China’s sympathy for Kenya sideswipes democracy – By Genet Mersha

January 16th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

I am dismayed by the Chinese analysis of the causes of the election-related tragedy in Kenya that was published in the 14th January issue of the People’s Daily, organ of the Communist Party of China, under the title “Stability comes first in country’s development.” Beijing-stationed foreign news agencies rushed into making out of it a front-page story with a spin, which the press around the world picked up immediately. The BBC organized an interview with a Hong Kong consultant to make sense of it without much success. In brief, the content of the article is troubling, much as its timing. (more…)

I am dismayed by the Chinese analysis of the causes of the election-related tragedy in Kenya that was published in the 14th January issue of the People’s Daily, organ of the Communist Party of China, under the title “Stability comes first in country’s development.” Beijing-stationed foreign news agencies rushed into making out of it a front-page story with a spin, which the press around the world picked up immediately. The BBC organized an interview with a Hong Kong consultant to make sense of it without much success. In brief, the content of the article is troubling, much as its timing.

The People’s Daily attributes the causes of the present crisis in Kenya to “Western hegemony” and value clashes that arise “when democracy is transported onto disagreeable land.”

The paper premises its conclusion on the following references from Africa’s distant past:

“The African people have been living on the continent for generations, have forged special links among different ethnic groups, and have cultivated unique African culture long before falling victim to Western colonialism. As a matter of fact, primate culture already enjoyed democracy with unique characteristics long ago.”

As a solution to the Kenyan problem, the paper goes on to suggest, “Only by preserving national stability can Kenya gain momentum in developing its economy and benefit all ethnic groups.” At the same time, the analysis puts confident claim that the right to bread and butter precedes all other rights. On the surface, the words in the article seem innocuous, although their underlying message is poisonous. A consultant based in Hong Kong, with business ties with China perhaps, appearing on a BBC interview on the evening of 14th January tried his best to play down its negative implications, albeit without much success. I doubt it if he could be that naïve, the Chinese for that matter, not to be aware of the implicit message of the article that Africa is not ready for democracy.

With respect to the past, there is no denying of the fact that, in order to succeed, a country must start with its own history and culture as a basis for its present and future directions. Anything that is without a past is certainly without identity, the lack of which poses serious challenge to aspirations, if not detrimental to existence. In that sense, the article traces the root causes of Africa’s problems to the disconnect between its past and present, for which the People’s Daily blames the wanton destruction of Africa’s original institutions and societal values by colonialism. It is regrettable, however, that a country such as China with great traditions, history and ability to think through could only satisfy itself with pretensions and tinkering on the margin when it comes to Africa’s chronic problems.

Can it be that China is pestered by the growing tide of democracy and freedom in its neighbourhood that it found it necessary to sound the alarm? Is it possible that it found easier to exploit Kenya’s tragedy for the purpose of making known its ideological and visceral opposition to free and fair elections, democratic rights and individual freedoms? If so why?

Most striking about the article in the People’s Daily is its timing. It comes one day after the election in Taiwan in which the people of that island exercised their sovereign will to the fullest extent possible. Never mind the double-edged sword the Taiwanese electorate handed down to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) eight years ago. In defeat last weekend, the people rebuked DPP for its failure to live up to its pledges to deliver independence and the resultant strain it had caused on the relations across the Strait. Consequently, this time in a radical turn around they voted in a Kuomintang government that is required to heal those tensions and restart engagement with China, even without ruling out the possibility of unification at some point. Quietly, but joyfully, China has surely welcomed its outcome, although it was not comfortable with the flawless process in which multi-party democracy enabled Taiwanese to exercise their full rights. Nor did China want to be seen or heard of dubbing this precedent-setting free and democratic election on the island as delinquent or a transplant from an alien land.

The Taiwanese elections were carried out with full respect to the rights of the electorate and the parties that participated in the election. Neither the people nor the contending parties had reason to complain or delay acceptance of defeat, as each and every individual had the chance to exercise his/her right without let or hindrance. In fact, what makes Taiwanese election an example to other developing countries is that, in an environment where level playing field is assured and interference by foreign powers was non-existent, because especially China had learnt its lessons the hard way from the previous two elections, the losers accepted defeat with grace. In equal measures, the victors rose to the lime light with humility and a clear sense of purpose. In that, the people of Taiwan demonstrated to the world not only their level of maturity, but also their sophistication in managing multi-party democracy just in less than a generation.

