Beijing is cultivating the next generation of African elites by training them in China
Juba, South Sudan
Anthony Kpandu took a delegation from his party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), to China last year to train with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Kpandu is in charge of special working groups at the general secretariat for the SPLM, the liberation movement turned government party that helped South Sudan gain independence from Sudan in 2011. Wearing a button that says, “I love SPLM,” a paisley tie, and a loose tan jacket, he reminisces about his trip to China in detail, down to every day’s itinerary.
They visited the Central Party school in Beijing, toured industrial zones, drank various types of green tea, and walked part of the Great Wall. Kpandu’s favorite part was Shanghai, with its glittery commercial district, Pudong, high-speed Maglev train, and sprawling airport. “It was magnificent. You can’t believe it, but it’s there. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says from his office in Juba.
In the 1970s, China actively tried to export its communist revolution to Africa, one of Beijing’s few diplomatic engagements at the time. Now, Beijing is promoting a more subtle movement: support for China and and its model of development. Instead of relying on Chinese emissaries in African countries, Beijing is bringing thousands of African leaders, bureaucrats, students, and business people to China.
It’s a campaign that achieves several goals at once. The trips help solidify political and business ties between China and its partners on the continent. Like other development partners, China gets to help build capacity in African countries. Most importantly these exchanges cultivate partners on the continent who are more likely to be sympathetic to China and its way of doing things.
China has been hosting these trainings and exchanges in Africa since as far back as the 1950s when it first established diplomatic ties with Egypt. Over the past decade, the trainings have grown in both volume and profile. Kenya’s Jubilee party, created the year before the country’s contentious election this year, received trainings from the Chinese Communist Party in China. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front also takes inspiration from the the CCP while South Africa’s African National Congress regularly attends workshops in China and has modeled much of its party teachings on the CCP.
China is particularly interested in the next generation of African elites. Last year, China said it would invite 1,000 young African politicians for trainings in China, after hosting more than 200 between 2011 and 2015. Thousands of African students are pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in China on scholarship programs funded by Beijing. As of this year, more Anglophone African students study in China than the United States or the United Kingdom, the traditional destinations of choice.
Chinese officials are quick to say these scholarships and trainings are not an attempt to remake Africa in its own image. In theme with China’s self-avowed policy of noninterference, Beijing likes to stress that it does not tell its partners what to do.
“We’re not saying the Chinese model should be copied but to share lessons. It’s to give them the concepts so that they can adapt and find their own solutions,” says Zhang Yi, China’s economic attache in Juba.
“When you go to China they will not be talking about democracy.”
But South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, may be particularly impressionable. It is still developing its government institutions and political system, amid a four-year civil war that has split the former liberation party into several factions. China, which has major oil interests in the country, was one of the first countries to recognize South Sudan and remains engaged with the country, with 2,600 peacekeepers and more than 100 Chinese businesses and investors.
“The SPLM seems to believe that given shared experience in historical struggle against imperialism and colonialism, there are much similarity and common ground between SPLM and the [Chinese Communist Party’s] origins,” says Yun Sun, a fellow at Brookings Institution who has written about party to party exchanges between China and African countries.
“It does raise the question what kind of political future South Sudan faces as a result. If we do believe in the universality and desirability of the democratic system, the model represented by the Chinese experience and its popularity may not be the most encouraging,” she says.