Does China’s involvement in African elections and politics hurt democracy?

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As African and Chinese leaders prepare to gather in Senegal for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China is promoting a narrative focused on economic partnership, highlighting “vaccine cooperation, economic recovery and transformative development.” China has long prioritized ties in Africa – initially by making yearly diplomatic trips to the continent, and more recently through significant expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. From both the Chinese and African perspectives, the focus of much of this engagement has been economic, with China looking to Africa for natural resources and Africa “looking east” to China for economic development through investment, infrastructure development, and trade.

Beyond this narrative, however, China is expanding its political engagement in Africa, with significant implications for the future of democracy. While economic partnership remains the foundation of – and entry point for – China’s relations with African countries, Beijing is increasingly involved in political and electoral processes in African democracies, whether intentionally or coincidentally.

In Africa, as elsewhere, China deploys three overarching modes of influence that can have a compounding impact on democracy in targeted countries: economic investment; promotion of Chinese Communist Party-style governance; and, in some instances, explicit support for political and electoral outcomes favourable to China.  These influence efforts have been both challenged and welcomed. While African leaders have sought out China’s support to advance their own political ambitions to antidemocratic ends, there are also increasing examples of democratic resilience. This article will explore the modes of China’s influence and their impact on democratic institutions, practices, and processes across the continent.

Economic Influence

To understand the China-Africa relationship holistically, it is necessary to contextualize the supply and demand factors surrounding Beijing’s economic engagements in African countries. The fallout stemming from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) forced structural adjustment on African countries created economic landscapes deemed inhospitable by traditional western donors. Furthermore, conditional aid from western donors centred on promoting democratic reforms and a human rights agenda left African leaders frustrated and open to alternative donors.

China, which already had shared ideological connections with many African governments, filled that donor vacuum in the early 2000s. Beginning in 2013, through the Belt and Road Initiative, China dramatically increased its so-called unconditional investment and assistance to eager African governments seeking to close the continent’s $108 billion annual infrastructure financing gap.

Fast forward to 2021, and its successful economic influence campaigns over the last decade have provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its associated state-owned companies an outsized role in African economies. Serving as Africa’s biggest trading partner, bilateral lender and holder of 21 per cent of Africa’s debt, China is using inroads garnered through critical infrastructure financing and implementation as a vehicle to enter political spaces – which are beyond terms used in multilateral agencies lending contracts.

The debunked ‘debt trap’ narrative has clouded the legitimate concerns of African civil societies and populaces regarding their countries’ budding dependence on China for capital, as well as their concerns surrounding increasingly numerous and salient instances of Beijing’s meddling in domestic regulatory and political processes to further its objectives.

Additionally, new analysis of China’s lending practices has demonstrated that it mandates opacity and reduced accountability of recipient governments when responding to citizen-led inquiries. Through its state-owned banks – China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Banks of China, Beijing uses contractual mechanisms to mandate its involvement in decision-making processes of African governments.

For instance, included in many contracts are stipulations that prevent the borrowing African governments from disclosing terms and conditions of the agreement, including the existence or amount of associated debt. In practice, this obligation prevents African governments from engaging with civil society on calls for loan transparency, and preferential treatment for Chinese debtors during debt restructuring conversations when multiple bilateral donors are involved. 

Beyond opacity, China can use development loans and mercantilist contractual clauses to influence policy considerations in recipient African and other global south countries. Chinese contracts often include language that allows the state bank to cancel its loan if the recipient country undertakes measures averse to ‘any PRC entity.’ Furthermore, PRC banks can cancel the contracts should either the recipient country or China question the country’s diplomatic relations with China. Here, China can use its broad definition of state interests to reduce the independence of African governments in determining their foreign policies on topics that touch on China’s interests in their country or globally.   

While Beijing has demonstrated the intent to extend its economic influence into political decision-making processes, African officials bear some responsibility for this. Through ‘elite capture’ activities, willing participants from Africa’s governing class, including heads of state, have been lavished with travel, gifts and promised investment from Beijing. This has evolved into an institutionalized, well-resourced practice that facilitates a favourable environment for China’s goals outside of the economic realm.

