China: The Unlikely Champion of Human Rights in Africa

By James O’Dell

If ever there was paradoxical alignment of two beings, China and the concept of Human Rights must surely be it. For instance, this year’s Human Rights Watch report on China highlighted its ‘broad and sustained offensive’ on issues such as freedom of expression, assembly and religion.

So how then, with such an appalling domestic assessment, could China possibly be aiding the development of Human Rights across Africa? The answer, put simply, lies in how you view Human Rights itself and answer which comes first; individual rights or collective socio-economic rights?

Returning to China itself, the World Bank estimates that between 1981 to 2012, 500 million people were lifted out of extreme poverty. In contrast, despite being flooded with Western aid, approximately US$1 trillion since the 1940s, Sub-Saharan Africa has very little to show for it, with poverty across Africa rising from 11% to 66% between 1970-1998.

What is apparent therefore, is that China itself, whilst falling well short of the contemporary, globalised and liberal conception of human rights, has nevertheless vastly improved its citizens fundamental right to healthcare, education, food, water and basic infrastructure. In relation to much of Africa, where the West’s rights-based approaches and conditionalities have produced themselves little in the way of meaningful development, this does not make too favourable a comparison. Dambisa Moyo, Harvard and Oxford educated Zambian economist, summarises this perfectly by stating that ‘in the early stages of development it matters little to a starving African family whether they can vote or not’.

So, a question of realism and pragmatism needs to be asked. After decades of Western Interventions and conditional aid, have Human Rights in Africa progressed to a point, or even close to a point, where no alternatives need to be considered? The simple answer is no. Most nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, have fallen short of the economic growth needed to address the lack of basic Human Rights in their nations.

China thus comes into the equation precisely because it provides an alternative. Timothy Webster labels this as the Global South calling for the right to development itself. China has laid roads and railways, sent thousands of medical personnel to 48 African countries and building 30 hospitals and medical facilities. Additionally, school buildings and scholarships have been provided in hand with agricultural assistance, technologies and the drilling of water wells.  These developments do not negate the many positive impacts that NGOs and initiatives from the West have had, nor is it ignoring the fact that China is in Africa for its own self-interest, namely energy and resource security, but expecting anything else of China, or the West for that matter, would be to need another dose of realism.

Throughout history states have developed economically before they have developed the principles of democracy and Human Rights, it is a historical fact of Western development. Considering also the horrendous Human Rights record of colonial powers until the mid-20th century there are considerable double standards emanating from Western scepticism of Chinese involvement in Africa. This is not to ignore, and certainly not to excuse the abuses that have happened, this is simply an effort to acknowledge that the Chinese approach to its investment in Africa offers a viable, and often superior alternative to the West’s. Furthermore, Chinese economic involvement and infrastructure programmes in Africa have been proved to aid wealth creation and providing long term social benefits. These subsequently lay the groundwork for future stable democratisation and Human Rights awareness to take place in the same manner as it has historically in nations such as Britain.

It is no coincidence that in many African regions, particularly central Africa, China’s development model is viewed more or equally favourably as that of the US. No developing state can be forced into Western standers of Human Rights and Democratisation, these are things built upon economic security and countless historical examples prove this. Thus, if China is having a greater economic impact upon economic development in Africa, then that makes it, in a rather roundabout manner, a very unlikely champion of Human Rights in Africa.


By James O’Dell

National Institute for African Studies