This article first appeared in ChinaFile on November 28, 2017
Though not in the headlines, China is operating in an East African region that is becoming increasingly autocratic and authoritarian. The East Africa region in this article refers to the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia. It can be argued that in the region, Kenya is the only viable democracy left.
President Kagame of Rwanda has made headlines in the region for what appears to be the open targeting of Diane Rwigara who tried to run against him in elections earlier this year. Ethiopia has been ruled by the same party since 1991, with marked intolerance of opposition, evidenced in the imprisonment of political dissidents. Uganda has been under the hand of Museveni for well over 30 years and in Burundi the International Federation for Human Rights claims the crisis there has left at least 1,200 dead and 10,000 imprisoned for political reasons. In Tanzania, the chief whip of the opposition party was shot, opposition figures have disappeared, and in September, President Magafuli closed a third newspaper since June as part of a media crackdown.
The trend towards autocracy and authoritarianism in the region cannot be ignored and will have several implications for China. The first is that while it could be argued that it is easier for China to work with governments that do not have to deal with the complications of a robust democracy, there is growing unrest in domicile populations in the region. And although authoritarian East African governments may assure China and the Chinese private sector, that unrest is being ‘managed’, the reality is that it can grow to unmanageable levels, compromising Chinese investments. The Chinese private sector is already feeling the pinch where both last year and this year, protesters in Ethiopia destroyed Chinese factories and assets in anti-government protests.
The second concern China should have is that it is the very authoritarianism in the region that may make countries more difficult to deal with because decisions can be made unilaterally with no consultation or explanation given. It is possible that such decisions could negatively affect Chinese interests in the region and given the strong arm of government in most of the region, trying to seek redress through legal means would likely be futile. Further, China has branded itself through its non-interference policy. Will this position change if the action of authoritarian governments threaten Chinese investments in the region?
Finally, Zimbabwe provides an important lesson for China. China put all of its eggs in the basket of Mugabe’s autocratic rule. With Mugabe no longer in rule, there is surely concern as to how China will protect its investments and economic position in the country. And this is the fundamental problem with China continuing to interact with openly authoritarian governments; China can never be sure that the next ruler will treat them as well as his predecessor did. Will China be prioritised in Zimbabwe as other economically powerful countries and companies jostle to enter the country?
It will be interesting and see how both the Chinese government and private sector continue to operate in a region of growing autocracy and authoritarianism both of which pose considerable risks to China’s investments in the region.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; email@example.com