Since the administration of the leader of the Chinese regime, Xi Jinping, began the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project around the world, at least 40 African countries have pinned their hopes for development on it.
However, after several years of interaction, the results have not been as expected, and, consequently, complaints and protests from the civilian population characterize this relationship.
Research published in last year’s European Economic Review revealed that regions hosting Chinese-led projects are the most likely to generate protests. The authors described, “Further, our analysis suggests that citizens’ heightened perception of China’s rising influence on the domestic economy and lowered trust in the local government are two channels through which projects might motivate local protests.”
These factors diminish citizens’ trust in their government institutions, prompting them to protest rather than vote. Moreover, the same analysis confirms that trust in local government decreases in areas with a higher number of Chinese projects.
Protests over Beijing’s incursion into Africa
In countries such as Angola, Ghana, Gambia, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been demonstrations against Chinese-funded projects.
The protests are mainly motivated by the effects of neo-colonization, the impact on natural resources, culture, human rights, and the countries’ independence influenced by the projects.
The substantial incursion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not only commercial but also ideological. For example, it financed the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania with $40 million.
Its inauguration was attended by Tanzania’s president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, and several leaders of neighboring countries on Feb. 23.
This school is to train political party officials in Southern Africa in the communist model applied by the Chinese regime.
The leadership school sparked controversy. Mandira Bagwandeen, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town, spoke out about the ideological advance of the CCP in Africa.
Bagwandeen reported that Beijing has been trying to spread aspects of its “socialism with Chinese characteristics” among African elites.
Expanding on the context, she noted that it had established links with more than 600 political parties and organizations in hundreds of countries and regions.
She added: “… the CCP cultivates support and consent for Beijing’s international ambitions and seeks to build all-weather friendships.”
Bagwandeen said, “… by cultivating closer ties with foreign political elites and organizations, China (through its checkbook diplomacy) also ensures that many countries turn a blind eye to some of its egregious domestic policies and support its One-China policy.”
“Checkbook diplomacy” means a foreign policy that abuses economic aid and investment between countries to curry diplomatic favor.
Similarly, African political commentator, Andrew Bomani, said about the leadership school: “I must confess the inauguration left me with a bitter aftertaste at the fad that has taken root in Africa whereby Chinese assistance is sought in areas that should be our own source of pride. How is it that our countries lack the wherewithal to develop an institution geared towards honoring our very own luminary?”
On the other hand, Western countries criticize China’s attempt to acquire “soft power” (gain economic and cultural power without coercion) on the African continent with its compromising investments and loans.
They argue that it could undermine good governance and human rights. In a sense, the citizens’ protests could be taken as a confirmation of these predictions.
From the long list of protests, just a few are taken. For example, in the Kenyan archipelago of Lamu, residents and local businesses blocked a proposed coal-fired power plant by Chinese companies because it would harm the local tourism industry.
Also, in The Gambia, the population rose up against Chinese fish processors, which dumped their waste into nearby nature reserves, affecting the local fishing industry and the environment.
In another case, in 2012, Zambian workers protested against low wages and dangerous working conditions in mines run by Chinese companies, even killing a Chinese manager.
It is to be considered that Chinese funding tends to be used by local elites to pursue their interests and obtain many personal benefits.
It is also assumed to lead to a lack of transparency in loan conditions, giving local political leaders more power to allocate unnecessary and excessive resources to projects.
Trade between Africa and China increased by 23% to $64.8 billion in 2021 in the first quarter. In this case, Chinese companies imported $29.7 billion, while exports to Africa were $35.16 billion, revealing an advantage for Beijing in the balance of payments.
In this regard, China’s Mission to the African Union boasted of having outperformed the United States, saying: “even under the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, China-Africa trade has been resilient … which has surpassed the total value of U.S.-Africa trade for 202.”
Exports by Chinese regime-linked companies to Africa amounted to more than $113 billion in 2019, but China received $95.5 billion in imports, generating a trade deficit of nearly $18 billion for African economies.
The Chinese regime’s imports consist of raw materials and natural resources, such as minerals and metals, including copper and lithium.
For example, it obtains oil from Angola and most of its cobalt, an essential component of batteries for electric vehicles, smartphones, tablets, and laptops, from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
As a result of raw materials imported from Africa: “China’s output of solar cells and new energy vehicles increased by 24.3% and 140.8%, respectively, year-on-year,” noted the CCP’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Additionally, Beijing buys African agricultural products such as chilies, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, and spices. Also, soybeans from Tanzania, avocados, tea, coffee, and roses from Kenya, coffee and soybeans from Ethiopia, meat products from Namibia and Botswana, and fruit from South Africa.
Meanwhile, Teresa Nogueira Pinto, an expert on African affairs, reported a significant shift in Beijing’s approach to the continent: “The focus is now less on infrastructure and loans and more on trade,” Pinto said.
Is China’s economic growth sinking?
China’s economic backdrop, however, is not without concern for international entities and their trading partners, including BRI-linked countries.
Although the CCP announced an annual growth target of “around 5.5%”, the French bank Natixis estimates that China’s economic growth this year will be 4.2%, according to its recent forecasts.
