China : The Unlikely Champion of Human Rights in Africa

If ever there was paradoxical alignment of two beings, China and the concept of Human Rights must surely be it. In this year’s Human Rights Watch report on China the word ‘dire’ was used to accurately summarise Chinese approaches to 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 much of 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.

It emerges from these figures and observations, is that there is a problem with the Western approach to Human Rights and Development. All too often the needs of the early stages of development are ignored in favour of the direct imposition of liberal democracy onto underdeveloped states under the warped logic that democracy promotes economic growth. This is precisely where China can become a notable example with its recent development, where citizens’ fundamental right to healthcare, education, food, water and basic infrastructure has been improved significantly. This then reaches the point whereby issues of free speech, democracy and the Human Rights that entails, begin to emerge as the predominant issues of the day, rather than where the next meal is coming from. 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. What’s more, they have often done so whilst being in receipt of vast quantities of Western aid.

China thus comes into the equation precisely because it provides an alternative. Timothy Webster labels has 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 principals of democracy and Human Rights, it is a historical fact of Western development. Considering the horrendous Human Rights record of colonial powers until the mid-20th century there were double standards emanating from Western scepticism of Chinese involvement in Africa. This is not to say, and certainly not to excuse the abuses that have happened, it 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 programs in Africa have been proved to aid wealth creation, 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.

Featured image | China in Africa : | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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