-ranking “tigers.” Even if some observers skeptically note that many tigers have been his “political enemies,” the credibility of Xi’s campaign is still vastly higher than that of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s, which has evinced no sign of actually pursuing powerful figures and is generally perceived as being a complete facade. If anticorruption activists can decouple the need for democratic reform from the need for corruption reform by citing the Chinese example, they might be able to persuade their leaders to get more serious about cracking down.
- Second, China’s anticorruption campaign is removing key players who facilitated corruption in Africa. Take, for example, Sam Pa, the “controversial businessman credited with spearheading China’s spectacular drive into Africa over the last two decades.” While functioning as dealmaker for the Queensway Group, a shadowy organization responsible for many multi-billion dollar transactions between African countries and Chinese businesses, Pa allegedly bribed countless African officials, in addition to smuggling diamonds, illicitly trafficking weapons, and providing support to some of the continent’s worst governments. Last October, Pa was swept up in a Chinese anticorruption investigation. The removal of corrupt and corruption-inducing figures like Pa could decrease corruption in and of itself, as well as signal that the Chinese government is moving away from allowing “Wild West”-style, anything-goes investment, and toward a more formalized, less corrupt form of engagement.
- Third, to prevent corruption among its own officials and nationals, China might pressure its African partners to keep bribery and other forms of corruption out of China-Africa deals. Also, if the need to pay bribes decreased profit margins for Chinese firms, China could decide that it is in its own best interest to pressure African countries to prevent their own nationals from requesting them—especially if the Chinese government believed Chinese businesses could out-compete others in a fair market. Several deals that would have involved corruption have reportedly been “hamstrung” for reasons along these lines.
There may be some kernels of truth in the arguments outlined above. However, there are several reasons to be skeptical that China’s anticorruption campaign will substantially decrease corruption in Africa.
- First, China has consistently taken a hard line against interference in other countries’ internal affairs. This attitude, drawn from China’s opposition to great powers’ historical desire to influence politics within China, affects everything from China’s response to ISIS to its willingness to overlook the human rights records of trade partners. Though China may sometimes opportunistically deviate from that non-interference policy, in general nonintervention is so fundamental to Chinese foreign policy that the government is unlikely to significantly dial up the pressure on Africa in regards to corruption. Indeed, China continues to emphasize its no-strings policy, and contrasts it with the supposedly imperialist lecturing and conditions of, say, U.S. leaders.
- Second, China is unlikely to prioritize corruption abroad by private individuals or businesses unless it spills back into its own domestic sphere. It’s true that China is getting somewhat more international in its anticorruption campaign, but so far, that’s largely been a matter of seeking extraditions of Chinese nationals who have fled abroad. China seems far less interested in prosecuting its nationals who committed foreign bribery as part of their deals in Africa. As for private Chinese businessmen, not only are they unlikely to worry about prosecution by China for corrupt acts committed abroad, but the increasing competition that Chinese firms are facing in Africa from other countries’ firms means that they can’t rely on being the only game in town; if anything, they could feel even more pressure to offer bribes, in order to ensure they win contracts.
- Third, when the corruption happens before the exchange with China, China is unlikely to care. Even if the Chinese government began to target Chinese nationals offering bribes abroad, there are still a plethora of corruption issues that precede the actual moment of financial exchange between a Chinese entity and an African entity. Take, for example, illegal logging in western Africa. Trees improperly cut down by west Africans in Senegal are smuggled into Gambia, with both the logging and border-crossing facilitated through bribes. The lumber is then sold to Chinese buyers, who did not directly commit a corrupt act themselves. Even if some Chinese law prohibited this sort of action, it seems highly unlikely that the Chinese government would show much interest in targeting it.
It’s easy to see how, in those African countries where corruption has been a decades-long problem with little indication of political change in the near future, the prospect of looking eastward for a glimmer of hope could be enticing. However, pinning one’s hopes for decreased corruption in Africa on China’s anticorruption drive may represent a distraction from the fact that Africans still need to be vigilant against China-connected corruption, and that the most effective solutions are likely to come from within.