These forecasts are corroborated by multinational banks, Goldman Sachs, Citi, J.P. Morgan, and Morgan Stanley, which put growth for the world’s second-largest economy at between 4% and 4.3%.
Moreover, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang admitted: “Under the influence of new coronavirus outbreaks and changes in the international situation, among other unexpected factors, some economic indicators have weakened significantly since March, especially in April.”
Author Kandy Wong said, “Major indicators measuring the state of the world’s second largest economy fell short of expectations in data released on Monday, May 16, with industrial production, retail sales, fixed-asset investment and the surveyed jobless rate falling to their weakest levels in more than two years.”
All indications are that domestic political pressures add urgency to the situation, which is also apparent in part of Li Keqiang’s speech. He said, “All localities and departments should step up their sense of urgency, and new measures that can be used should be used.”
Predictably, this urgency is marked by the decisive political event expected later this year—the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China.
Against this backdrop, unemployment was 6.1% in April, the highest level since March 2020 and the second-highest reading since 2018.
Also, the hardest-hit segment of the population is 16-24-year-olds, which reached a record high of 18.2% last month. Moreover, circumstances are expected to worsen in a labor market that will increase with 10.76 million college graduates this year.
BRI project investments dry up
As for the projected investments for the BRI project, a sharp decline is noticeable, reaching almost exhaustion. Chinese investments in the 138 BRI-linked countries fell 54% from 2019 to $47 billion last year, the lowest amount since the BRI was introduced in 2013.
In Africa, with at least 40 countries linked, Chinese bank financing for infrastructure projects fell from $11 billion in 2017 to $3.3 billion in 2020, according to a report by international law firm Baker McKenzie reported by Reuters in November.
An example of truncated projects is evident in Kenya, where there was not enough money for the 620-mile ultra-fast rail link from the port of Mombasa to Uganda. It ends abruptly in the countryside, 290 miles from the border. Kenya has already spent some $5 billion on its new rail link but lacks the $3.7 billion needed to complete it. The last station can only be reached by dirt roads.
Analysts and academics attribute the slowdown to Beijing’s waning appetite for significant foreign investments and the slump in commodity prices.
These factors make repayment of African debt difficult and have also played a role in the reluctance of some borrowers to enter into loan agreements backed by their natural resources.
“We are not in the go-go period anymore dwindling somewhat,” Adam Tooze, a historian at Columbia University, said of China’s overseas investment projects. And he added that Beijing’s current account surplus was “shrinking a bit.”
This affected governments planning to borrow money from China to build their planned infrastructure projects.
Thus, the delays complicated other BRI projects, such as a $3 billion railroad in Nigeria and a $450 million highway in Cameroon. The highway should link the capital, Yaoundé, with the economic center of Douala. Although China Eximbank secured financing in 2012, it stalled in 2019, when it stopped disbursing the money.
The African Development Bank estimates an annual infrastructure investment shortfall of about $100 billion. The declines in CCP funding also impacted other countries.
According to a September study, $11.58 billion in projects were canceled in Malaysia last year. Reuters noted that in Kazakhstan, almost $1.5 billion in projects, and more than $1 billion in Bolivia, were withdrawn.
Growing frustration in BRI countries
Meanwhile, a new study revealed that the opposition is growing in BRI countries, and debts are piling up, paving the way for potential rivals.
AidData, a U.S. research lab, said, “A growing number of policymakers in low-and middle-income countries are mothballing high profile BRI projects because of overpricing, corruption and debt sustainability concerns,” according to Brad Parks, one of the study’s authors.
He added that local disenchantment makes it difficult for participating countries to maintain close relations with Beijing.
Thus, “buyer’s remorse” is evident in countries as far away as Kazakhstan, Costa Rica, and Cameroon.
At the same time, the risks for countries faced with the size of debts owed to the Chinese regime are increasing, with Chinese debt exceeding 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) in many low-and middle-income countries.
The survey revealed that 35% of the Belt and Road projects had problems with corruption, labor violations, environmental pollution, and public protests.
Another aggravating circumstance is that several countries have lost critical national infrastructure due to so-called “debt traps,” for which Beijing is blamed.
Thus, the Chinese regime’s funding cuts could signal the decline of its presence in Africa.
In this context, Parks commented on the initiative announced in June by the United States and generated by the G7 partnership of countries known as Build Back Better World (B3W).
This project would focus on providing financial assistance to developing nations to build infrastructure. “B3W is going to increase choice in the infrastructure financing market, which could lead to some high-profile BRI defections,” Parks said.
Thus, the U.S. would be taking advantage of the frustrations with Beijing to strengthen its presence in African countries.
In November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Nigeria, “Too often, international infrastructure agreements are opaque, coercive; they burden countries with unmanageable debt.”
He added, referring to those nations without mentioning the CCP, “they are destructive to the environment; they don’t always benefit the people who live there,” Blinken said, “We will do things differently.”
The head of the British Secret Intelligence Service warned that Beijing uses money to “hook people,” corroborating Blinken’s assessment and why African countries are rebelling against the Chinese regime.