A new post on Brookings’ “Africa in Focus” blog argues that Chinese political-ideological efforts “will have a profound psychological and political impact over the choices and preferences of African political parties, thus over African political landscape.” While the post does make a worthy effort to address counter-arguments, it nonetheless somewhat overstates the appeal and influence of the Chinese in Africa. Smart readers should interpret Brookings fellow Yun Sun’s headline—“Political party training: China’s ideological push in Africa?”—with Betteridge’s Law in mind.
Yun’s argument goes like this: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed strong relationships with a number of African political parties, such as South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC). The CCP provides lots of training programs for parties like the ANC, with topics ranging from the success of “authoritarian capitalism” to how to control the media. African political parties, in turn, apply Chinese lessons to their countries; Chinese-style thinking spreads throughout the continent’s many governments.
It is worth underscoring that Yun is not forecasting the emergence of a Cold War-style global ideological conflict between the United States and China. Instead, she makes it clear that she does not think China is a new Soviet Union primed to export a mature, universalist ideology throughout the world:
Whether the China model constitutes an ideology is debatable. After all, China itself is still exploring and theorizing its own economic and political models, so there is not necessarily a mature, comprehensive ideology that China is pushing or exporting. However, China does seek to promote the Chinese experience in governance and development in African countries. Party-to-party exchanges and political party training programs have been the key venue for this ideological agenda.
Nevertheless, Yun thinks that China’s “ideological agenda” is a pretty big deal in Africa and it’s already winning over some converts. For example, the post touts Ethiopia as a case study in Chinese tutelage:
After being convinced that China’s model was successful, Ethiopia became rather insistent on learning of China’s experiences and combining them with the Ethiopian local conditions. As a result, training programs soared. Senior EPRDF training delegations were dispatched to Beijing regularly. The June 2011 delegation focused on poverty alleviation. The August 2013 delegation focused on cadre management. The most recent one, in February 2016, focused on domestic development, especially on how to manage youth. Due to these collaborations, Chinese scholars and media regard Ethiopia as the biggest success of the China model in Africa. Ethiopia’s policy on foreign investment and special economic zones as well as its focus on infrastructure development are often attributed to Chinese enlightenment.
The difficulty here is in discerning exactly which ideas China is seeking to export to Ethiopia and why they are especially noteworthy. Authoritarian models of party politics and media suppression? An infrastructure-first approach to development? Anti-poverty initiatives? The first is not distinctly Chinese; authoritarian governments everywhere have to grapple with wrangling wayward cadres and stifling anti-government media outlets. The second is a policy any American Hamiltonian would champion. And the third reflects a goal just about everyone favors. There’s nothing particularly Chinese about any of those ideas.
After all the discussion of Ethiopia, it would have also been nice to read a brief aside on the proverbial elephant in the room, Zimbabwe, which is China’s most reliable client state in Africa. In the Rhodesian Bush War, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU insurgents courted support from Mao’s China. Over the past decade, as Yun has noted previously, China has poured hundreds of millions in FDI into Zimbabwe; today over 10,000 Chinese nationals live there. And just last year, China forgave $40 million in debt as Zimbabwe adopted the Chinese yuan as its currency, leading some observers to classify Zimbabwe as a modern-day Chinese colony.
And yet, needless to say, few African leaders are turning to Zimbabwe as a development model. China’s coziest relationship in Africa, much like China’s close relationship with Zimbabwe’s fellow pariah state North Korea, has inspired few imitators and even scared off potential partners. Yes, Ethiopia’s example may demonstrate a limited success for Chinese ideas in Africa, but the Zimbabwean case also illuminates the challenges China will face if it continues to pursue this strategy.
Let’s take a step back and move away from Brookings piece’s nuanced core to examine the rather menacing trope its headline and concluding paragraph appear to evoke: the prospect of a sustained Chinese ideological offensive in Africa, which if true would constitute a significant force in geopolitics and a major source of concern for U.S. policymakers. Granting for the moment the assumption that China will seek to expand its influence by exporting its domestic ideology to other countries, what would China’s contribution to the “War of Ideas” look like? Would it be appealing in Africa?
The reality is that today’s China just doesn’t really have a consistent, all-encompassing ideology; the two main currents of Chinese thought these days are Marxism and Confucianism. Both streams face major obstacles in their flow to Africa.
Marxism, for one, is not new to Africa. National liberation movements from Algeria to Angola turned to Marx’s ideas for inspiration (and, once in government, for policies like nationalization of industry). But Marxist thought is especially difficult to export these days as China is having a hard time defending its communist core at home, even with a tightening grip on freedom of expression. Furthermore, the call for a moral anchor more substantial than Marxism is one resonates from top to bottom in Chinese society, which is still haunted by the Cultural Revolution and now struggles with newfound social ills like massive inequality and the rise of Little Emperors (spoiled only children—one unforeseen consequence of the one child policy).
Which brings us to Confucianism, which has seen a surge in Chinese scholarship and interest in recent years. The CCP has embraced Confucianism to shore up its legitimacy in a uniquely Chinese cultural tradition and promote a nationalism of sorts in an attempt to endure the ongoing economic slowdown. China recognizes that the Confucianist push is grounded in its particular cultural resonance and the country’s contemporary political needs. This understanding, in turn, raises several questions:
- Is Confucian thought really compatible with where Africa is now and will it provide insight for Africans as they go about tackling their countries’ many issues?
- In domestic politics, will either Africa’s democrats or its authoritarians find the seniority-based, power-sharing, bureaucratically-led state model especially attractive?
- In international relations, do African countries really want a big-brother-little-brother relationship grounded in Confucian filial piety to define their relationship with China?
As big ideas go, Islam, Christianity, capitalism, democratization, and ethnic mobilization have been the dominant forces in Africa’s recent intellectual and political history—much more so than the ideologies China might hope to promote in a hypothetical War of Ideas.
China may have many successful exports, but ideology isn’t one of them. And even if China did have an internally consistent, internationally appealing ideology, China’s track record of spreading its ideas and cultivating international disciples is, in the most charitable assessment we can make, underwhelming. Zimbabwe and North Korea do not inspiring case studies make. The Dragon has yet to swallow the Giraffe.