Africa-China Loans Facts

This is from a CGD paper by Scott Morris, Brad Parks, and Alysha Gardner:

The World Bank’s portfolio is more concessional than China’s portfolio in every region of the world, and sometimes dramatically so. The overall concessionality of China’s portfolio demonstrates less variation from region-to-region, hovering between 15%-22% in all regions except Europe and Latin America. By contrast, the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio varies widely — from a low of 15% in Latin America to a high of 60% in Sub-Saharan Africa (which is also the region where Chinese lending volumes are highest). The differences between China and the World Bank are most stark in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 60%, China’s portfolio concessionality in the same region is only 22.5% All three measures of lending terms contribute to these differences in portfolio concessionality rates: China consistently has higher interest rates, shorter maturity lengths, and shorter grace periodsconcessionality

Notice that China is neck and neck with the World Bank across Africa, unlike in other regions where Bank lending dominates. What proportion of Chinese lending in Africa are concessional loans?

Whereas the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 60%, China’s portfolio concessionality in the same region is only 22.5% .

Recall that, overall, China is the single largest creditor to developing countries:china creditor

What we should make of African states’ indebtedness to China? A lot of people have opined that China is engaging in debt diplomacy — intentionally trapping African countries with high interest non-concessional loans, after which it will demand all manner of concessions from them (perhaps UN votes, or other forms of assistance in aid of Beijing’s geo-strategic objectives). I have two thoughts on this.

First, the Chinese debt bonanza seen on the Continent over the last two decades was driven, in part, by local demand for infrastructure and other visible and attributable forms of “development.” And yes, intra-elite distributive politics and over-pricing was also involved. And Chinese firms, which often competed against each other, played along, too — perhaps because of the reasons Yuen Yueng Ang describes in her latest book (highly recommended). With this in mind, it is not entirely true to claim that Beijing pushed loans on African states. While it is true that some of the projects were driven more by the quest for kickbacks than for economic reasons, the fact is that individual country dynamics drove the demand for loans and projects. Some of those fit into China’s global geopolitical ambitions (like the Belt and Road Initiative). Others did not. 

Second, let’s think through the debt diplomacy game. Is the idea that China would ruin dozens of African states’ fiscal positions so much so that they would turn to Beijing for bailouts? How many Hambantota’s can China run across Africa? Does Beijing have the fiscal, military, or administrative capacity to do so?

The simple fact is that the use of gunboat diplomacy to settle sovereign debts is no longer kosher within the international system. My guess is that while Beijing certainly was out to buy influence with loans and other commercial relations, it also wanted to make money. Chinese officials were not running around peddling cheap concessional loans (see above). They were out looking for business for Chinese firms and banks. And so to the extent that African countries mismanaged their debt or invested in economically unviable infrastructure projects (even if in collusion with Chinese firms), that is on them.

Moving forward, it is clear that it will be in China’s best interest to make sure that its commercial relations in Africa do not stray too far from general economic viability. A strategic coddling of poor and weak allies will be very costly in the long run (see France in the Sahel). It will also likely turn African public opinion against China. For a long time, majorities of African publics have reported net favorable views of China. But this will most likely change if China morphs from a largely likable development partner building roads, power lines, and water works, to little more than a banker of tinpot tyrants in the business of building white elephants and saddling future generations with debt.

What’s really driving African Students’ enrollment in foreign universities?

The rise in enrollment of African students at non-African universities continues to be a topic of interest in the news media. Much of the discussion presently frames the emerging trends within the geopolitical competition between the West and China and Russia.

Consider this take from the FT on African students in Russia:

Desree is one of 334,000 foreign students enrolled in Russian universities, according to government figures, a cohort that has more than doubled since 2010 as part of a push by Moscow to ramp up a policy that served as an instrument of soft power during the cold war. Russia is vying with Germany and France to be the world’s sixth most popular destination for international students and the second most popular non-English-speaking country after China.

…. Russian universities are teaching 17,000 students from African countries this academic year, up from 6,700 just eight years ago, President Vladimir Putin said at a conference dedicated to Moscow’s African relations in October. Four thousand are supported by scholarships provided by the Russian taxpayer.

Or this on China:

In 2003, less than 2,000 African international students were calling China home, yet a mere thirteen years later, this number had ballooned to around 60,000; a twenty-six fold increase. If one takes 2000 as the starting point, 60,000 represents a forty-four fold increase. As a result, “proportionally, more African students are coming to China each year than students from anywhere in the world.” Whereas the United States leads in raw numbers, with over a million international students compared to less than half that number in China, fully half of all foreign students in the U.S come from just two countries: China and India. In comparison, over sixty African and Asian countries send more students to China than the United States.