Admittedly, evidence for claims of Chinese ‘elite capture’ is currently piecemeal. As the bureaucratic structures used to carry it out closely resemble those of traditional diplomacy, it can be challenging to isolate areas of undue influence. Moreover, because of confidentiality clauses, public versions of Chinese state-owned bank contracts with African governments are difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, it is clear that Beijing’s lending and economic investments are not unconditional – and that relationships established through economic ties offer inroads for influence. Evidence increasingly indicates an intent to interfere and influence African political processes to advance China’s economic and political objectives.

More than Investment – China’s Authoritarian Governance Push

Starting in the early 2000s, under the leadership of Hu Jintao, and accelerated with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, the CCP  began to more aggressively and overtly promote its governance model through three principal means in Africa: party-to-party exchanges and technical trainings; export of surveillance technology and associated norms around the use of technology for citizen control; and information operations to shape the narrative around a country’s partnership with China and, by association, the ruler or ruling party supportive of the relationship.

Developing People-to-People Relationships and an Environment Receptive to Influence

The deployment of party-to-party exchanges and technical trainings has long been a means for the CCP to cultivate relationships with a broad range of elite actors who could advance China’s interests in-country. What began as an effort to seek political legitimacy – and recognition – for China has, since 2017, become a more explicit effort to impart lessons from its economic modernization and authoritarian political system. Beijing insists that trainings are exchanges of experience and not inculcations in CCP-style governance. However, trainings now provide attendees with a political education in one-party rule and serve to disseminate norms about China’s governance model.   

Party-to-party exchanges and political party trainings include sessions on influencing public opinion, government-media relations, internet censorship and opposition monitoring, managing criticism of the party, fostering constituent loyalty. Military and police trainings provide a mechanism for norm diffusion around topics such as the party-army model, including how to exercise party control over the military and integrate the military into party politics, crowd control and citizen surveillance. Media exchanges, part of CCP information operations (see below), seek to showcase China’s experience, encourage pro-China reporting by journalists, and create a friendly media environment for pro-China policies and politicians.

CCP training efforts in African countries are expansive. China has pledged 50,000 trainings to leaders of African civil society, government, and to members of ruling and opposition parties. These efforts have resulted in some successes for the CCP.

In South Africa, the African National Congress sought to advance its ties with the CCP in the runup to the 2019 elections to learn about “party discipline and loyalty, as well as “communication machinery and propaganda diffusion”. The CCP welcomed the opportunity to “educate fraternal African political parties on China’s experience in economic development and political governance”. Similarly, Kenya’s ruling Jubilee Party has also lavished praise on the CCP’s development and governance strategy, and its ability to “unify” China, with President Kenyatta underscoring that Kenya can learn from China’s experience in establishing a united and powerful ruling party to achieve development and social stability.

Evidence on how these programs have impacted African policy is mixed. While leading political parties in countries that regularly participate in exchanges and trainings with the CCP have expressed admiration for its model and path to development, it is not yet clear whether this had led to any real changes within internal party politics or platforms.

The CCP’s intentions, however, are clear. CCP efforts to foster ties with parties across the political spectrum, whether or not they are in power, and both the current and next generation of African elites, have the power to shape these countries’ political development and relations with China. According to Yun Sun of the Stimson Center, China’s efforts to help African political parties learn from China’s experience “will have a profound psychological and political impact over the choices and preferences of African political parties, thus over African political landscape.”

The Export of Digital Technologies and Norms

The global proliferation of Chinese-made digital technologies is shaping digital norms and directly impacts African human rights and democratic practices. Chinese companies, who operate at the behest or with the approval of the CCP, are increasingly exporting telecommunications and surveillance technology to African countries; part of Beijing’s promotion of the “Digital Silk Road” to expand digital technology sales to the continent. Such technologies, which include social media monitoring,  telecommunications and information technology infrastructure, and cybersecurity tools such as facial and license-plate recognition platforms – have been welcomed by democratic and authoritarian regimes alike in Africa, whether to “improve public safety” and reduce crime, monitor dissidents, or exert control over the internet.

