How China is exporting authoritarianism to Africa
A coup in Niger and its violent aftermath has Western powers including the U.S. scrambling to keep an anti-terrorism presence in the region, and the turmoil is also affecting China's relationship with the West African nation. As one of the largest investors in Niger, China has put billions into its oil sector, for one.
But across the continent in Tanzania, China's role looks different. There, the Chinese communist party's first overseas training institute is teaching its up-and-coming African leaders Beijing's approach to governing. It's part of China's plan to create an authoritarian-friendly political bloc in Africa.
Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian went to Tanzania as part of the investigative series "China's Shadow Empire," funded by the Pulitzer Center.
- Inside a Tanzania training school where Beijing teaches African leaders its brand of authoritarianism
- China's Shadow Empire
Guests: Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian.
Credits: This special episode of Axios Today was produced by Lydia McMullen-Laird, Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.
NIALA: Good morning. Welcome to Axios Today. It's Sunday, August 20th. Today, an investigation into how the Chinese Communist Party is exporting its authoritarian political model to Africa. It's a special Sunday episode of Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.
A coup in Niger and its violent aftermath has Western powers, including the U.S., scrambling to keep an anti-terrorism presence in the region, something U.S. officials say is critical. And the turmoil is also affecting China's relationship with the West African nation.
As one of the largest investors in Niger, China has put billions into its oil sector for one, and a major Chinese project, an $800 million hydroelectric dam in Niger, has been suspended because of the coup. But across the continent in Tanzania, China's role looks different.
There, the Chinese Communist Party's first overseas training institute is teaching up-and-coming African leaders Beijing's approach to governing. It's part of China's plan to create an authoritarian-friendly political bloc in Africa. Axios's Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian went to Tanzania as part of the investigative series "China's Shadow Empire," funded by the Pulitzer Center.
And Bethany joins me now. Hi, Bethany.
BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN: Hi Niala.
NIALA: Bethany, we've heard so much about the recent coup in Niger and how anti-Western these coup leaders are. Big picture, how has Beijing been trying to influence African countries to adopt their brand of government generally?
BETHANY: Well, you know, the Chinese Communist Party has a very long history of close ties to many nations across the African continent, and a lot of those relationships date back to an era of colonialism or you know, just as countries were emerging from colonialism and getting independent. So there were strong liberation movements and the Chinese Communist Party too viewed itself as pulling China, you know, out of the grip of Western powers. And so, the Chinese Communist Party and numerous African nations, including Tanzania, including Niger, there's a strong sense of kinship that, we are not Western powers, we're not colonial powers, we can together develop and we can be strong, despite the history of Western imperialism.
NIALA: And China's focus on the continent, how does that differ from other parts of the world?
BETHANY: The Chinese government's activities across Africa are in many ways like what we've seen, with China's activities elsewhere, but it's dialed up to a 10 in Africa. So I think that the West has overlooked Africa to such a huge extent, and I think that the Chinese government has rightly recognized that Africa really is the future.
Nigeria is projected to be one of the most populous nations in the world by 2100. There's so much untapped energy and potential there, and it's been so underfunded and so underdeveloped, especially in terms of its infrastructure. And so the Chinese government says that they want to treat African nations like equal partners, and to kind of recognize that gap. And also it's been a huge, basically business opportunity, for the Chinese government and for Chinese state-owned enterprises. You know, many, um, African countries are rich in natural resources, mining, cobalt. Many, many key, resources and minerals. And the Chinese government has really locked up, a lot of that. And that's been pretty controversial because some African leaders and analysts, and some in the West, too, have referred to this as a kind of neocolonialism because Chinese state-owned enterprises go in and lock up these resources and mine them and just ship them back to China and don't really contribute very much, you know, to the local economies.
NIALA: After the break, how China is influencing Tanzania through a new training institute for up-and-coming leaders.
NIALA: Welcome back to a special edition of Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. We were just talking about how China has increased its efforts to influence countries in the African continent.