While there are certainly incentives (such as scholarships from home or host governments) that push or pull students towards foreign universities, that does not appear to explain all of the surge in African student enrollment abroad. Even within Africa, tertiary enrollment has surged over the last few years. According to The Economist, enrollment in African institutions of higher learning has doubled since 2000 and is projected to grow at an increasing rate into the near future:

In recent decades millions of young people like Mr Bahati have swelled the number of students in sub-Saharan Africa. Today 8m are in tertiary education, a term that includes vocational colleges and universities. That is about 9% of young people—more than double the share in 2000 (4%), but far lower than in other regions (see chart). In South Asia the share is 25%, in Latin America and the Caribbean, 51%.

Both the number and share of young people in tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa will keep growing. The region has about 90m people aged 20-24, a figure projected to double over the next 30 years. Whereas 42% of that age group had completed secondary school in 2012, 59% are forecast to do so by 2030. If African countries are to meet the aspirations of educated young people, they must ensure there are opportunities for further study.

In other words, the observed rise in African enrollment in universities in China, Russia, and elsewhere could be largely due to this unmet excess demand in the region. A look at African enrollment in the US (which has better data and where enrollment has trended upward since 2012) further supports this claim. African enrollment in US universities appear to rise and fall with changes in the economic situation on the Continent (see figures below). Interestingly, there appears to be no lag in the correlation, suggesting that economic conditions largely impact households’ ability to fund their children’s studies abroad (or preparation for the same back home); as opposed to say some structural public under-investment in education during bad economic times. enrollmentincome

In sum, the geopolitical machinations of Beijing and Moscow are only a small part of the story here. The bigger story is the overall increase in demand for higher learning in Africa — driven in no small part by increased primary and secondary enrollment and rising incomes — that is not being met by African universities.

 

The earth might be getting greener

This is from NASA:

greening.png… the greening of the planet over the last two decades represents an increase in leaf area on plants and trees equivalent to the area covered by all the Amazon rainforests. There are now more than two million square miles of extra green leaf area per year, compared to the early 2000s – a 5% increase.

“China and India account for one-third of the greening, but contain only 9% of the planet’s land area covered in vegetation – a surprising finding, considering the general notion of land degradation in populous countries from overexploitation,” said Chi Chen of the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, in Massachusetts, and lead author of the study.

China’s outsized contribution to the global greening trend comes in large part (42%) from programs to conserve and expand forests. These were developed in an effort to reduce the effects of soil erosion, air pollution and climate change. Another 32% there – and 82% of the greening seen in India – comes from intensive cultivation of food crops.

H/T Max Roser

Why did modern nation-states not emerge in China?

This is from Yuhua Wang (highly recommended):

The collapse of the Chinese state in the early twentieth century was surprising. China was a pioneer in state administration: it established one of the world’s most centralized bureaucracies in 221 BCE, two hundred years before the Roman Empire. In the seventh century, it produced a quarter of the world’s GDP (Maddison 2007, 381) and became the first country to use a civil service examination to recruit bureaucrats…

Why, then, did China suffer a dramatic reversal of fortune, given its early bureaucratic development?

… elites’ level of support for state building depends on the geographic span of their social networks. If they must protect a geographically dispersed network, it is more efficient to support state-strengthening policies. These elites have an encompassing interest (Olson 1982, 48). If they need to protect a geographically concentrated network, it is more efficient to rely on private protection and oppose state strengthening. These elites have a narrow interest (Olson 1982, 48).

China…. As the elites’ social networks became localized, they also fragmented; they found it difficult to organize cross regionally. A fragmented elite contributed to a despotic monarchy because it was easier for the ruler to divide and conquer. Historians have noted the shift to imperial despotism during the Song era, as the emperor’s position vis-à-vis his chief advisors was strengthened (Hartwell 1982, 404–405). The trend further deepened when in the late fourteenth century the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty abolished the entire upper echelon of his central government and concentrated power securely in his own hands (Hucker 1998, 74–75). This explains the increasing security of Chinese rulers [see image].

The despotic monarchy and the narrow interest elite became a self-enforcing equilibrium: the rulers were secure, while the elite used the state to protect their local interests and enjoyed their autonomy. Yet this arrangement led to the gradual decline of the Chinese state.

