China in Africa: An Image Makeover is Underway

Dr. Veda Vaidyanathan, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

It was late afternoon in Ethiopia, I scrambled onto a bus filled with University students and found a seat at the back, near the window. As the bus meandered through traffic in Addis Ababa, the noises of the city was drowned out by the loud Amharic music playing on the radio. A young girl wanted to know why Indian women wore bindi’s – when I handed her a few packets from my reserve gift collection – she asked me if I could give her Bollywood DVD’s instead. An hour or two into our drive, the bus slowed down, trudged uphill and finally stopped. Without a groan or complaint, people picked up their bags and began to alight. “We need to get off the bus and walk to the top of the hill”, someone explained as he walked past.

There we were- in the stunning Ethiopian countryside, a horde of people, some quiet others singing, making our way to the top of the hill. “Does this happen every time?” I asked the student accompanying me for the trip. “Oh yes, it’s a Chinese bus.” He replied matter-of-factly. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prodded. “Oh its terrible quality, it has a weak engine, the chairs and the cushions will come off soon too” he replied grinning. I asked him why we did not take another bus, one which had a stronger engine perhaps, “but there aren’t any other buses” he responded.

As we reached the last hairpin bend, there were large Chinese characters painted on a granite wall. As I stopped to take a picture, they explained that the well-laid tar road was new and built by a Chinese company. It used to be a narrow, uneven dirt road, dangerous during the rains and it took a lot of time to reach the villages on the top.  As we spoke, a woman in a beautiful white habesha kemi walked beside us carrying a pot of water. That journey, I assume, from the water source at the bottom of the hill to the top, was made easier by the broad winding new road.

Many instances like these provided a glimpse into the layered and complicated perception of China in Africa today. As Chinese migrants and companies make their presence felt across the cityscapes and country sides, the African attitude about them is quietly evolving. While acknowledging that Chinese exports to Africa are of inferior quality or that working conditions in Chinese companies are harsh or frustration with Chinese bosses who don’t take into account local sensibilities- conversations with young Africans in Kenya, Ethiopia and beyond highlight a palpable unease. However despite a range of criticism levelled against Chinese firms and violence targeting Chinese managers, most often than not- China is viewed as a provider of options. Sure, the Chinese bus was sub-standard, but at least there was a road and a bus!

Afrobarometer- a pan African, nonpartisan research network conducted a survey in 2016 of 36 African countries about China in Africa and concluded that “Africans rank the United States and China No. 1 and 2, respectively, as development models for their own countries.” Interestingly, in three of five African regions, “China either matches or surpasses the United States in popularity as a development model.” Additionally, “In terms of their current influence, the two countries are outpaced only by Africa’s former colonial powers.”

This shift in perception is by no means abrupt; Africa has been on China’s foreign policy radar with a twenty eight year old tradition of the Chinese foreign minister visiting Africa, in addition to a range of senior officials regularly travelling to the continent. Development Reimagined, the first Kenyan wholly foreign owned enterprise in China, recently published their first infographic on Chinese leaders traveling to Africa. According to their study, the Chinese leadership has made 79 visits to 43 different African countries over the past 10 years and no other country can match this degree of diplomatic exchange with countries in the continent.

Beyond the Chinese ‘Charm Offensive’, data from the AidData dataset – curated by a research lab at the College of William & Mary – point out that seven of the top 10 recipients of Chinese Aid are in Africa. They also drew attention to the fact that contrary to popular perception, Chinese ODA generally goes to poorer countries and it does not appear to go disproportionately to authoritarian or corrupt regimes in the continent.

In addition to Aid, since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and in 2016, bilateral trade between China and Africa was valued at USD149.1 billion, Chinese non-financial direct investment in the continent amounted to USD3 billion and the contractual value of newly signed contracted projects reached USD65.2 billion.

The language utilized by China while crafting its policies for Africa have strong moralistic undertones indicating selflessness and altruism. While some Chinese scholars agree with this premise, others insist that it is a mutually beneficial ‘win-win partnership’. African scholars remain divided with some viewing China as having increased their options, while others remain wary of their increasing influence.

Regardless of the motivations, fact remains that a new generation of Africans are becoming increasingly comfortable with a powerful China and the ‘China model’ of growth and development. Not only has China has become the most popular destination for Anglophone African students studying abroad, there are over 40 Confucius Institutes (CI) in Africa. A recent Quartz report mentioned that at a Mandarin speaking proficiency test conducted in Lusaka, a Zambian student was asked what her dream was, and she claimed “Wode mengxiang shi Zhongguo” (“My dream is China”). This acceptance of China and aspiration to be like China, the result of years of Beijing’s proactive engagement in the continent, could perhaps be one of the biggest successes for China in its contemporary foreign policy.


