Does China have the power to change governments in Africa?

The idea that China is influencing regime change in Africa, became popular in the wake of the military coup in Zimbabwe that ended Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule there. Western media was particularly taken by this thesis. Zimbabwean Army Chief General Constantino Chiwenga, the man at the head of the coup, visited Beijing the prior week, presumably to get the approval of the Chinese Communist Party. This was presented as the smoking gun.

As the Financial Times–paper of record for the world’s corporate and government leaders–speculated at the time: if China’s interests would be affected by the Zimbabwe coup, it would adjust to the flow of political change. The lesson to other African dictators was that your opponents might “persuade China to look the other way as you are pushed out the door …,” according to an analyst quoted by the FT. For that reason, the same analyst suggested that other African dictators long supported by China might be closely watching events in Zimbabwe. The FT noted, however, that there was little indication that Beijing had direct influence on the move against Mr Mugabe and “we should not exaggerate the actual role of China.”

Despite further caution from China scholars, Western media continued to cite Chiwenga’s visit to Beijin  as “evidence” to build the narrative that despite China’s professed non-intervention principle — i.e. that China is wary of doing to another what it does not want done to itself — it was intervening and influencing regime change in Africa. A recent investigation by French newspaper Le Monde — that China spied on the headquarters of the African Union, just added to the speculation.

So, is China really influencing regime change in Africa?  The short answer to that complex question is no.

China has no wherewithal nor the will to influence regime change either through military means or clandestinely supporting opposition movements in African countries. The solidarity between China and Africa is founded on that understanding and a shared detest of neo-imperialism and intervention in each other’s’ internal affairs. As Li Keqiang puts it: “Like many African countries, ‘China once suffered foreign invasion and fell under colonial and semi-colonial rule. Do not do to others what you do not want done to you’ is a millennia-old idea important in Chinese civilization” and the bedrock of China-Africa relations.

Second, China has no formal or informal security cooperation arrangements with any country, regime or leader in Africa. High-level exchanges and cooperation between the Communist Party of China and political parties such as Tanzania’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, or Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF or military exchanges with African countries, do not constitute an undertaking by China to protect these political parties from internal threats in their own countries. For example, Mamadou Tandja, president of Niger from 1999 to 2010 was widely believed to be propped up by China despite his autocratic leadership. Then he was deposed in a military coup in 2010. China simply made a new deal with the new military regime.

In addition, strategic partnerships to strengthen cooperation between China and African countries, like Djibouti where China set-up its first military base in Africa, does not guarantee regime support from China. In fact, China’s military presence in Africa is still limited to anti-piracy, peacekeeping and protecting Chinese nationals and assets abroad. There is no significant possibility of the Chinese military strategically supporting or protecting regimes in Africa.

Even more important, China understands the limitations of its power and influence in Africa. Despite claims of regimes modeling themselves after China — Ethiopia’s government styles itself as the “China of Africa” — the Chinese do not have the capacity to change regimes or even mould current ones into its own image. As an editorial in Global Times, the tabloid version of The People’s Daily, acknowledged around the time of the Zimbabwean coup, among the three main factors that could affect events there, was the fact that regardless of what China wanted, “the attitude of the African Union and the West” mattered.

“Both [the African Union and the West] object to military takeovers, but Mugabe is one of the African leaders the West dislikes most. It seems the West is likely to turn a blind eye to this crisis,” Global Times further explained. (The other two factors, mentioned by Global Times, turned out to be crucial: whether the military and ZANU-PF could agree on how to solve the crisis and the level of popularity that Mugabe enjoyed amongst his people.)

The problem, however, is that the African Union is not even as decisive in African political and security affairs. First in line are former colonial powers – especially Britain and France. They’re followed by regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or the Southern African Development Community (SADC).  For instance, Mali requested military assistance from France to wade off the Tuareg rebellion and a coup attempt. In Cote d’Ivoire, Alassane Outtara requested French Special Forces for assistance to oust his predecessor Laurent Gbagbo who was refusing to leave power after losing an election.

Apart from seeking Chinese diplomatic support against imposition of international sanctions, the fact that none of the deposed African leaders have requested for Chinese protection from internal political threats suggest that there is an understanding among African leaders that China will not assist beyond blocking international sanction, regardless of their relations.

As for opposition movements in African countries, rumored help to the coup plotters in Zimbabwe created an impression that China could support the opposition. It wasn’t an unreasonable expectation. In South Sudan, China engaged the Riek Machar rebels, while in Libya it recognized the National Transition Council before Gaddafi was completely ousted. Beyond those two cases, there is little to suggest China engages or supports opposition movements in Africa. China finds it more prudent to deal exclusively with ruling parties to protect its interests, which are mostly economic.

Opposition political leaders, most find the West more receptive, especially when their opponents are regarded as autocratic or are under sanctions of some sort. If not to former colonial powers, they look to regional powers, like South Africa in the case of Zimbabwe or Senegal in the case of the Gambia.

In all these cases, China’s power is not in intervening, but in having rival political opponents in African countries strive for its support. Incumbent regimes need China for its economic, diplomatic and political support. Opposition political parties often pro-West and anti-China soon realize their countries’ dependence on China as soon as they get into power. Zambia’s former president Michael Sata (2011-2014) was anti-China when he was in opposition but soon after getting into power, he sent Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president to beg for Beijing’s forgiveness and renew relations.

Overall, China’s focus is on strengthening long term strategic relations thus it is willing to forego the temptation to engineer regime transitions in Africa. As it stands, China is confident that it can work with any kind of regime in Africa because China is increasingly becoming a dominant alternative for development finance for most African countries. There may be no need for Beijing to muddle in regime change in Africa.

Further Reading

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