There are so many parallels to the challenges to state-building in Africa throughout the piece (many of which were documented by Catherine Boone in the excellent Political Topographies of the African State).

Read the whole thing here.

About 12% of ships around the world fly the Liberian flag

This is from The Economist:

Over 4,400 vessels (about 12% of global shipping) fly its flag. And the number is growing.

How did this happen?

The secret of this maritime success is an old practice known as the flag of convenience. In the 1920s shipowners began to register their vessels abroad for a small fee. This allowed them to avoid taxes and labour laws back home. Liberia had few regulations and made it easy to sign up. By the 1960s it had the largest merchant navy in the world.

Read the whole thing here.

Apparently, the government of Liberia makes over $20m a year from its shipping registry.

Two of the “unique advantages” cited on the registry’s website include:

Vessel Construction – The Liberian Registry does not require vessels to be constructed by a particular nation. The supplies for construction and outfitting are also free from similar restrictions. Without this type of protectionism, shipowners are allowed to search and solicit shipbuilders solely on commercial considerations, such as competence, experience, and price.

Vessel Manning – Manning requirements specified by the Liberian Registry are based exclusively on competence, international recognition and safe operation. Many national registries require manning by citizens of the country of registry. This promotes higher wages, inflated labour costs and overheads, excessive bureaucracy, and the potential for interference from organized labour.

The Liberian Registry is headquartered in Dulles, Virginia in the United States.

Since its inception, the Liberian Registry has been operated from the United States. In fact, the U.S. structure and principles governing the Administration of the Liberian Registry are embedded into Liberian law. Pursuant to these statutes, the Registry must be principally operated from the U.S. and managed by international maritime professionals for the benefit of the people of Liberia. The strong U.S. – Liberia alliance provides the Registry with the ability to participate in the international arena with key industry institutions.

A good read on potential US responses to ever-deepening Africa-China relations

This is from Aubrey Hruby, one of the sharpest minds on Africa-US business relations:

For American companies to compete properly in African markets, the administration needs to take a broader look at capital flows into African markets and the diversifying forms of Chinese commercial engagement. This report argues for a broadening of the competitive lens beyond infrastructure and seeks to provide a more comprehensive framework for examining China’s commercial interests in Africa. It presents two models through which policy makers can understand recent developments in the region. The first describes the G2G nature of Chinese infrastructure financing, summarizing the mechanisms by which Chinese state-owned enterprises typically secure contracts, and contrasts it with the government-to-business (G2B) structure of US development finance. Secondly, the brief analyzes US investment in African markets across capital flows, and notes the rising competition from Chinese firms in each category.

Read the whole thing here.

Here is Hruby talking with Eric & Cobus on The China in Africa Podcast.

Trends in trade and influence in Africa

Here are some interesting figures from the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Between 2010 and 2017 trade between African states and China rose from $91.2b to $165.4b. For the U.S. total trade volume contracted from $80.3b to $36.7b (admittedly some of this driven by declining oil prices). All major Western countries saw a decline in their trade volume with the Continent.

trade trendsGermany is the only major Western country that saw its trade volume with African states increase over the same period.

These figures also underscore the recent narrowing of the Red Sea – with Gulf states pushing for ever closer ties with African governments. A lot of focus has been on the geopolitical aspects of this shift (with Qatar and Turkey jostling for influence vs Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states). But as the trade data suggest, trade is also an important feature of the evolving Afro-Arabia relations.

Overall, it is likely that African states’ economic policies and regulations, as well as votes at the UN, will shift to reflect the changes in the strength of the Continent’s trade links.

More on this here.

Japan is trying to stem the decline of its economic influence on Continent with a new joint insurance product with African Trade Insurance Agency and a Saudi bank. The U.S. is about to launch the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation.

 

China & Civic Architecture in Africa

China just finished a 150 million Yuan four-year project to build Burundi a new presidential palace in Bunjumbura. This is but one of many installments of China’s ongoing influences on civic architecture on the Continent. The Burundian presidential palace is grand, and sitting on an elevation appears to have been designed to project the occupant’s power. While likely not the best use of that much money in Burundi, it is an important investment in the physical manifestation of Burundian stateness.

Other major civic buildings on the continent funded and (to be) built by China include the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, and Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar.

dakarmuseum.jpg

The Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal

Concerns over costs (and espionage) aside, one of the under-appreciated effects of Sino-Africa relations in China’s continuing influence on African architecture. From train stations, to hotels, to high-rise apartment blocks, to libraries, China’s influence is making an indelible mark on Africa’s landscape. At the moment much of this appears to be cut-and-paste jobs with little, if any, African influence. But it is ineluctable that over time many of these foreign designs will be infused with local sensibilities and tastes in the continuing process of architectural evolution on the Continent (no more fake marble and chandeliers please!).

