How China is changing democracy in Africa

William Gumede

Many African leaders are increasingly using China's example of having development without democracy, to argue that Africa can forego democracy in pursuing industrialisation, growth and nation-building. 

China's economy grew at 10% every year over three decades until 2010, lifting substantial numbers of people out of poverty and making the country the second largest economy after the United States (US).

On 3 March 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the country's annual meeting of the National People's Congress, its parliament, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – a non-legislative advisory forum, together called the "two sessions" – that China is offering the world a "new type of political party system". 

President Xi has been promoting the Chinese one-party dominant system as an alternative governing model to Africa and the developing country partners. China has a one-party dominant system, dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with another eight smaller political parties allowed to operate. The CCP leadership meets annually with the leadership of the eight approved opposition parties to discuss government policy, called "multiparty cooperation and political consultation". 

Early in 2018, the National People's Congress adopted a new policy to amend the country's constitution to end the two-term limit on the presidency. China's presidency has a five-year term. The CCP is debating restructuring the government system and party organisational structure to make government department, agencies and programmes more closely aligned and subservient to equivalent party structures, departments and programmes. 

The CCP annually since 2014 invite political party leaders from the developing world, including African parties and leaders to Beijing to explain China's "new type of political party system". Chinese officials, state media and academics have helped pushed the strategy propounded by Xi to partners abroad. 

More specifically, the CCP has a program of annually bringing African party leaders, including South Africa's ANC, Angola's MPLA, Namibia's Swapo, Tanzania's Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) (Party of the Revolution) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to Beijing for political party training. The CCP is also increasingly helping to fund and establish political schools for African governing parties. The ANC, EPRDF, Swapo and MPLA's schools or training structures have all benefitted from CCP help. 

Chinese political party advisors are also increasingly providing training to African governing political parties as part of Chinese-Africa "technical" support agreements. 

Wang Xiaohong, one of the leading CCP intellectuals, based at the Central Institute of Socialism, a key party thinktank, writes in a discussion paper which has been widely circulated in the CCP and Chinese government platforms that Western-based multiparty systems lead to "fractured societies, inefficient government and endless power transitions and social chaos". 

Pushing the 'new type of political party system' strategy

Wang argued that China's "new type of political party system" policy "has overcome all sorts of problems". Wang's argument is seen in China policy circles as the official President Xi party line.

According to figures by the Brookings Institute, China overtook the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009. China is since 2017 also Africa's largest loans provider, now accounting for about 15% of the sub-Saharan Africa's total foreign debt. Countries such as Kenya, Angola and Zimbabwe are now more indebted to China than to former colonial powers or multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, Africa's former major debtors. 

Because of its new substantial investments in Africa, China has become the biggest political player on the continent. China is increasingly consulted by African governments on major domestic political, policy and international decisions, in similar ways former colonial powers, who are substantial donors to African countries, are consulted on major African domestic issues. 

Last year, Rwandan president Paul Kagame, at a debate organised by the Council for Foreign Relations, a US think tank, claimed "Western democratic models" should not be "imposed" on Africa. Kagame claimed that because African countries have different "histories, cultures and contexts", democracy may not "fit" African countries. 

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni has also claimed that representative democracy is Western and cannot be "imported" to Africa. Museveni has insisted on a "no-party model", which is dominated by his National Revolutionary Movement. Museveni claimed that multiparty politics are nothing but ethnic groups organising on the basis of parties, saying that a multiparty system will cause ethnic, regional and religious fragmentation of the country. 

Former South African president Jacob Zuma has claimed that South Africa's democratic constitution and laws are not the "African way", but the "white man's way" because it holds national presidents, traditional kings and chiefs accountable. 

Many African leaders have changed, or tried to change, their country's constitutions to stay on longer than two-terms. Museveni and Kagame did so. Such attempts to extend the rule of African leaders have led to violent public protests across the continent. Many governing African leaders and parties have either banned or suppressed opposition leaders and parties and have barely tolerated pliant ones. 

Since the end of colonialism after the Second World War, almost all African countries had one-dominant parties or leaders. However, one-dominant party leaderships have brought little growth, industrialisation or peace. 

Democracy remains most viable route

Given the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of most African countries, democracy remains the most viable route to foster inclusive development, nations and peace. Since independence from colonialism, most African countries have not genuinely pursued democracy, either saying it's un-African, Western or that development should be pursued first. 

Yet, the results are clear: all the African countries since independence which did not pursue democracy have either seen civil, ethnic or religious conflicts, have remained overwhelmingly poor and have deindustrialised. The African countries that did genuinely pursue democracy, such as Mauritius, Botswana, Cape Verde, and recently Seychelles, have achieved higher growth levels, have industrialised quicker and have had more sustained peace. 

Many African governments and leaders claiming to pursue democracy have done so in very limited, narrow and selected ways, most of them wrongly believing that once they have staged elections, which they often rig, their countries are democracies. Others have created democratic institutions, only to manipulate them for self-interest.

One-party dominance did not bring development to China  

Importantly, African leaders who adhere to the China school of one-party dominant-subservient-opposition parties' development approach misread or choose selective parts of the Chinese developmental model. It is not one-party dominance per se that has magically brought development to China. 

China has done this though a combination of introducing catalytic new industrialisation policies and market institutions, overhauling the structure of the economy, improving human and physical capital and expanding gender and social equality. 

China following the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s has determinedly focused on lifting the largest number of people out of poverty, by focusing on securing double digit growth levels and adopting or copying new technology and techniques from the West. 

The Chinese also introduced industrial policies, which emphasised labour-intensive manufacturing aimed for export and were linked to the country's comparative advantage. 

China put extraordinary emphasis on developing human capital – technical skills. It accelerated physical 'capital', such as infrastructure across the country – rolling out special programs in historically poor areas – linked to industrialisation, human capital development and giving the poor access to markets.  

China introduced a reasonable sense of meritocracy in its political, economic and social system. This unleashed the energy of vast numbers of people, who may have opposed the communist political ideology, but who believed if they work hard enough they will fairly gain opportunities. 

China also effectively used fiscal (government spending and taxes) and monetary (adjusting the money supply and interest rates) policies to stimulate growth, create jobs and maintain economic stability. It planned development better: its long-term plans were detailed, typically with specific targets, assigning who is accountable for what, and when, and robust monitoring mechanisms. 

China eschewed populism. It pursued evidence-based and data-driven policies. The CCP have been more pragmatic and less ideological in learning from other successful development experiences, whether from Japan, its ancient foe, or the US, its more recent adversary. The combination of pragmatic learning, evidence-based policy, determinedly pursuing growth, human capital development and reasonable meritocracy are perhaps more crucial to the Chinese development success, than one-party dominance. 
- Gumede is associate professor at the School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, and chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).

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