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News that Angola has recently deported 37 Chinese citizens, accused of extortion, kidnappings, armed robberies and running prostitution rings in and around Luanda, is of profound interest to China-watchers in Africa. By all accounts, a special police team was sent to Angola from China in July to help the Angolans investigate various criminal activities amongst the large Chinese community in Angola. China’s Ministry of Public Security has confirmed such reports. This marks an interesting development in Sino-African relations and needs analysing.
For a long-time now, critics of China’s expanding role in Africa have pointed at Beijing’s alleged aloof attitude towards internal situations which, so the critics claim, has meant that China has supported some of the continent’s worst human-rights abusers. Equally, critics also aver that Beijing’s behaviour on the continent has weakened the leverage of others (by inference, the West) trying to promote greater respect for human rights.
These critics have repeatedly claimed that by dealing with repressive regimes, and putting economic and trading interests ahead of human rights standards, China is allowing oppressive African regimes to gain access to external resources that they would otherwise find difficulty in obtaining.
One can argue (perhaps endlessly) whether or not such accusations are fair or not.
The Chinese are certainly not the first to place economic interests ahead of the rights of Africans - the history of colonialism was, after all, built squarely on such principles. Various Western powers have a long history of colluding with autocrats in Africa and blithely ignoring human rights concerns - the French have coined a neologism, Françafrique, to capture this very reality.
Whilst the French are perhaps the worst hypocrites in this regard (claiming liberté, égalité, fraternité unless it contradicts Paris’ business and political interests) most of Africa’s external partners are guilty of such practices. A quick glance at the factors behind Washington’s re-opening of the American embassy in Equatorial Guinea, or the behaviour of British oil companies’ in Nigeria confirms such assertions.
Yet it can be argued that the Chinese have brought some of the criticism onto themselves. The official Chinese discourse loudly and repeatedly proclaims that China - and by extension, the Chinese people – are qualitatively different from the former colonial powers and their citizens. Much is made of China’s absence in the Scramble for Africa and subsequent colonisation of the continent, of China’s claimed support for anti-colonialism and finally, of the alleged shared history between China and Africa of having both been victims of Western aggression.
In this narrative there is a strong implicit claim that Chinese behaviour in Africa will, as a result of this history, be morally superior and that Africans should treat the Chinese as brothers and sisters. Is it any wonder that resentment develops if and when Chinese actors on the ground in Africa do not stick to the official script?
Related to this is the much-vaunted policy of non-interference. Official Chinese pronouncements routinely refer back to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, formulated in 1954 to set out the guidelines for Beijing’s foreign policy and its relations with other countries. The Five Principles are mutual respect for territorial integrity; nonaggression; reciprocal non-interference in internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. Beijing’s non-interference policy is effectively based on the stance that foreign countries should only get involved in a country if invited to by the host state.
Whilst at first glance this sounds perfectly reasonable, it does lay Beijing open to the accusation that China sets no standards of behaviour and that the norms and choices of the host state’s elites are deemed paramount and above scrutiny. In this milieu, until and unless the elites themselves promote transparency and pro-development policies, no such governance standards will be adopted - nor promoted by China in its engagement with the country concerned. It is this position that has stimulated much of the aforementioned criticism related to contemporary Sino-African relations.
Such negative perceptions of Chinese activities in Africa jeopardize the claims by Beijing to be somehow “different” from the West in its treatment of its relations with Africa. It is important to note here that such criticism of China is not limited to Western sources. Nor is such criticism part of some vast conspiracy to delegitimise China. There are now in fact strong voices in African civil society which are increasingly vocal in their critique of China. Some of this criticism is legitimate, others verge on Sinophobia. But either way, this rising discourse within Africa is critical of China and must worry Chinese policymakers.
Here though, Beijing has a serious problem. It is now quite apparent that pathologies associated with the post-Maoist liberalisation regime, such as an inattention to environmental safeguards, workers’ rights and a rise in general criminality in China itself, are being replicated abroad as Chinese actors increasingly operate outside of China. It is well-known that in China companies habitually dodge environmental and labour regulations liable to impede the profitability of any given venture, either by colluding with local state officials interested in encouraging economic growth or by graft.