So, Bethany, let's zoom in on Tanzania. the Chinese Communist Party created its first overseas training institute there?
BETHANY: Yeah, it's, it's such a fascinating development. In 2018, the Chinese Communist Party's Central Party School, which is the training institute in Beijing that trains the country's top political elites, that school gave a $40 million donation to build this school in Tanzania which is called the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School named after Tanzania's founding father. And it is a partnership between the Chinese Communist Party and the ruling parties of six African nations, not just Tanzania, but also Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa.
What all of those six ruling parties have in common is that they have ruled their nation for decades. So even though these six countries on paper have some version of a multi-party democracy, in practice, the parties that rule them haven't shared power. And so the school, it's a cementing of these long-standing ties between the Chinese Communist Party and these six ruling parties. And what is so fascinating about this is that actually what the Chinese Communist Party is doing is teaching members of these ruling parties China's own model of authoritarianism, which is the supremacy of the one-party state.
While this school just opened last year in 2022, and we don't know yet if the ruling parties in these six countries are actually emulating the Chinese Communist Party yet, what we do know is that this system definitely has a clear appeal because the Chinese Communist Party is advertising it as the secret recipe that helped China rise out of poverty and rise above its colonized roots and become the global superpower that it is.
NIALA: So, Bethany, you visited Tanzania. How is that actually being taught at this institute? What kind of things are they doing?
BETHANY: We were able to find some of the party officials who had received training here, and we spoke to them, even though, technically, we weren't supposed to, but they were willing to talk to us. Here's what one party official from Namibia said about what he was learning from the training.
COLLIN NGUJAPEUA: And one thing that I have learned is that we must solve our own problems. Instead of going to court, instead of using judiciaries and those things, we must solve our own problems in term.
BETHANY: That was Collin Ngujapeua, who is an official in Namibia's ruling party, who attended the June training. We also spoke to Lufunyo Hussein who is an instructor at the institute and also a member of the ruling party in Tanzania's CCM. You know, he repeated for us the CCM party line, which is that Tanzania is a democracy. You know, a very robust multi-party democracy that is not authoritarian and has no problems. And this was a line that we heard over and over again in Tanzania. People told us that Tanzania has a constitution and that there's no risk of Tanzania sliding toward authoritarianism. But the problem is, Tanzania has already slid toward authoritarianism. The previous president, Magufuli, had journalists arrested, there were assassination attempts against opposition parties, and in fact, he banned opposition parties from even holding rallies, which in Tanzania is the most basic form of political organizing. And so we've already seen that the Tanzanian constitution and its rule of law is not sufficient to protect the government and the political system from someone who wants to make the country more authoritarian.
NIALA: Bethany, so going back to where we started when U.S. officials visited Niger recently in an attempt to broker a deal there, they were soundly rejected. How does what China's doing affect not just American geopolitical influence across Africa, but any nation that wants to promote democratic ideals?
BETHANY: Well, the CCP is trying to create an authoritarian-friendly bloc on the world stage. And they've already been fairly successful at doing that. This is an even more direct attempt to do that and having that kind of block, having that kind of support not only will help insulate China from the growing number of Western sanctions that it's facing and U.S. attempts to isolate certain strategic industries in China, but can also help it deflect criticism for its human rights record. Essentially, what the Chinese Communist Party wants to do is to legitimize a one-party state or, you know, a single-party authoritarianism as a perfectly acceptable and even admirable alternative to democracy.
NIALA: Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is Axios' China reporter, joining us from Taiwan. Thanks, Bethany.
BETHANY: Thanks so much, Niala.
NIALA: Thanks for joining us for this special weekend episode of Axios Today. This episode was produced by Lydia McMullen Laird. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiuara and our supervising producer is Alexandra Botti. Thanks to the Pulitzer Center for support of this journalism. We'll add a link to Bethany's full story and the entire series in our show notes.
I'm Niala Boodhoo. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and I'll see you back here tomorrow morning for our regular show.