It is fair to say that the state of civic architecture in many African states is wanting. Many civic structures exist as physical embodiments of the malaise afflicting the African state.  The last golden age of public buildings died with the independence generation. The era’s designs focused on function, but also the implicit desire to project state power — Dar es Salaam’s austere public buildings with their long hallways and exposure to the elements (for ventilation) quickly come to mind. The economic crises of the long decade (1980-1995) virtually stalled much of the region’s architectural evolution as far as civic buildings were concerned.

The current iteration of Sino-African relations is changing this. More capitals (sub-national, national and regional) are seeing the construction of civic buildings befitting their stature. The influence of these developments will likely travel beyond their aesthetic impacts on Africa’s architectural landscape. Civic buildings are also monuments to the idea of the state.

 

Is China Doomed to Fail in Africa?

This is from Wilson VornDick, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, writing in the National Interest: 

It is unclear whether China could handle the financial repercussions of a larger, more systemic default or debt-forgiveness program across the African continent. Seeking relief, debtors to China would likely overwhelm existing mechanisms, like international arbitration, or China-backed forums such as the Export-Import Bank of China , China Development Bank , and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . More importantly, debt restructuring, recoupment, and, in the more extreme case, seizure may not be viable, reasonable, or sustainable for Chinese interests or presence continent-wide. Just such a dire economic scenario might push China to use its nascent military force to protect or even seize its interests. Looking back at the previous period of Great Power Competition more than a century ago, leveraging military might to force repayment was commonplace. The U.S. military made multiple incursions into Caribbean and South American nations as did the Western powers in Africa and Asia.

It is reasonable to assume that China would have little or no experience in any dire economic contagion across Africa. The one primary example, the take-over of Hambantota Port, was an isolated incident during calmer times, before the financial uncertainty stoked by a slowing global economy or the current U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, the port takeover has now become a watershed moment in Chinese behavior that has attracted significant international scrutiny and ire.

More broadly, VornDick articulates the potential merits (from a U.S. standpoint) of a “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy as part of Washington’s Great Power global competition with Beijing. The whole argument is worth a read.

A glaring omission in VornDick’s analysis, however, is the interests and roles of Africans in this whole game (note that this is a gap in the “China-in-Africa” genre more generally).

chinafricaA key weakness that I see in the “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy is that it vastly underestimates the extent to which Africans will be willing to work hand in hand with China to make the Sino-African relationship work.

China’s forays in Africa is creating complex tapestries of personal and institutional relationships that will become ever harder to undo. For example, in both electoral democracies and autocracies in the region, citizens have come to expect political elites to provide public goods — many of them financed and built by China. Demands for more of the same will likely only get stronger. The desire to secure funding for more public goods will likely push African elites even closer to Beijing. Furthermore, at a time when the U.S. is working hard to signal that Africans are not welcome on its shores, tens of thousands of African students are earning degrees in Chinese universities. Many of these students will probably go back to their respective countries and maintain ties with Chinese business and academic contacts. These kinds of investments in soft power will matter in the long run.

Global diplomacy is not just about crass material interests. It is also about values and shared commitments to respectful mutual cooperation. If African elites become convinced that they are better off bandwagoning with China, they will do so.

And most importantly, having made that choice, they will make specific investments (whether deliberately or not) to make their nations ever more closely allied with China. They will adopt specific technologies. Establish specific market relationships. Acquire specific weapons systems. And yes, more of their students will learn Chinese and go on to earn degrees in China. The closer the military, economic and “soft” ties, the more African elites will be willing to make costly investments in order to ensure that their respective states’ relationships with China work.

A good lesson in this regard is francafrique. The relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa is not winning any awards soon. But for almost six decades African elites have remained committed to the relationship and worked to give the French military free rein in the region and French firms access to vast natural resources. The French state, in turn, has worked to prop up the same elites despite massive economic and political failings.

The point is: China’s failure in Africa (if it comes to pass) is not what will determine the future of Sino-African relations. What happens before any such failure will likely matter more.

Here’s why African states value their economic and political ties with China

This is from an excellent essay by  in Foreign Policy:

…. when former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised a cautionary alarm for Africans to be wary of Chinese predatory investments just a few months ago, his lecturing tone did not go over well. Many African leaders reacted negatively to the underlying assumption that they were not qualified to figure out profitable from predatory investments on their own.