Wang Qishan: Xi Jinping’s Man Friday

Bhim B. Subba, Research Associate, Institute of Chinese Studies

On 17th March 2018 Wang Qishan got elected as the Vice-President of PRC succeeding Li Yuanchao. This is major political news. Wang, 69 who resigned from the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 19th National Party Congress in October 2017 polled 2969 votes in the total of 2980 deputies and making a comeback indicates a boost to Xi Jinping’s power. At the sidelines of the lianghui- ‘two meetings,’ the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – Xi emphasised that ‘human talent’ as  one of the ‘Three Firsts’ in Xi Jinping Thought (人才是第一资源 rencai shi di yi ziyuan). He was almost certainly referring to bringing Wang Qishan as state vice-president, a ‘special talent’ which Xi did not want to waste and which can help him maintain his grip on party’s anti-corruption campaign and control over the 1.39 billion strong party-state.

Although Wang’s continuation as a PBSC member was much debated in the run-up to the party congress in fall 2017, his non-selection as a Central Committee member was not surprising. The party adhering to the ‘7-up-8-down’ principle (七上八下 qi shang ba xia) led to retirement of all  PBSC members above 68 years. But with Xi’s continuing emphasis on party building ( 党建设dang jianshe) and anti-corruption campaign (反腐败运动 fan fubai yundong), a trusted lieutenant like Wang Qishan became indispensable for Xi Jinping. Hence, what better than Wang becoming a ‘deputy’ occupying the state vice-president’s post, a ceremonial position. With Wang, the position becomes a power centre to reckon with in the coming future. It is also speculated that Wang is attending closed-door PBSC deliberations even after his retirement. Thus, getting elected as a National People’s Congress (NPC) deputy from Hunan and a member of the 190-member NPC Presidium, Wang’s elevation as Xi’s deputy was on the cards. Wang’s seating position in the NPC presidium was a clear message of Wang’s comeback. Recently, he was also among the select few Chinese leaders who met with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when the latter had a secret visit to Beijing.

 From ‘Worker-Peasant-Soldier Student’ to Financial Honcho!

Wang Qishan, a Shanxi native, who joined the CPC in 1983 was also a ‘sent down youth’ during the Cultural Revolution. A student of modern history, he did everything but history when he joined the Rural Development Research Center after becoming a party member. He was one of the early beneficiaries of the reform period’s ‘successors training program’ where scores of young elites were recruited in the party-state echelons. Marrying Yao Mingshan (姚明珊),daughter of Yao Yilin, a conservative vice-premier under Zhao Ziyang, Wang’s political career rose steadily as pioneer of rural and agriculture reforms.

Later, Wang headed prominent national banks including as a governor of China Construction Bank (1994-97) and vice-governor of People’s Bank of China (1993-94). He was also instrumental in establishing China International Capital Corp (CICC) China’s first investment bank and served in Zhu Rongji’s cabinet. Even in the Hu-Wen era, Wang’s financial acumen was employed in negotiating the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue post-2008 financial crisis. Given that they are old US hands, President Xi can also delegate to the Wang Qishan and Liu He combine in engaging with the US especially after Trump’s call for trade war with China.

China’s Crisis Man to Anti-Corruption Czar

Wang’s new position as deputy to Xi also shows how these two individuals’ careers led them to working together in Beijing. Wang Qishan was appointed as the vice-mayor of Beijing post-2004 SARS outbreak, when he successfully helped the state machinery to check the deadly epidemic then referred to as ‘China’s Chernobyl.’ However, it was in mid-2000s when Xi was state vice president and Wang Qishan was Beijing City Mayor in-charge of preparations for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics that their friendship flourished and they shared an amicable working relationship. As PBSC members in 2012, their partnership led to the party rectification through anti-corruption campaign. Since then, Wang  has become Xi’s ‘fire brigade chief’ (救火队长 jiuhuo duizhang)   or ‘samasya nivarak.’

With a trusted confidant like Wang, Xi has successfully sidelined many of his political detractors. Investigations against Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Sun Zhengcai were more dealt within the ambit of anti-party activities than in the form of political persecution. From 2012-17, from the party-centre to local levels, and in state agencies, SOEs and in financial institutions, the anti-graft campaigns have been successful in snaring many ‘tigers’ and flies. In 2017, alone 160,000 officials were investigated for graft and party indiscipline.

