Chinese engagement in Africa and the human rights’ issue

The Chinese attitude toward human rights and the high number of autocratic regimes in Africa have led to rising concerns about the effect that China is having on the respect of human rights on the continent.

One of the characteristic features of Chinese action in Africa is the non-interference principle; the pragmatic approach of China recognises that each country has to find its own model coherent with its own reality. As a consequence, Beijing engages in economic relations regardless of the internal dynamics affecting its counterpart.

It has been a winning element of the Chinese approach in Africa, allowing the former to gain increasing economic and political influence in countries that are partially excluded by western financial support action due to human rights issues.

Beijing's approach

If one side Beijing's approach has allowed those countries to access funds and infrastructure needed to improve the economic development of the country and so the welfare of their population, it has also contributed to providing resources to brutal regimes, potentially helping them to maintain power.

China has always been very critical of the western approach that attaches conditionalities related to the respect of human rights to economic aid, considering it a violation of the country’s sovereignty.

This critique has been shared by many African countries, which have pointed out three main aspects. First, respect for sovereignty should be considered the most important principle, above democracy and other aspects related to human rights.

Second, the efforts to push African countries towards more democratic systems have often resulted in worsening the conditions of those countries, fueling social instability, ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Third, there are different views about human rights, with many African rulers, being more concerned in the economic and social development rather than in achieving the standards on human rights proposed by the West, such as freedom of speech.

The so-called second-generation human rights

China and certain African countries insist on the fact that attention should be focused on other human rights, such as the right to food, shelter and development, which are called second-generation human rights.

In practical terms, this shared view between autocratic regimes and China has led to stable cooperation between Beijing and cruel dictators, such as Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe up until 2017.

The engagement between China and African regimes with the worst human rights records represents a fact. Nonetheless, it is difficult to assess whether the Chinese partnership with those countries is effectively worsening their human rights condition.

A study from Ma’abo Che has compared the effects of Chinese and Traditional Official Finance on state repression and public demonstrations in Africa. It has emerged that there is no evidence showing that Chinese finance is related to an increase in state repression in borrowing countries.

Another aspect related to human rights that have emerged from the relationship between China and Africa concerns the several violations of human rights reported by African workers in relation to Chinese businesses.

Report by Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

According to the report of the 2020 by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Africa recorded the second-highest number of human rights allegations (181) related to Chinese investment overseas.

The sectors most involved are metals and mining, energy (fossil fuels), construction, finance and banking, renewable energy and food, agriculture and livestock. The allegations generally concern loss of livelihood, inadequate disclosure and labor issues.

Some of the countries most involved are Uganda (27 allegations), Kenya (23 allegations), Zimbabwe (23 allegations) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (16 allegations). The lack of accountability and transparency in Chinese companies makes it very difficult to deal with these issues.

A very similar situation was also reported in 2022 by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), showing that the human rights of workers in Chinese enterprises have been impervious to improvements.

Also in this case, interviewees who testified in the ISS report raised concerns about labor rights violations and precarious employment conditions impacting the relationships between workers and Chinese employers.

In particular, concerns were raised about the level of wages, especially for low-skilled workers: they are often below the sector’s minimum wage and, in some cases, employers don’t even compensate workers for the hours worked.

Another aspect of concern which persisted, is the non-compliance with occupational health and safety legislation and procedures, characterizing particularly in the mining sector.

An international challenge to human rights respect

The relationship between China and autocratic regimes in Africa is not affecting just the continent but also other dynamics related to China and the international community. The huge reliance on Chinese funds has led many African countries to remain silent on Beijing's violations of human rights.

A good example is represented by some of them helping to defend China’s Xinjiang policies at the United Nations Human Rights Council while introducing a resolution to bring systemic racism in the US and around the world under international scrutiny.

It seems that the cooperation between China and autocratic African countries might represent a challenge to human rights respect, also outside their relationship.

The problem that might arise is a radical weakening of the leverage of those trying to promote human rights in Africa and outside the continent, due to the mutual support in institutional contexts, such as the United Nations, and economic support.

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