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From Sri Lanka to South Africa, China’s Predatory Practices Damage Developing Countries

Countries like Japan and the United States need to do more to counter these practices and avoid the kind of debt damage now being see in in Sri Lanka.



BRICS leaders including Jacob Zuma (South Africa) with host Xi Jinping in Hangzhou, China, in 2016. Photo: Beto Barata/PR via Wikimedia Commons

Having a pliant political regime in the target country is fast becoming a prerequisite for China when it wants to engage that particular nation in departing from democratic norms and to offer an alternative political model. This would be a communist model, navigating the targeted nation toward the suppression of liberal democratic values. 

This article discusses the political ingress China is employing in the case of two countries in Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Colombo Port City, developed by China Harbour Engineering Co., is one of several projects in Sri Lanka that illustrate the Chinese debt trap. Photographer: Atul Loke/Bloomberg.

The Case of Sri Lanka

The fall of the Rajapaksa clan in Sri Lanka is the latest case-in-point where the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came camouflaged in the promise of an economic miracle. 

The triumvirate power center in Sri Lanka comprised the three Rajapaksa brothers: Basil, Gotabaya, and Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was this combination that facilitated the expansion of CCP’s backdoor entry and agenda in Sri Lanka. Notably, during the height of the pandemic, despite struggling with the COVID-19 vaccination drive, the Sri Lankan government went all out and issued a special coin to commemorate the CCP’s centenary. 

Today, the case of Sri Lanka’s political and economic collapse in South Asia has come out in the open for the world to see.

BRICS leaders meet in Brazil in 2014, as South Africa's President Zuma holds hands with China's President Xi Jinping. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Launching the Debt Trap

Chinese projects and loans are often directed towards resource-rich or strategically-placed countries. Around 70% of these do not have a good credit rating, or any rating at all. 

China protects its investment interests in these cash-poor countries by holding project assets as collateral, taking over quite a few by this practice. In this way its investments expedite the nation’s descent into the Chinese debt-trap. 

For the Chinese practice to work, political complicity by powerful elements in the country is an essential requirement. This falls in line with CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s promotion of the United Front’s “multi party cooperation and political consultative system” as a new type of party system that seeks to enhance engagement with political parties around the world.

While addressing the Central United Front Work Conference in 2015, Xi urged the party cadres, united front cadres, and government officials to master what he called the “art of making friends” since it is “an important method of carrying out the work.” 

According to Xi, co-opting and manipulating elites, influential individuals, and organizations is a means to shape the discourse and decision-making. In the words of a United Front Work Department director cited in the People’s Daily in November 2019, “United Front is a political alliance, and united front work is political work. It must maintain the party’s leadership throughout.”

China's President Xi Jinping during the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 26, 2018. ulshan Khan/Pool via REUTERS

Sub-Saharan Africa Cases

Besides South Asia, China maintains diplomatic relations and representation with all of Sub-Saharan Africa, except Eswatini. 

The African continent is replete with multiple instances of China’s economic and political meddling. Take for instance, South Africa, where the CCP has cultivated strong party-to-party ties with the ruling African National Congress. The ANC is among CCP’s closest collaborators, evidenced in the multiple party delegation visits, training seminars attended by ANC members in China, and CCP-ANC youth party member exchanges.

At this point, the CCP’s political influence inside South Africa can also be assessed through other examples of collaboration. South Africa has supported the development of a party school for the ANC on the outskirts of Johannesburg, for one. 

Inspired in terms of party structure, organization, and cadre training, as well as financed by the CCP, the ANC’s new political leadership school is situated in the town of Venterskroon. The training is modeled on learning everything, ranging from Marxist theory to media management.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

China’s Deep Background with the ANC

Historian Stephen Ellis, in his book External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990 (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2014), is revealing. He explains that the ANC’s relationship with China dates back to 1960, when Oliver Tambo was invited by Mao Zedong to visit the country. Ever since, China has been deeply involved in promoting its model of development in South Africa, with the ANC and the CCP signing a memorandum of understanding in 2008 on China’s enhanced efforts to train ANC members in China. 

During Jacob Zuma’s tenure as president of South Africa (2009-2018), the opposition had alleged that Zuma was modeling the ANC after the CCP to prolong the party’s political hegemony. These claims resurfaced once again when ANC’s Secretary-General Ace Magashule announced in July 2018 that the CCP would train ANC party members ahead of South Africa’s 2019 general elections.

Many South Africans are skeptical of Beijing’s interference in their country’s internal affairs, starting with the CCP’s massive financial aid provided to the ANC. Notably, the announcement that the CCP would train the ANC came against the backdrop of the 10th annual BRICS summit held in Johannesburg, concluded just before the ANC announcement. During the BRICS summit, Xi pledged investments totaling $14 billion USD (R196 billion) for South Africa.

China’s model of governance has influenced South Africa in a negative way, with ANC’s political rivals expressing strong opposition to Beijing’s growing influence and ingress inside South African politics and foreign policy decision making. Senior opposition party leaders, including the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, had expressed distress at “shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure.”

Chinese 100 yuan banknotes. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

Distress Over China’s Role

The discontent over China’s interference in South Africa’s internal affairs is casting a negative influence on the country’s democracy, turning Beijing-Pretoria ties into more of a neocolonial partnership. As per an August 2017 Pew Research Center survey, only 45% of South Africans held a favorable opinion of China’s role in the world. Meanwhile, a majority 53% of South Africans viewed the United States as a more constructive force in international affairs. 

It would be this people’s verdict that should guide the democratic order in Africa, especially for countries such as Japan and India that have invested in Africa by means of the 2017 Asia-Africa Growth Corridor cooperation agreement. 

Predatory opportunities for China need to be gridlocked. And it should be ensured that democratic nations do not permit a repeat of the debt trap crisis happening in Colombo.


Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the JIIA or any other organization with which the author is affiliated. She tweets @MonikaChansoria. Find other articles by Dr. Chansoria here on JAPAN Forward.


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