Will China’s belt and road initiative benefit the people of Africa?

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The Belt and Road initiative is an aggressive Chinese development campaign to establish trade infrastructure throughout its neighbouring nations and beyond. It will provide much needed improvement to Africa’s infrastructure, increasing the quality of life for the people while also developing the local economy. Improved transportation links within the continent will support advancement in tourism and trade. The initiative promotes sustainable development and provides learning opportunities for megaprojects in the future. Conversely, China’s belt and road initiative could have extremely damaging consequences for both the partner nations and the world as a whole. The BRI benefits corrupt government officials and China’s geopolitical goals at the expense of their partner’s financial, political and environmental stability.

Benefits for the people of Africa

Ignorance is bliss?

As with most Chinese government policy, the intentions behind the BRI are deliberately unclear, which, under Kantian ethics will fall under a moral grey area. However, Africa’s motivations behind accepting Chinese investment are in the interests of the population. The investment immediately benefits the nation with the improvement of infrastructure which is key for developing countries. The consequences of the investment and the potential for debt and/or political issues in the long term are not considered in deontological ethics. Therefore, under Kantianism, accepting Chinese investment is moral from the people of Africa’s point of view. Do the immediate benefits of the BRI outweigh the potential long-term consequences if China’s intentions turn out to be malevolent?

Building knowledge

Improved access to transport infrastructure provided by the BRI will enhance well-being and quality of life. In addition, infrastructural improvements provide a foundation for local economies to develop increasing the accessibility of jobs. For example, in Djibouti and Ethiopia, Chinese investment in ports and business parks will provide 20,000 local jobs in the logistics industry. Another aspect of the BRI is the North Africa Power Corridor (NPAC); this programme is funding power stations which will provide energy as well as jobs to local people. In terms of utilitarianism, the BRI benefits the majority of the African population, therefore, can be ethically justified.

A key focus of the BRI is to establish a culture of sustainable development which has been overlooked globally in the past. To assist in reaching goals set by the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, modern railway infrastructure has been developed to reduce the burden of emissions caused by air cargo transportation. Raising awareness of illegal trade in port customs helps to tackle the current poaching crisis. There has been implementation of coastal zone management in areas surrounding ports, this prevents erosion of beaches as well as restoring and preserving marine and coastal ecosystems. These newly formed practices which are being encouraged by the BRI are parallel to the understanding of virtue-based ethics.

The road to happiness?

Hedonism argues that the pursuit of pleasure is the primary focus of human life. The BRI provides pleasure to the African population by enabling inter-continental travel through newly developed transport links. Furthermore, the construction, maintenance and operation of these lines provide a significant number of job opportunities. The effects of higher employment rate result in improved livelihood among the population, therefore an increase in overall happiness. Could crippling debt and political instability affect the long-term happiness of the African people?

Potential dangers of the Belt and Road Initiative

Lessons from the past

One of the BRI’s most damaging consequences is its exacerbation of misgovernance and corruption in countries already crippled by these issues. Most BRI recipients are in the lower half of the TRACE Bribery Risk Matrix which measures the business bribery risk in 200 countries. 10 out of the world’s 25 riskiest countries are part of the BRI. According to virtue ethics, developed nations have a duty to nurture the integrity of governance and political responsibility throughout the world. A holistic approach must be taken to development – economic/infrastructural growth at the expense of government integrity is unacceptable. Unlike their western counterparts, Chinese lenders do not require their partners to meet strict regulations on corruption, human rights or financial sustainability.

Allegations of corruption plague the BRI, from its involvement in covering up Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal to the construction of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, funds for which ended up in President Rajapaksa’s campaign fund. The port proved so unprofitable that it had to be handed back to China in a debt for equity swap. The nature of the problem is highlighted by the shocking fact that no criminal charges have ever been made in China against its citizens or companies for corrupt practices committed overseas. This behaviour is not justifiable by any ethical frameworks. Does the infrastructural development of the BRI offset the risk of increased corruption and reduced financial stability in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries? This is yet to be seen.

