What Does China’s Anticorruption Campaign Mean for Africa?

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.

9 thoughts on “What Does China’s Anticorruption Campaign Mean for Africa?

  1. I wonder, cynically, if Chinese engagement in certain countries in Africa allow some of the corruption that President Xi is cracking down on in China to take place elsewhere. That is, have some who previously engaged in corruption in China shifted corrupt operations to Africa and other places where China is making substantial investment?

    Putting aside Sam Pa’s fall for the moment, it would seem that one detriment (or benefit depending on your perspective) of fighting corruption in an age of globalization is that the particular corrupt behavior that Xi is cracking down on could probably occur in an African country instead of in China. This is not a new concern of course, but perhaps another reason (or an extension of your first and second reasons) to not be particularly hopeful about the influence Xi’s domestic anticorruption campaign will have in Africa.

    Has there been any press coverage suggesting that some corruption by Chinese officials has shifted from China to Africa or other parts of the world where China is investing as a response to Xi’s campaign? Or is Xi’s campaign far reaching enough that Chinese officials cannot avoid detection or punishment by shifting corrupt activities to other countries?

  2. The positive spillover of anticorruption drive could still be a dream to be materialized. Nepal, a small landlocked country squeezed between India in the South and China in the North is literally squeezed by corruption emanating from these two big high growth economies. Many regard increased smuggling of gold from China to Nepal (destined to India) and smuggling of red sandal woods from India (destined to China) rather represent negative spillovers. Even the demand for yarshagumba – herbal plant (natural Viagra) found in high Himalayas in Nepal and Tibet – is related to corruption in China (for detail coverage see last year double issue of The Economist).

  3. Narayan, I’m far from expert on the instances you cite, but I think broadly speaking some of the reasons for skepticism that I mentioned and that Nathan mentioned seem like they would apply in at least some cases. I’d need to know more, though. With the red sandal wood, for example, is that something that is illegally logged in India but that Chinese border officials or Chinese officials in the country could really detect? E.g., does it show up at the border with documents that seem legitimate, or are the border officials themselves bribed? If the former, China’s anticorruption campaign seems less likely to have an effect; if the latter, it could help. (I suppose with wood there’s also some capability to use technologies other people have discussed on the blog, so maybe there is some capacity for Chinese officials to have an anticorruption effect if they used those systems.)

    Nathan, perhaps one of our more China-expert readers or writers can provide more hard data, but intuitively, “offshoring” one’s corrupt activities does seem like a natural response to any anticorruption campaign that is mostly domestic in its focus. My (fairly baseless) speculation would be that mostly, if the corruption doesn’t cross back into China, it’s likely to be fairly low priority for prosecution, which makes your hypothesis seem plausible. Even with Pa, you could make a decent case that the roots of what got him into trouble are domestic: he’s tied to Su Shulin, a governor who used to be in charge of the state-owned oil company Sinopec. Sure, one comeback to that is that even just cracking down on domestic companies or government figures who are engaging in corrupt activities abroad (whether or not the crackdown is per se because of those activities elsewhere, or “just” because of domestic acts) will ultimately cut down on corruption everywhere/with foreign partners (the whole “it takes two to tango” argument), but to think that’s going to have a significant effect for those partners seems like an exaggeration.

    • Dear Katie,
      Sorry for the delayed response. It happened because missed the blog site.
      From my little research (done to write GCR 2009 for Nepal section), red sandal wood is illegal only in Nepal because Nepal has signed CITES. The commodity originates from India (Orisa) pass through 23 check points but will be nabbed only in Nepal and that too when we have some political agitations or instability. If you need more info on this, please contact me narayan.manandhar@gmail.com

      • Thanks for your response. In addition to the interesting details of the case itself, it’s a good reminder of the gaps that exist in legal regimes governing certain behavior, when domestic laws vary and/or states have signed on to different international agreements.

  4. The BBC report on the latest ti tables with the dismal heading, no progress on African corruption. So any reduction in corruption in Africa by the Chinese anti corruption drive is yet to show itself. It is worth noting how frequently the BBC live link on Africa contains entries on corruption, including strictly domestic corruption, I.e., no foreign parties are involved. As Africa develops I would imagine this domestic element will increase and be more difficult to monitor.

  5. Nice analysis, Katie. Like you, I have expressed skeptical views of China’s desire to combat corruption abroad, particularly in Africa. The Chinese anti-corruption campaign seems, at the moment, to be focused largely on the bribe-takers, not the bribe-payers. But I’d just like to point out that, should President Jinping’s administration choose to expand and deepen the extraterritorial, China’s anti-bribery laws are more amenable to doing so than similar legislation in other countries (including the FCPA). Chinese law penalizes commercial bribery, and there is no exception for offending conduct that is legal in the country where it was committed, no facilitation payment exception, and no defense for promotional expenses. If (a big “if”) it is just a matter of time before the Chinese government turns to corruption in Africa, it will have the right tools in hand to address it.

    • This procedural point is so important that I hope anyone who reads my post also scrolls down far enough to get to your comment. It doesn’t mean things will change, unless there’s political will for it (and it sounds like we’re both skeptical that there is, at least for now), but at least one threshold issue is taken care of. Thanks for the additional information.

  6. This is really interesting, Katie! I wonder what effect the crash of commodity prices and the slowdown in China’s economy (which is, of course, partially responsible for the crash of commodity prices) will have on the opportunities and incentives for Chinese companies and African officials to engage in corruption. I could see arguments that it would go in either direction, but I feel like it has to have some impact.

    For anyone who is interested in the China/Africa relationship, I highly recommend the book “China’s Second Continent.” It is not focused exclusively on corruption, but corruption does play a role in the narrative. On a more lighthearted note, the most recent episode of Madam Secretary included a plot line about a report on corruption in East Africa that State Department staffers jokingly wanted to title “China wins because they bribe everybody.”

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