Although Taiwan’s democracy emerges as flu that would involuntarily sneeze Beijing, China dreaded becoming a laughing stock by not accusing Taiwanese democracy and their free elections as defilement of Chinese culture and soil by Western values and practices. Therefore, Kenya’s elections and their grand failures came in handy two weeks after their rigging and on the morrow of the Taiwanese election. Clearly, the article is intended to divert the attention of other developing countries from the shining example of Taiwan and the power and magic of true democracy, which by all accounts was free, fair and democratic and without illegal interference in the process by either the ruling party or outsiders.

China is also well aware of the on going restlessness in Hong Kong. The citizens of that land have become persistent in their demands, in accordance with the Treaty agreed upon with the ex-colonial master Britain, to exercise their full democratic rights to elect directly their own leaders. Having already postponed decision on the matter for the second time, now setting it to 2017, China has failed to live by the provisions of the Treaty. Therefore, it has every reason to see troubles in genuine democracy, although no one expected that it would go on its limbs as far as across the Indian Ocean in its search for a fig tree to cover its ideological hostility to genuine democracy and fundamental human rights.

China’s experience in Africa is relatively new, although its methods are not, as they come from the same page as its competitors. Its goal is to promote its interests at the expense of Africa and other developing countries. Otherwise, how could China explain its contradictory position of hobnobbing with and shoring up murderers and dictators in many corners of the region, while claiming non-interference in the internal affairs of those countries? In a similar manner and under the guise of containing Soviet influence in Africa, the West supported a number of worst dictators and thieves on the planet during the Cold War. It ‘Mobutized’ them, that is to say provided them, with economic, political, military and diplomatic support that in the process transformed Africa into the most trampled theatre of the Cold War, thereby witnessing a great deal of atrocities, lost opportunities and destruction of cultures that had survived colonialism.

At least from where I stand, there seems to be nothing now that makes China’s methods of promoting its national interests different from that of the West’s behaviour during the Cold War. In a similar manner, China also supports those who rig elections and murder their citizens in the thousands in broad day light. For Africa, nothing has changed, despite the end of the Cold War. As in the past, today’s dictators also swear in the name stability and interests of their respective nations, while they violate the fundamental human rights of their peoples. The essential point that China and others have failed to recognize is that, it is the nations of Africa and their peoples that have to be protected from such predatory dictators, not the other way around.

Admittedly, good governance, institutions and elections have failed Africans because African citizens are denied of possibilities to organize freely, exercise their democratic rights free from threats of losing their jobs and livelihoods and eventually their lives. Yes, I grant you, poverty and ignorance have a great deal to do with the situation, much as the lack of genuine leadership and level playing fields. The educated elites are cowered and discouraged in lands devoid of genuine political commitment to the nation and respect to the individual citizen. Therefore, unable to help their countries they run away from home following their matriculations. They are compelled to move to foreign lands to feel relatively secure and where their labours and skills are put to productive use.

Thus, the history of Africa and the lives of its people have been reduced to a history of wars and struggles for survival. Either they had been at war against foreign aggressors, beginning with colonialism, or at present fighting civil wars against each other because of the legacy of divisions and hostilities fostered by colonialism’s divide and rule traditions. The new elites, aided by neo-colonialism have continued these evil practices, thereby relegating Africans to second-class status under the full control of modern day robber barons with siege mentality.

As I mentioned in a recent article, Towards Better election monitoring mechanisms, there are leaders who are determined not to see democracy thrive and flourish in Africa. The evidence is there to see for anyone across the continent, with miniscule exceptions. For that, they are rewarded handsomely with huge flows of international aid and acceptance in the corridors of power. I cited in that article, as an example, the official threats Gambian President Yahya Jammeh issued to his citizens at a public meeting not long ago. He warned, “Constituencies that voted the opposition should not expect my government’s development projects. I want to teach people that opposition in Africa does not pay.” Certainly, he is not alone in this thinking. One may wonder, if ever he were criticized or suffered any penalty for that by the country’s development partners. Don’t even think of it!