The road to ruin?

Long-run analysis has proven that the economic growth provoked by the BRI will increase environmental degradation in the affected countries[1]. Most BRI recipients have less developed and emerging economies, with less stringent environmental policy. BRI projects that are built through ecologically sensitive and valuable areas will significantly impact biodiversity even if they are constructed under strict environmental regulations.

A clear example is the railway between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, that crosses Nairobi’s national park and Tsavo’s National, where for example there had been an increase in elephant deaths due to vehicle and train collisions during the railway’s construction[2]. A recent analysis carried out by the WWF shows that the proposed BRI projects overlap with a range of 265 threatened species including 120 endangered or critically endangered species[3].

The great migration

A growing debate regarding BRI projects is the mass migration of Chinese citizens to recipient nations. As China’s working population has been growing since the 2000s, it has been struggling to provide enough employment for its citizens. The BRI is a means for Chinese citizens to work abroad. According to the Annual Report on Chinese International Migration, in 2015 there were 60 million Chinese living abroad.

Countries hosting BRI projects worry about the legality of these Chinese immigrants.

Chinese foreign policy expert, Mr Vorasakdi, mentions that “The problem lies in illegal migrants who stay without proper visas, work illegally, run businesses illegally without paying taxes or using nominees to buy land illegally.”; referring to the growing numbers of Chinese immigrants since the start of the Singapore-Kunming Rail Network project that connects South-East Asia[4]. Unfortunately, the African countries targeted by the BRI proposal are severely affected by corruption, facilitating malpractices and illegal migration. Consequently, African citizens are likely to suffer the same fate as those throughout south-east Asia.


[1] https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/8/2743/htm

[2] http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/new_Chinese_rail_project_intersects_kenyas_nairobi_national_park/

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0059-3

[4] https://www.bangkokpost.com/news/special-reports/1507722/the-great-rail-dilemma

12 thoughts on “Will China’s belt and road initiative benefit the people of Africa?

  1. I believe there is a factor which has not been considered in your article. If the belt and road initiative were to be a success, China’s geopolitical power would grow enormously. By controlling trade and key infrastructure, China could assert itself and its values upon both developed and developing nations throughout the world, bending them to their will. Russia have done this in the past by manipulating natural gas supply to Ukraine and Europe for example. Given the Chinese communist party’s extensive track record of human rights abuses many of which are ongoing, could they be trusted as THE global superpower?

  2. It seems like China is doing a good job on the surface. Without more evidence of inhumane acts committed in Africa by the Chinese, why should other countries intervene? This may only increase geopolitical tension.

  3. Very interesting article. The Chinese are doing in Africa what they did before in SE Asia. I would doubt that there is a single country in SE Asia, from Indonesia to Malaysia and beyond, where the mercantile class is not of Chinese origin. The ‘overseas Chinese’ are immensely powerful and very effective.

    Africa is unique. It may have many nations but Africans have a long established culture well honed to living within the conditions of their lands. Why should the African people allow a totally different culture to theirs come in and run things not for the African people’s benefit but for the benefit of the Chinese?

  4. The west must tread carefully in critiquing China’s investment in Africa. One could argue that what China are attempting now is not very different to what western nations like the UK, France and Germany did in the late 1800s in the name of colonialism. The infrastructure they built and investments they made were simply exploiting Africa’s vast natural resources – not a benevolent act for the people of Africa. The multiple atrocities and human rights violations committed by colonial powers in Africa reinforce this point. One can certainly not blame African nations for seeking economic relationships with countries like China which do not have such a tainted history of abuse and exploitation.

    1. I don’t think the “whataboutism” of your comment is entirely constructive to the argument. I absolutely agree that the actions of colonial powers were deplorable and inexcusable by today’s standards. However these events happened about 150 years ago, and their existence does not make western nations unable to criticize the actions of China which have been shown to lag significantly behind 21st century ethical standards.