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio rebuked the warning as misguided, saying, “We are not fools in Africa. … At difficult times, when we needed help most, China was there for us.”

The expansion of Confucius Institutes across Africa is another part of the push worth engaging with. With more than 50 Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language, as well as the Communist Party’s version of Chinese history and culture, more and more Africans have the chance to study Chinese and travel to China on cultural scholarships. In 2015, approximately 50,000 African students attended Chinese universities, compared with 40,000 in the United States and the United Kingdom. Elementary and middle schools in several African countries are now offering Mandarin as a foreign language.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing.

H/T Judd Devermont

Are Metros Overrated?

This is from a story in The Guardian:

The ITDP bemoans Africa’s obsession with metros. Lagos in Nigeria – the largest city in the world without a functioning mass transit system – has been trying to build a metro since the 1980s. In the latest of many incarnations, the project was supposed to begin operations in 2012 at a cost of $2.4bn (£1.9bn). Six years after the supposed start date, construction is “nowhere near complete”, says Kost.

Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, began construction of a metro last year. The French-financed and -built line is projected to carry 500,000 passengers a day at a cost of $1.7bn. Dar es Salaam’s bus system, by contrast, has capacity for 400,000 people and cost less than a 10th of that – about $150m.

Addis Ababa in Ethiopia opened a Chinese-built and -operated light rail line last year at a cost of $475m. Shenzhen Metro Group has a deal to run it for the first five years.screen shot 2019-01-09 at 4.03.54 pm“With a metro, an international firm will often just parachute in its own system,” says Kost. “Bus rapid transit allows existing stakeholders to get involved. That’s what we did in Dar es Salaam and what we’re planning in Nairobi, where the bus bodies will be built in the city and local operators will look after tickets, fare collection and IT. It’s good for the development of the local economy.”

Regular readers know that I have a bias for Kost’s argument. Read the whole thing here.

H/T Dina Pomeranz.

How can African governments increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis China?

Folashade Soule has answers.

First, a reminder that African governments are not uniformly bad at negotiating with China:

….when you look closely at what happens on the ground, some African countries are much better at negotiating with the Chinese than others. Railway projects in East Africa appear to be a good example. In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway is the largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. China Eximbank provided most of the finance for the first phase – 472 kilometres of track between Nairobi and Mombasa – at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, an electric train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which is also Chinese-financed, opened two years ago. The cost for this more expensive type of railway was US$3.4 billion – for 756 kilometres. Kenya claims that its railway cost more for reasons like the terrain and the need to carry higher volumes of cargo. At the same time, however, many believe other issues to have been at play – including failures around the negotiation process.

Second, there are Soule’s suggested remedies:

Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.

Empower negotiators: The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside: China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the US in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

Increase knowledge: African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

I fully agree.

While it is true that China has geopolitical ambitions in Africa, a lot of Chinese infrastructure plays in Africa are commercial in nature. It is in China’s interest that these projects succeed. That means that African governments could get better deals (in terms of value for money) by doing their homework (on Chinese politics and commercial and institutional architectures) before chasing the money. Similarly, public opinion presents a potential bargaining chip — (the threats of ) transparency and robust public participation should force Beijing’s hand in settling for better deals (from the perspective of African governments). 

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that African elites get loans from China to finance infrastructure projects; as opposed to dreaming up projects in order to get loans that then find their way into private bank accounts. 

Read the whole thing here.

H/T Zainab Usman.

Claims About “Good” Institutions

This is from Yuen Yuen Ang’s excellent book on How China Escaped the Poverty Trap:

When foreign experts enter developing contexts and insist that there is one standard of good institutions — namely, that found in wealthy societies — this by itself imposes a lethal impediment against localized adaptation. Imagine “good governance” in medieval European communes being measured according to how closely they approximated institutions in the future. Then imagine foreign consultants dispensing praise and conditional aid to these European communes based on how well they score in good governance alongside contemporary countries; such an index would be titled “Worldwide and Timeless Governance Indicators” (WTGI). Further imagine medieval commune leaders and merchants being herded into classrooms to be taught about the technicalities of replicating institutions from the future in their current communities. Could this be an environment that empowers medieval actors to improvise fitting solutions for the needs of their time?

Highly recommended.

What exactly is China up to in Africa?