African countries are also increasingly looking to China as a model for laws regulating the digital space – and the CCP has been a willing partner, recruiting countries to adopt everything from internet governance and freedom on the net to cybersecurity. Nigeria, for example, has sought to adopt CCP-inspired cybersecurity laws and an internet firewall modelled on China’s. First Lady Buhari noted famously, “if China can control over 1.3 billion people on social media, I see no reason why Nigeria cannot attempt controlling only 180 million people.” In 2021, the day after the government banned Twitter, the Office of the Presidency reportedly reached out to the Cyberspace Administration of China to discuss plans to build Nigeria’s version of the Great Firewall.

Long one of Africa’s most stable democracies, Zambia is more repressive under former President Edgar Lungu, who has cracked down on freedom of expression and the press to limit opposing views. China assisted. The Wall Street Journal found that Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei, which is allegedly closely tied to the CCP, not only sold the government the security tools that it used for digital surveillance and censorship, but its employees who were embedded in security forces and cyber-surveillance units also trained and participated in efforts to spy on political opposition. For example, two opposition bloggers were intercepted by Huawei employees through communications, social media, and cell data, who communicated directly with the police to have them arrested. Beyond this, Zambia has looked to China as a model for internet governance and cybersecurity to control content online.

The export of surveillance technologies is shaping African norms around internet governance, with severe consequences for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, access to information, and citizen privacy. Under the guise of “safe cities,” China has provided the tool and expertise that has facilitated authoritarian tendencies, and,  in some instances, has actively helped African governments crack down on their populations – in a direct affront to democratic practices and human rights.

Information Operations: Shaping Public Discourse around China and Pro-China Actors

To complement – and advance – economic and political influence activities, China is increasingly investing in efforts to shape and control information spaces across the globe. Arguably, this is most salient in African countries, where China aims to use pervasive propaganda to shape positive perceptions and reinforce its curated image as leader of the developing world. This manifests principally through strategic acquisition of local media outlets and telecommunications infrastructure, cultivation of local journalists, and dissemination of CCP-produced propaganda through both Chinese state-run news outlets in-country and local media.

China’s provision of telecommunications infrastructure has given it a foothold in African markets for content distribution, which has been further consolidated through investments in local print, radio, and television outlets by PRC companies closely tied to the party-state. China disseminates CCP-produced content through content-sharing agreements and influences the editorial line of outlets in which it holds a significant stake. The 10,000 Villages Project, to bring digital television to rural areas throughout Africa, for example, allows China to control content distribution and push CCP-produced propaganda to 10 million subscribers in 30 African countries, as StarTimes, a Chinese-government linked company, was selected as the primary contractor for the project.

StarTimes, which also owns stakes in media companies across Africa, has provided preferential treatment to state-run media outlets that push pro-China narratives while simultaneously limiting access to more critical Western media outlets through outright prohibitions or placement behind a steep paywall. Another case in point is the experience of a South African journalist, whose column in Independent Media, in which Chinese state-linked firms hold a 20% stake, was suddenly cancelled following a critical report on human rights in Xinjiang. As the journalist, Azad Essa, has noted, “companies that take on Chinese ownership are likely to experience the Chinese model of censorship; red lines are thick and non-negotiable.”

China has also expanded the footprint of Chinese state-run news outlets and content exchanges with local media to push out pro-China content tailored to local markets and published in local languages. Through flagship initiatives and robust placement of state-controlled media outlets, Xinhua, China Daily, China Global Television Network, and China Radio International, Nairobi has become the centre of China’s growing media influence in East Africa.

In addition, China’s connections with African journalists have facilitated the placement of China-friendly content in local media. In some instances, influence efforts have resulted in positive coverage. A Zambian journalist who participated in a 2018 exchange to China subsequently wrote a piece on the country praising China’s commitment to freedom of speech and its robust media landscape. Some Kenyan journalists participating in CCP-sponsored trips have been similarly swayed, praising the China model and its right to pursue “its own development path in line with its national conditions,” a phrase commonly used to justify the CCP’s authoritarian governance model in pursuit of economic development. The reception is not always so positive – or effective – but efforts to co-opt local journalists demonstrate clear intent by the CCP to advance favourable narratives at the expense of media independence. 

In information space, the impact of the CCP’s expanded influence on African democracies is evident. The CCP’s soft and sharp power efforts contribute to media coercion, censorship, and limits on freedom of expression and the press. As China’s media footprint grows, there are further concerns about CCP monopolization of public discourse.

