In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Africa and China (2008) Kweku Ampiah and Sanusha Naidu opine that the growing international affinity “between China and Africa could be one of the most important developments in the international relations of the Post-Cold War era.” A number of reasons account for this close relationship. Apart from China’s allure as an erstwhile victim of Western and foreign domination, akin to Africa’s colonial history, and its stupendous economic growth, China’s foreign policy principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, has been an endearing characteristic to Africa. Through this principle and other forms of soft power, China has succeeded in encouraging the renunciation of formal ties between Taiwan and all African countries, save for eSwatini.
At the superficial level, the policy of non-interference appears infallible because who would want their internal affairs to be meddled with by foreign elements anyway? In fact, Article III (2) of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Charter also upheld the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of Member States. However, what exactly does China mean by interference and what are the consequences of this principle? China is a country that is rich in history and is never shy of flaunting its credentials as the longest continuous civilization in the world. However, China is also keenly aware that its status as an age-old civilization, inventor of among other things gun powder, and its unparalleled population was not enough for foreign forces not to rend China and subject it to what has been called a century of humiliation, extending from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century.
It was thus understandable after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 that China would be very sensitive to external censure and even advice on how the newly established country could live. The OAU Charter also adopted non-interference because in 1963, when the charter was authored, a significant portion of Africa was still in foreign hands. More than 50 years later, what then is the place of non-interference? After the transformation of the OAU into the AU, African States adopted Article 4(g) of the AU Charter stating “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” This was an acknowledgment that there are crimes that should warrant intervention. This, notwithstanding Article 4(h) of the AU retains non-interference.
The main contention of this piece is exactly what China and Africa mean by ‘interference’. To China, non-interference simply means a wholesale rejection of external opinion on internal matters, especially those of a political nature. This is expected from a country that does not have a recorded history of liberal democracy and whose human rights record has been a subject of widespread condemnation. From the Tiananmen crisis of 1989, China made it clear that economic reform did not entail political reform. It is expected that Africa supports non-interference. This is so not only because of Africa’s regrettable history at the hands of former colonizers, but because the continent has been littered with authoritarian governments that have excited the ire of civil society organisations and Western democracies. China is thus seen as a more amenable and agreeable partner with no airs of officiousness.
However, to advise an errant state against its repressive laws should not be (mis)construed as interference. Blatant cases of repression, such as was the case in Darfur in 2003, should galvanise the international community. That China would shrink from pursuing a normative path on such matters for the sake of securing access to mineral and energy resource-rich countries demonstrates a fiendish disregard for ordinary Africans enduring odious governments. It actually shows that claims of friendship with Africa are only consigned to the level of state and political players rather than ordinary Africans who hope for better governance. If China has intentions of being a good friend to Africa and Africans, it might consider revising the scope of what is meant by ‘interference.’
A relativist understanding of what human dignity is, especially in the face of undeniable atrocity, will be a big disservice to African governance and it will give hideous leaderships a blank cheque for misrule, knowing very well that there is a China on whom one dodging international censure can rely. Finally, an appreciable number of Africa countries has made progress in entrenching the tenets of democracy. With this progress, one hopes that Africa will develop an allergy towards bad governance and that the African Union will not recoil from chastising members within its ranks that are found wanting. If China lends its heft to such a worthy cause, its action cannot certainly be interpreted as interference because interference has a negative connotation. For a lack of a better word, advising and recommending morally defensible governance could be called intervention, and it would go a long way to endearing China not only to laudable African democracies but to the many ordinary Africans who are hostile to repressive governance.