African autocrats absolutely adore China’s President Xi Jinping. At a meeting last month with 13 prominent African leaders in Durban, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea’s hard-fisted President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo led the others in lavishing praise on China. The front page of the weekend China Daily for March 29 trumpeted their obsequieousness and China-Africa friendship.
None of Africa’s despots dare bite the hand that has fed so well, and so consistently. While Chinese support keeps rolling in, these leaders enrich themselves and their inner circles while their people go without.
China directly supports the leaders and enables their continued internal tyrannies by refusing to “interfere” in local politics, by willfully ignoring well-documented trails of human rights violations, by turning a blind eye to egregious corrupt practices, and by protecting presidents such as Zimbabwae’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir when the UN or other regional organizations threaten to investigate their regimes. China has also helped to shield Bashir from the consequences of his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
China has also provided weapons of war to enable Africa’s worst regimes to prey on their internal opponents. Chinese aircraft and ammunition were used by the Sudan against its opponents in Darfur and now in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Zimbabwe received Chinese jets, uniforms for its army, a military staff training college constructed by Chinese labour, and material assistance when Mugabe’s military and family forcibly ousted artisanal miners from Zimbabwe’s lucrative Marange diamond fields.
It’s an arrangement that works for both sides. China neither desires land (aside from leasing agricultural properties on which to grow food crops for export back to China) nor seeks, as Europeans did, to “civilize” Africans. But it does want access to African oil, African copper, African ferrochrome, African iron ore, and many more minerals. For that overriding mercantile reason, China is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to befriend even the most outrageous African despots, and to help to support them in the manner to which they have become accustomed.
Many of the world’s most corrupt countries are those with the tightest ties to China. In Africa, according to Transparency International, China’s friends Sudan, Chad, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo (Kinshasa), Guinea and Zimbabwe are the most corrupt, ranking in the depths together with such global pariahs as North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
In impoverished Angola, one of Africa’s largest producers of petroleum, President José Eduardo dos Santos and the men around him have pocketed $3- or $4-billion a year. One of the three big diamond mining enterprises in Zimbabwe is Chinese, in partnership with the heads of the country’s security apparatus. It, and the other Mugabe-related, firms illicitly transfer diamonds to Dubai and Hong Kong in defiance of officials in the Zimbabwean Treasury (which has been run by a Mugabe rival).
As President Xi attempts to curb corruption in China itself by forbidding his associates and officials from abusing their authority, dining lavishly, drinking incessantly and providing positions for relatives, his country maintains deep official and unofficial ties with regimes largely based around such practices. Given Africa’s willingness to sell its minerals and its gas and oil resources to China, to permit China to explore for new offshore deposits, to mine manganese and gold in national parks in Gabon and Ghana, to grow crops for export home in Madagascar and Zimbabwe, to own copper and coal mines in Zambia, and to construct export processing zones in Ethiopia, Kenya and Mauritius, President Xi’s China may not need to continue to consolidate its commercial ties by so strongly supporting particular individual leaders. China has economic leverage enough. It need not grasp for dirty political leverage, too.
Despots eventually fall. President Xi may soon find it more enduringly profitable and more in line with China’s global self-interest to reduce its backing of the worst of the worst of Africa’s leaders.