China and the other powers should recognize that the exercise of democracy in Africa requires, among other things, level playing field, leadership that is accountable to its peoples and freedom from interference by the strongmen in power and external powers that recruit and legitimize incumbents only to run errands for them. If there is the sincerity of purpose and good will, the international community—China included—could do better in helping Africa by shaming and shunning dictators that run amuck of good governance, institutions, all the rules in the books and gagging the media.

Returning to the People’s Daily article, I must say that at this stage the Chinese comment is not only unhelpful to the situation in Kenya, but also harmful. It comes especially at a time when many dictators, including Kenya’s neighbours, have managed to cling to power by stealing elections and are now enjoying the legitimacy that China and the West have proffered upon them, not the people. As a major international player and a member of the United Nations Security Council, China could have played a more constructive role in Africa by identifying the real problems and doing what it can to help solve them. Instead, like others, China also seems to have chosen to consort with bandits in power by providing them with yet another justification for their illegal hold on power.

In Africa, there were great expectations that foreign interference would end once the Cold War was over. Contrary to that expectation, nonetheless, it has increased many folds, especially with the growing international appetite for energy and raw materials and with the onset of the so-called ‘war against terror’. It has become clear to us, as Africans, that, because of its desire to meet its huge requirements for energy and raw materials, China has provided the West with further impetus to turn its attention back to Africa with zeal. I fear that, this may turn the region sooner or later into the 21st century’s theatre for yet another round of competition and rivalry between China and the West.

If the People’s Daily were sincere in its concern for Africa, it should have written against those who rig elections and are in power even after their rejection roundly by the people. Given the repeated massacres that take place at every protest rally in Africa or beyond the glare of the international media, China could have spoken and disapproved of the continued violations of the human rights of African peoples, denial of freedom of the press, assembly and due process of law. Certainly, it is understandable that there are obvious limits there; hardly should one be asked to give what it does not have.

China refuses to comment on or criticize the records of others, allegedly because of its adherence to the principle of non-interference. At the same time, it has hardly found the restraint not to load well-known dictators and violators of human rights with soft loans, technical supports and cheap Chinese labour. Owing to that, I dare say that its continued collaboration with the worst offenders has weakened the long-standing tradition of international solidarity, the struggle against rights violators and engagement to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms around the globe. The West is now following China’s example, not to loose out its share of the African pie, even when it is faced with the most atrocious violations of human rights. For China, it has proved a useful strategy, as it has weakened the chorus of international campaigns against its own records. Thanks to the Chinese strategy, hence, today we live in a world where respect for human rights is becoming peripheral issue. Therefore, those who deny the rights and freedoms of their citizens, plunder their national resources are comfortable and enjoy the support and protection of the major international players. From where I stand, that lies at the heart of Africa’s past and present misfortunes.

As to the lesson that China has volunteered to offer to Africa on the divisibility of rights, forgive the analogy, but an old Ethiopian saying comes to mind. A poor goat under the claws of a hyena responded to its assailant’s excessive concern to it by saying, “Aya jibo satamekagn bilang—literally—Spare me of the crocodile tears and eat me if you must!” It should not be lost on China that, in ensuring the primacy of the rule of law, freedom of choice, thought and conscience, as expressions of universally recognized human rights and aspirations, a country could go a long way in alleviating throbbing societal pressures, thereby fostering a reasonably accommodative society, irrespective of whether the individual is African, Chinese, or American. It is no secret from a great nation such as China that the frontiers of human spirit and its aspirations can hardly be defined by loves of bread or by spiralling GDP figures. If that were not the case, there would have been no history of constant struggles through the ages between repressive regimes and individual citizens aspiring for more freedoms and rights. Nor would have China needed Deng Xiaoping to start it on its long journey to today’s prosperity and the great opening up that present-day Chinese leaders have embraced wholeheartedly, to which the Chinese people have responded positively.

Finally, I must regretfully say that the manner in which China has allowed its huge appetite for Africa’s resources has made it part of Africa’s problems, instead of the solution. What Africans need is not further divisions within society because of the patterns of today’s economic empowerment of the few at the centre of power and their associates; nor mere handouts, which do not come from China anyways. What Africa needs is opportunities: level playing field in the political and economic arena, voice in government, free and unfettered exercise of their individual rights and respect for their dignity as human beings. In using Kenya’s tragedy to promote its ideological goals, China has made abundantly clear where, what it stands for and the wherewithal by which it intends to achieve its economic interests in Africa.

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