The amendment of the PRC constitution to remove term limits for the President and Vice-President at the 13th National People’s Congress recently, reinforced both Xi and Wang as the No 1 and 2 in the power hierarchy. Wang’s comeback as Xi’s ‘trouble-shooter’ must be closely watched especially after Xi’s becoming a so-called people’s leader’ (人民领袖renmin lingxiu). One needs to ponder who the ‘crisis man’ represents — Xi’s Man Friday or the party-state’s? The larger question however, is of how Xi will address this ‘revolving door’ appointment of a once retired party colleague and the ramifications to Chinese elite politics in coming years.




Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimizes Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system.

As the National People’s Congress in China cleared a constitutional amendment on Sunday allowing President Xi Jinping to remain president for life, here is a look at Xi’s closest confidante and politburo member Wang Huning, who is also known to be the brain behind President Xi.

Wang has been speechwriter and ideologue to three successive General Secretaries of the CPC –- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi. Many key concepts for these three leaders have been fashioned and refined under Wang’s watch in the Party’s Central Policy Research Office since 2002 and later as a member of the Central Secretariat.

Indeed, one might wonder if China’s – and President Xi Jinping’s — slow turn towards a more assertive stance has not been influenced also by Wang’s personal ideological proclivities conveyed through the mouths of China’s leaders.

In practical terms, Wang Huning is to Xi Jinping what Amit Shah is to Narendra Modi. If Shah’s job is to help Modi do the electoral math and draw up strategies to win elections, it is Wang’s job to help create the narrative that legitimises Xi Jinping in power in an authoritarian system Continue reading “Wang Huning: China’s Amit Shah”

Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

What does the removal of term limits for the Xi Jinping presidency in China mean for the developing world and, in particular, for South Asia?

One possibility is there could be a demonstration effect. China’s decades-long rapid economic growth has been a source of envy and inspiration for many countries in the developing world. Some like Vietnam, for instance, have used China as a model in launching its own opening up and reforms process. Other countries, including many in South Asia, have seen Beijing as an alternative to the West for financial resources and capital.

With Xi’s latest move, an ambitious autocrat could try to sell the idea to his people or elites that matter that he – and he alone – holds the solutions to a country’s problems.

And often, as in the case of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives, who has imposed a state of emergency in the island nation, they will do so with considerably less finesse than Xi. Continue reading “Unlimited Xi Presidency in China: Implications for India”

Dalai Lama Snub & India-China ties

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

 The Note

A day before India’s new foreign secretary made his first standalone visit to Beijing from February 23-24, 2018, he sent out a note to the Cabinet secretary, requesting him to issue a ‘classified circular advisory advising all Ministries/Departments of the Government of India as well as State Governments not to accept any invitation or to participate in the events being organised by the ‘Dalai Lama set-up’ to commemorate the start of the sixty years of exile of the Dalai Lama in India.’ The Cabinet secretary in turn issued a Circular/Advisory to the ‘senior leaders’ and ‘government functionaries.’ Interestingly, this Circular, as reported in a Indian Express article (external link), said it was ‘not desirable’ to participate in the events of the ‘Tibetan leadership in India. (Emphasis added.)

The newspaper report does not quote the entire Cabinet Circular, but says It refers to the ‘events planned for March-end and early April’. The Note from the foreign secretary, however, refers to the ‘large public event titled “Thank You India” slated for 1st April,’ to which a large number of Indian dignitaries would be invited and these was ‘likely to be followed up by additional events in Delhi as well as other states of India.’ Continue reading “Dalai Lama Snub & India-China ties”

Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India

Jabin T. Jacob, PhD, Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

When China’s National People’s Congress – the rough equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha, but toothless – meets in the coming week it has to deal with a proposal by the ruling Communist Party of China to amend the state constitution to remove term limits for the President of the state. Coming from where it does, this is pretty much a direct order to the NPC to remove the term limits.

Removing term limits for the President, imposed in 1982, is a roundabout way of saying that the norm of two terms for the CPC General Secretary – Xi’s more powerful avatar – too, is not set in stone. Continue reading “Term Limits Off for Xi: Some Reflections for India”

How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?

Prof. Alka Acharya, Honorary Fellow, ICS & Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The question that had been the cause of much speculation and discussion since the 19th Communist Party Congress last October — ‘After Xi Jinping, Who?’ — has now seemingly been answered. Xi Jinping himself!

In fact, Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms was widely anticipated when, as had been the practice since the political and administrative reforms had been introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress.

Xi now proposes to overturn the practice, which had limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office — and this will now be enshrined in the state constitution of the People’s Republic of China. Continue reading “How must India deal with an all-powerful Xi Jinping?”