Criminal gangs have seen a huge upsurge in China in recent years, facilitated in part by an easily corruptible police force prepared to look the other way in return for suitable compensation. As the recent Bo Xilai case (with the attendant drama surrounding his wife’s murder conviction), demonstrates, such criminality reaches to the highest levels within China itself. It can therefore be no surprise that similar expressions of China’s rapid embrace of capitalism develop overseas: rightly or wrongly, Chinese actors do not do anything in Africa they do not do at home.
But this is where Chinese policymakers face an incredible problem, striving as they do to project Beijing’s image as a responsible power and an actor that is morally superior to the West. It can be asserted quite fairly that Chinese actors engaging in illegal behaviour are no more representative of Beijing’s African policies than bad practices by a British or US company reflect London’s or Washington’s diplomatic objectives in Africa. It is always interesting to see how the behaviour of a Chinese individual is almost automatically extrapolated to being a reflection of the entire Chinese nation or of reflecting some sort of official Chinese policy.
It is obvious nonsense. Yet, the problem for Beijing is that the world community still erroneously sees China as a centrally controlled, monolithic actor. At fora such as FOCAC, Beijing itself seeks to project this image. Problematically, this is increasingly questionable. Sino-African relations are not part of any coherent centrally directed and controlled plan and the behaviour of Chinese actors is largely outside the control of the Chinese state.
To the extent that these actors then get involved in misunderstandings, shady business practices, even crime, gives a generally chaotic flavour to much Chinese activity in Africa. This reality is often a reflection of China’s own problems and do not necessarily suggest a lack of respect for Africa, Africans, or African conditions.
Unfortunately, even if Beijing’s policymakers earnestly seek to regulate Chinese business practices in Africa, their ability to do so is extremely limited. The more China liberalises, the less easy it is to control private businesses domestically, let alone in far-off Africa. This problem is only growing as China re-engages with the global economy under the conditions of de facto liberal capitalism and domestic trends spread overseas.
Just as Beijing has long had difficulty controlling what companies, domestic or foreign, do in China, strong control over Chinese companies acting overseas is declining and control over what individual Chinese citizens do abroad is minimal, probably even non-existent. Although Beijing has made both concerted efforts to educate Chinese traders operating in Africa about local labour laws and safety standards and patriotic appeals to protect the image of China abroad, this is unlikely to bother criminals or fly-by-night Chinese businessmen too much. Thus the image of China in Africa becomes undermined by processes outside of the control of Beijing.
This is why the recent events in Angola are of interest. Not only do they send a signal that Beijing is serious in tackling outright criminal behaviour by Chinese citizens abroad, but also that the non-interference policy does not mean that China is aloof and disinterested in what happens in Africa, but can be called in to help resolve problems.
Clearly, two dimensions are at play here. Firstly, criminality by Chinese citizens undermines any positive image of China in the minds of Angolans and thus becomes a foreign policy problem. Secondly, it appears that the Chinese offenders were actively targeting other Chinese. Cases of kidnapping Chinese businessmen for ransom, even sometimes burying victims alive, had apparently been growing, as had a rise in the presence of Chinese prostitutes in Luanda under the control of Chinese gangsters. According to Chinese media, crime had begun to seriously affect Chinese commercial interests in Angola, with reports that Chinese business owners had even started to relocate from Luanda due to the activities of Chinese gangs. Clearly, something had to be done.
That the Chinese government has actively co-operated with the Angolan authorities to sort out the problem is of great importance. Obviously in both Angolan and Chinese interests, it reflects a growing reality that as Chinese interests deepen in Africa, all sorts of problems will develop, including the question of Chinese criminality.
Despite its stance on non-interference, Beijing will be forced to actively engage in Africa, working alongside African governments to resolve issues that, I imagine, they would rather not have to deal with, but feel compelled to do so, if only to protect Chinese interests and China’s image.
Thus such co-operation on crime and other such difficulties will increase: Beijing’s engagement with Africa is supremely pragmatic. However, the huge proliferation of Chinese actors operating in Africa, very often private individuals or families, is all but impossible to manage. It is thus likely that we will also observe a Beijing that is in a perpetual (oftentimes losing) struggle to keep up with a surging and diverse set of Chinese interests and attendant behaviours in Africa.
How this plays out will be of immense interest to all African observers.
Written by Ian Taylor
Chair Professor, Renmin University of China; Extraordinary Professor, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and Honorary Professor, Zhejiang Normal University, China
Originally published in the SAFPI WorldView blog, click here to access the blog.