A Thumb on the Electoral Scale?

Is there any evidence of China’s efforts to shape electoral outcomes in Africa? Increasingly, China appears to be deploying efforts to boost more pro-China politicians alongside traditional efforts to cultivate relationships across the political spectrum. During the 2018 presidential elections in Sierra Leone, for example, a news source aligned with the opposition alleged that Beijing was providing material and financial assistance to the All People’s Congress (APC) – a close ally in the country – releasing footage of Chinese nationals at an APC campaign rally. Such open support for one political party runs contrary to China’s historic policy to cultivate relationships with all parties.

Progressively, China’s is more and more willing to leverage its economic power in support of pro-China incumbents facing reelection. The strategy is not new – a study of 117 African leaders and 1650 development projects from 2000 to 2012 found that politically important regions received more Chinese aid than other parts of the country, with stronger effects before executive elections and when elections are competitive. What appears to have changed is China’s willingness to do so more openly and directly.

China’s timing of high-profile investments with electoral cycles was most recently on display during the 2021 Zambian presidential elections. In the leadup to the elections, incumbent President Edgar Lungu inaugurated Chinese-financed infrastructure projects showcasing economic development in the country – a major campaign issue. Projects included a hydropower station and two international airports, all completed days or weeks before the election.  The delivery of Zambia’s first supply of Chinese vaccines four days before the elections no doubt provided another photo opportunity for President Lungu. Whether the timing was China’s idea or President Lungu’s, it was certainly intentional and meant to bolster Lungu’s image to improve his electoral prospects, though it was unsuccessful.

While there is limited evidence that China is directly intervening in electoral processes, there are increasing signs that it is willing to deploy economic incentives and political influence to achieve favourable electoral outcomes for pro-China politicians. From leveraging its economic investments and threatening to withhold future support, to shaping the media coverage of a candidate through influence on the media environment, China certainly has the relationships and means to do so. Despite claims to the contrary, China maintains its noninterference policy in rhetoric only.

Conclusion: The Impact of China’s Engagement on Democracy in Africa

Two decades into China’s advanced efforts to promote its governance model in Africa, the direct impact on African democracies is mixed. Despite clear entry points for influence earned from so-called unconditional lending, there have been few overt examples of China’s direct meddling to influence political and electoral outcomes. Nevertheless, China is undoubtedly establishing the foundations for shaping the future of governance in Africa, with willing African allies. CCP trainings and exchanges subtly and not so subtly inculcate authoritarianism in institutions and institutional culture, from political parties to the police. The export of surveillance technology facilitates government repression of civil liberties and is changing the norms around internet governance and citizen privacy. CCP influence operations targeting the information environment to manipulate narratives through traditional and digital media stifles freedom of the press and expression.

Moreover, there is ample evidence that China legitimizes and facilitates the success of existing authoritarian political parties and systems across Africa – providing an alternative model to democracy. While governments are ultimately responsible for adopting repressive, CCP-inspired policy and practices, they are aided and abetted in their efforts thanks to tools, tactics, and training from China. From Nairobi to Johannesburg, China is leveraging its economic relationships to exert direct and indirect political influence, part of a broader strategy to create a world safe for the party – a world in which China’s authoritarian governance model and governance norms are legitimized on a global scale.

Caitlin Dearing Scott (@cdearingscott) is the Deputy Director of Strategy, Development, and Operations at the International Republican Institute’s Center for Global Impact.


The image used in this piece is by Ghanian artist Bright Ackwerh (@brightackwerh), who uses political satire to explore Ghana’s relationship with China. In this piece, Mr. Ackwerh suggests that the CCP’s relationship with Ghanaian political elite has a negative impact on Ghana’s democracy and – without intervention from the Ghanaian people – will lead the country to the same fate that infamously befell the Titanic in 1912. Speaking of the piece, Mr. Ackwerh has noted, “I didn’t choose DiCaprio just for Titanic and the meme.” The actor is also a climate activist who helped convince the Ghanaian government to “cancel a contract with Sinohydro that would destroy the Atewa forest for $2 billion of mined bauxite.’”

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