During the Obama administration, when the United States belatedly began to stir itself over the issue of China's by then already long-standing economic engagement with Africa, one of the most common warnings from Washington was that Beijing might seek to export its political model to the continent.
As then-US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton admonished African leaders to beware of what they were getting themselves into, saying they had more to learn from the West and criticizing China for supposedly encouraging its new partners to eschew what is often fancied as Western-style democracy and adopt Beijing's authoritarian methods of rule instead, especially through control of information and the internet.
Back then, China was highly sensitive to this kind of criticism and went to great lengths to deny that it was doing anything of the sort. Its official stance in engaging with the developing world, endlessly proclaimed as its unique virtue, was that contrary to the West, Beijing regarded the domestic politics of other countries as purely internal matters. In an interview I had during a visit to Zambia a decade ago, the Chinese ambassador to that country expressed pity for his US counterpart for supposedly having little more than support for the training of election workers to boast of, whereas seemingly everywhere one looked, China was building tangible things.
This prompted me to ask one of those unplanned questions that during interviews can sometimes be the most productive: Instead of sticking to its ritualized and not always believable statements of noninterference, why didn't China move beyond an approach to Africa heavily focused on infrastructure-building and begin offering other kinds of help, namely in improving its partners' capacity for governance?
I couldn't get the ambassador very far beyond his talking points, but he responded by saying that given existing anxieties about China's rapid rise, any expansion of its engagement into a more openly political realm would arouse unwanted fears in many quarters. Looking back, I also suspect the diplomat was unprepared for the possibility, real in this case, that this question from a Western journalist was coming from a place of sincerity.
For me, there is no contradiction between a strong personal preference for democratic politics over their authoritarian alternatives and wishing to see China expand the range of its engagement with Africa. Having recently lived and worked as a journalist in China for six years, it was clear to me that China's system had a considerable degree of proven bureaucratic competence, meaning an ability to conceive of and execute policies with a level of vigor and discipline far beyond the performance of most African states. It was also clear to me that for all its talk of capacity-building, the world of Western development assistance to the continent had a very mixed record of delivering impactful results.
A lot has transpired since that conversation in Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and now in its own—at least initially—limited way, China has begun to step out of its own self-imposed box. It recently opened a political party school in Tanzania under the auspices of the Communist Party's International Liaison Department that will train politicians from friendly African ruling parties in matters of governance, development, and ideology. And although this isn't exactly what was envisioned by my decade-old question, I regard it as a positive development on this basis: If China and the West are going to compete in the so-called developing world, let their competition be an open one of ideas involving the entire range of what each side believes it has to offer.
I am not proposing that African countries constitute pro-Western and Eastern blocs, form exclusive alliances, or least of all engage in militarization and drift into conflict along these lines. The Cold War was most costly not for its leading protagonists, whose waste could be mostly measured in squandered dollars and rubles, but for countries in the so-called Third World, where the proxy wars the superpowers sponsored not only wreaked economic devastation and bolstered corrupt autocracies on both sides but also cost untold millions of lives.
Today, more open and direct competition between China and the West in an area of great need in Africa—governance—need not lead to any such outcomes. For starters, it might force the West into a position of greater and long overdue humility in its engagements with Africa, beginning with a recognition that the money it has lavished for years under the vague heading of "capacity-building" has been a boondoggle for nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and consultants in Washington and European capitals.
Unknown to rich countries' voting publics, who are susceptible to the manipulative rhetoric of politicians complaining of money wastefully lavished on developing countries, entities like these have long been among the main beneficiaries of a great deal of supposed foreign aid spending. This industry favors its own, often awarding contracts on the basis of deep networks of acquaintances who circulate into and out of government while largely escaping scrutiny of their performance or long-term impact.
A second area where a combination of more Western self-scrutiny, the questioning of long-standing ideological shibboleths, and far greater candor would be healthy is on the practical value of electoral democracy—particularly in the often shallow, formalized way that elections have taken hold during the post-Cold War era in many African countries, often with strong Western prompting, including both carrots and sticks.
Here, too, a strong dose of humility first is in order. The ongoing erosion of democracy in the United States—including the demagogic and norms-destroying rule of former US President Donald Trump; the attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021; the potential elevation of denialists of US President Joe Biden's election during this year's US campaign season into positions where they would oversee coming voting exercises; and the gerrymandering of congressional districts across the country—places the United States in an extremely weak position from which to lecture others. Europe, too, has seen its own rise of right-wing nativism and democratic backsliding in recent years.