Leading Afro-Chinese relations scholar Deborah Brautigam has a great piece over at the Washington Post:

On Chinese imported labor in Africa:

Surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local. This makes business sense. In China, textile workers now earn about $500 a month — far more than workers in most African countries. Chinese investors flocking to set up factories in low-cost countries like Ethiopia are not thinking about importing Chinese workers. Like U.S. and European factory owners who moved their factories to China in past decades, Chinese firms are now outsourcing their own manufacturing to cheaper countries.

On Chinese loans to African states:

… In Africa, we found that China had lent at least $95.5 billion between 2000 and 2015. That’s a lot of debt. Yet by and large, the Chinese loans in our database were performing a useful service: financing Africa’s serious infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure.

On alleged Chinese land grabs:

… the total amount of land actually acquired by Chinese firms was only about 240,000 hectares: 4 percent of the reported amount.

I like to remind my students of the qualitative difference of the “Chinese model” of resource exploitation in Africa.

Previously, Exxon, Elf and other Western resource sector firms would pay African leaders in cash, most of which wound up in Swiss banks, property in southern France, and various tax havens outside the Continent. This was, if you will, the “Western model” of resource exploitation in Africa.

afrobarometerEnter the Chinese. Their model is to pay for resources both in cash and in kind. African leaders still get cash that they can stash abroad. But they also get roads, railways, stadia, hospitals, water works, among other infrastructure investments. And more recently Chinese firms have begun to invest in actual factories — most notably in Ethiopia. It is no wonder that a majority of Africans have a favorable view of China (see image).

Some of these projects produced sub-standard structures (in the recent past the quality has gone up). And the level of indebtedness of African states as a result should concern every sane person. But this arrangement is orders of magnitude better than useless capacity building workshops and janus-faced democracy promotion on the back of rapacious pillaging with little public investments to show for it.

Finally, the inability of African states to negotiate reasonable deals with Beijing is on African political and economic elites. The Chinese have every right to rationally push for the best deals they can get. And if they are smart, they will also work to avoid future defaults by not overstepping their bounds.

To paraphrase a Mozambican diplomat at a recent event here on campus, Africans are too smart to allow themselves to be recolonized by the Chinese.

Xi’s power grab in China is a big deal

Regularized and predictable change of leadership is perhaps the most important indicator of political development. It doesn’t matter if such changes occur through popular elections (as in electoral democracies), boardroom meetings (in party dictatorships), or through inheritance (as in monarchies). Predictability provides stability and allows for the cultivation of elite consensus over a system of rule. It also provides the background conditions necessary for the rule of law to emerge. A situation in which rules change with rulers is hostile to constitutionalism.

jinpingThis is precisely why life presidencies are sub-optimal. Long tenures eventually convince even the most democratic of leaders that they are above the law. They freeze specific groups of elites out of power. And remove incentives for those in power to be accountable and to innovate.

For a while China seemed to have turned this corner, having imposed term limits on its state presidents. But President Xi Jinping has thrown that consensus out the window with the announcement that he plans to scrap term limits and presumably stay on as president indefinitely. 

This is a big deal. Xi has revealed to us that he is no different than Yoweri Museveni.

Who would have guessed that in the 21st century we would be back to a situation in which the world’s biggest economy has life presidents, and occasionally goes through unpredictable transfers of power? Certainly, the coup risk in China is likely to go up under a life presidency. And the demonstration effect to other autocracies will be huge. Remember that even Vladimir Putin had to engage in questionable institutional jujitsu by allowing his wingman to be president in order not to flout the Russian constitution.

global_tenuremean.pngXi’s China is a reminder of that political development is not uni-directional. It is also a caution against trust that elites’ material interests are a bulwark against would-be personalist dictators. China’s economy is booming (albeit at a slower rate of growth), and continues to mint dollar billionaires. Yet the country’s political and economic elites appear helpless in the face of a single man who is bent on amassing unchecked power (the same happens in democracies with “strong western institutions”, too).

Globally, the annual average of the number of years in office for heads of governments has been on decline since the mid-1980s (see graph). Perhaps we were due for a correction, like happened in the mid-1920s. May be this time we will be lucky enough to avoid the messes that followed in the subsequent two decades (the fact that China appears to be a revisionist world power is not a great sign).

Finally, it is remarkable that even after being around for thousands of years China hasn’t figured a system of stable, regularized transfer of power that lasts for centuries. May be it is the curse of being a big country. Or may be this is just how politics works. It really does put in perspective the achievements of a number of African countries that appear to have consolidated term limits within a few decades of existence.