Chinese Engagement in Africa: The Reality of the BRI

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, spearheads the funding and construction of new infrastructure projects and trade networks across Eurasia and Africa. As of January 2021, 140 countries had joined the BRI. The infrastructure projects such as building ports, rail, roads, pipelines and power plants are the main centrepiece of this initiative. Africa, in particular, has attracted a huge amount of investment from China with regard to the BRI projects.

In line with its BRI objectives and also its core national strategic objectives of achieving the Great Power status, Beijing has established a significant economic footprint in Africa. The trade deals, lucrative investments, big-ticket infrastructure projects and hefty aid packages made China an attractive partner for the BRI participating countries of the Continent. The BRI projects were initially hailed and appreciated by many scholars as analysts pointed to the potential benefits of these projects in filling the infrastructure deficiencies in these countries and thereby boosting economic growth.

However, seven years after the initiative has been rolled out, the current scenario looks very different. The project has become synonymous with wasteful spending, ecological destruction and massive debt burdens. The lack of transparency and accountably, the opaque nature of the deals have led to the rise in suspicions and even cancelling of many projects in the region. A study conducted in 2018 found that 270 out of 1,814 BRI-related projects had problems related to debt sustainability, labour and environmental standards, national security, transparency, and corruption. A McKinsey survey in 2017 revealed that 60% to 80% of the Chinese companies in Africa admitted to paying bribes for bagging contracts. Further, Chinese firms scored second to last in one of the latest Transparency International Bribe Payers Index in the Continent.

In general, the cases of corruption in the BRI projects follow a similar pattern – opaque agreements signed between China and the BRI participating country with a closed bidding process, only to grant the project to the Chinese companies secretly. The cost quoted is very high than the one prevailing in the market. Notably, in most of these cases, senior leaders of the respective BRI country are involved in allocating projects to the Chinese companies through this managed bidding process. The projects, touted to be highly beneficial for the local population and the country, have not proved to have yielded fruits to them.

Besides getting projects in an illegal manner, the Chinese companies and its officials have exported corruption to the BRI country by bribing local authorities or the government in securing mineral resources, including rare-earth minerals of African countries. This reflects that these projects have been designed for making profits for the country’s leaders and the Chinese companies at the cost of their natural resources or the people. In many cases the countries due to heavy corruption in the projects have failed to repay the loan to China and have fallen into ‘Debt Trap’.

While this has been a worldwide phenomenon, the African continent has been a case in point and has faced the brunt of the malpractices followed while implementing the BRI. One of the most glaring examples of China’s mismanagement is the East African project, the Nairobi-Mombasa Railway, running between Mombasa and Nairobi. The project, popularly known as the SGR or the Standard Gauge Railway, suffered from significant governance failures and corruption. Kenyan authorities also arrested (2018) seven officials from China’s Road and Bridge Corporation in connection with bribery attempts meant to derail ongoing investigations into SGR corruption.

Concrete evidence of corruption came out in 2018 when Kenyan government arrested several senior officials on corruption and fraud charges, including both the Chairman of Kenya’s National Lands Commission and the Managing Director of Kenya Railways Corporation. These officials allegedly conspired on a US$ 2 million fraudulent land-acquisition scheme, whereby they illegally acquiring government-owned land and then sold it out under the compensation process meant to repay those whose lands were in the new railway’s path. Consequently, the Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission suspended (2019), compensation for SGR land acquisitions in light of widespread accusations that National Lands Commission officials were demanding kickbacks to facilitate legitimate compensation payouts to landowners.

Most of the BRI participating states in Africa widely face many public governance gaps and a disjuncture between the incentives of the governing elite and those of society at large. While China claims to maintain a policy of non-interference in the recipient countries, transparency and accountability mechanisms need to be restored in the larger process of BRI. Being opaque by design, the BRI projects are pumping billions of dollars into corrupt regimes where graft issues are embedded in the political systems, making corruption scandals inevitable. It is claimed by China that these projects are executed in consultation with the local governments, however, studies have highlighted the bidding processes are not known and are marred with bribes paid to local officials, making the Chinese companies the one who makes crucial decisions regarding the projects.

Apart from corruption, China has also been criticized for gross human rights violations on the continent. According to a report published in 2021 by the Business & Human Rights Resources Centre, a London-based organization, Chinese companies operating from Africa accounts for 26.7 percent of the human rights violation claims recorded against them during 2013-20. The Most frequent issues related to “loss of livelihood, environmental impact assessment (EIA) and labour issue” were seen mainly in Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many of the abuses are now being highlighted on social media – particularly in Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has restored to online media campaigns on the issue.

On the other hand, China has been stepping up its efforts to cover-up its misdeeds in implementing the BRI. Through this effort China seeks to shape the African media space, to encourage media narratives favorable to Beijing and its model of state-directed journalism with effort. To promote its BRI it established ‘Belt and Road News Network’ which includes 182 media outlets from 86 countries, including Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia. Besides building a pro-BRI narrative, with the entry of China in the African media space, the continent is becoming a battleground for competing ideologies and models of governance. The acceptance of CCP’s ideological models due to its propaganda, the African States are drifting towards the formers political model, away from liberal and democratic norms.

In most of the countries, the cases of corruptions in BRI projects have been exposed either by the local media or civil society groups. Although China had pledged for a new, clean BRI in 2019, it is still not clear as to what concrete steps Beijing will initiate to be a responsible stakeholder in its engagements with Africa and truly initiate action to eradicate corruption in its BRI Project.