In Africa itself, big questions loom. Ineffectual or corrupt democratic regimes have given way in many countries to military regimes or other forms of autocracy since the middle of the last decade. In other places where the formality of elections remains, leaders have long mastered the process of rewriting or reinterpreting constitutions and other laws, such as term limits, that were intended to promote alternance and prevent leaders from clinging to power for decades.
The West has further undermined its own credibility on democracy in Africa by saying little when friendly regimes in places, such as Uganda and the Ivory Coast to name but two examples, adopt these tactics. In Rwanda, another Western favorite, longtime leader Paul Kagame has regularly engineered near-unanimous and therefore scarcely credible victories at the polls without incurring any sanctions and receiving little opprobrium. Kagame recently announced that he may stay in power for another 20 years, saying, "I have no problem with that."
As frankly anti-democratic such behavior is though, it is only one part of the problem with the model that the West has helped promote in Africa. In many other countries, multiparty democracies have seen political parties develop strong associations with particular ethnic groups, furthering social division and spoils-driven patrimonial politics along identity lines.
Even in countries that are usually deemed relatively successful at adopting multiparty elections—take Ghana or Kenya, where a presidential election was held this week—political campaigns have become personality driven, largely bereft of serious discussions of policy alternatives, and more and more often dominated by the US-style practice of raising and spending huge amounts of money, with all the corrosive effects one might imagine from this.
It is not certain the West has much of use queued up and ready to say on these topics, but having proclaimed the ideal of multiparty democracy in Africa for so long, it should engage with African countries much more candidly on these issues. It should also work harder with them to develop ways to associate elections with real governance deliverables, such as higher rates of school attendance with higher quality instruction and equipment; utilities that can deliver affordable and reliable electricity and internet service; better public transportation options, from rail to road to metropolitan subway systems; the improvement of transparency in state budgets, procurement, and contracts; and the measurable reduction of public corruption at all levels.
Domestically, China has racked up impressive successes in some of these areas, building public infrastructure with world-beating speed and scale during the last two generations and improving the quality of its bureaucracy as well as its ability to deliver services. This is not an argument that African countries can or should try to copy a perceived but often badly misunderstood China model. Nor is this a naive assertion that governance in China comes without serious corruption or an endorsement of the frequently heard claim that authoritarian systems can "get things done" more effectively than democratic ones because they are not slowed by the niceties of parliamentary procedure, swings of public opinion, election reversals, or challenges in courts of law.
As I documented in my book China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, I have often heard Chinese expatriates living in African countries compare the environment of corruption in their adopted land favorably with the corruption they say they fell victim to back home. What is more, if the absence of institutionalized and democratic checks and balances has sometimes allowed authoritarian governments like China's to reach certain policy goals impressively fast—the building of a high-speed nationwide rail system, to take one example—it has also helped produce catastrophic mistakes that the country is still reckoning with.
In this latter category, one can count such things as the industrial policies of the Great Leap Forward in the late-1950s, which led to widespread starvation; the one-child policy, which helped bring down fertility rates but wreaked havoc with the country's demographic structure, setting the stage for today's aging crisis; and some would say today's draconian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has inflicted enormous social and economic costs on China.
It seems to me, however, that China nonetheless has a lot to teach African countries about the importance of establishing national priorities and creating a more capably trained bureaucracy to carry them out. In a recent interview in Accra, Ghana, Ghanaian intellectual and economic analyst Bright Simons called the public policymaking infrastructure in his home region, West Africa, "unbelievably un-strategic, almost as if by design," and told FP that the primary goal of the civil service in his country seemed not to be performance but rather "work avoidance."
If China has something to contribute to helping change this by training people, using performance metrics, or sharing other insights from its own experience, this strikes me as a potential area where it could make a big contribution to African development. Rather than its customary fear and paranoia about China, the West should take confidence from the fact that credible opinion polling still shows Africans strongly in favor of democratic institutions for their own societies. Presumably, this includes a similarly strong attachment to open information regimes, as opposed to censorship and intrusive state surveillance. And in the meantime, maybe competition from China in this area can spur the West to reimagine its own ineffectual approach to helping improve governance and build capacity on the continent.
During his ongoing tour of several African countries, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pronounced a healthy rhetorical break from a past practice of telling others whom they can and cannot choose as partners that was both immoral and ineffectual. For Washington's announced reset of its relations with Africa to be meaningful though, that can only be the first step. In this era of greater plurality in world affairs, the United States and the rest of the West will be obliged to compete on a much more virtuous basis in the global south than they did during the Cold War. In matters of soft goods like governance and capacity-building, as much as in hard ones like infrastructure, this will mean proving their effectiveness like never before.
Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.