      I personally wish that modern superpowers could move past this “us vs them” geopolitical mentality (not going to happen sadly) and realise that a happy, healthy and prosperous Africa would benefit everyone.

  5. Sensitive topic we are dealing with here. There is a lack of strong evidence with respect to China’s inhuman behavior in Africa, and we should be cautious. Foreign investment is always positive for a country’s development.

  6. My overall feeling is that a complicated issue where motives are seemingly good on the surface but tainted with long-term issues and hidden corruption would lend itself to a large Utilitarian weigh-up of the predicted harm vs the predicted good and this was missing from your article, so I found it hard to understand what the conclusion was. I have broken down my specific feedback below.

    For

    The moral argumentation in your “Ignorance is bliss?” section is hard to follow; particularly when you say it is a “grey area under Kantian ethics” then reach a Kantian judgement in the same paragraph. I am not sure which action precisely you are evaluating with Kantian ethics. My interpretation is that the action is *offering investment to a less developed nation* which you then argue is ethical from a Kantian perspective BECAUSE the consequences are not considered. Some clarification would be good here.

    Your virtue-based ethics point is weak because you are not clear on the virtues you are talking about. I also don’t really see the Hedonism point as separate to the Utilitarian point you made in the first paragraph of the “Building Knowledge” section.

    Against

    I think you should evaluate the ethics of corruption, perhaps looking at the motives of those responsible, or perhaps *associating with a government that you know is corrupt*. A care ethics point could be made by evaluating the lack of empathy shown for instance in “Chinese lenders do not require their partners to meet strict regulations on corruption, human rights or financial sustainability”. E.g. you could say they are empathetic towards their own citizens but not towards those of other countries. Likewise, “The road to ruin?” section could be improved by adding ethical reasoning.

  7. Interesting read. These possible job opportunities from construction/maintenance and operation would be run/standardised by who exactly? A private Chinese company? If so, would a high enough wage actually be paid to consider this improving the locals livelihood? This may no longer be seen as a positive impact, considering China’s reputation of not being required to meet ‘strict regulations on corruption, human rights or financial sustainability’.

    The example about the railway in Kenya, highlights the negative impact BRI projects have on the environment. This should be a main priority for such large projects in my opinion, and negatively impacting endangered species or the environment itself in this upcoming BRI project should be highlighted and prioritised as a main issue.

  8. Great article. With such different cultures, it will be interesting to see how this idea works out. The Chinese initiative is holds potential as it is an obvious market that has been completely forgotten about by European investors, despite the potential gains.

  9. The potential for the economic growth of China are gigantic. However, considering the dubious stance of the countries’ authorities included in the BRI project, there is a terrifying risk for contraband, animal trafficking, deug trafficking and human trafficking if not properly regulated. Furthermore, when knowing that the penalty for these crimes is not being addressed accorsingly to the accused Chinese corporations and the people in charge, it is not a time to greenlight the project.

    This is a very interesting topic and – in my opinion – the authorities from the governments involved are not ready to undertake a project of this scale, nor with such a high potential for illegal use.

  10. I think the outcome will greatly depend on how the project is handled, with both positive and negative outcomes possible.
    Firstly, on the economic side, there is potential for significant growth of both Asian and African economies. In the past 5 years, there has been a rise in African countries putting partnerships with Asian Tiger countries in their top priorities. This is particularly true for Nigeria, Kenya and Sudan. Many African countries have a vast amount of resources but lack the technology to exploit them. Contrastingly, some Asian economies (particularly China and India) are in demand of these resources due to their rapid economic growth, population increase and better quality of life; and own the technology that would allow exploitation of such resources. Thus, this project could provide a solution for both African and Asian countries and a mutual economic growth.
    However, there are also some alarming issues associated with this project. First of all, the vast size of it and amount of countries it involves means all such countries would have to be highly and equally invested in the project’s success for it to work. If this is not the case; crime, illegal trade, and resource and people exploitation could be real issues. Furthermore, any conflict that might occur within or between countries involved could have a disastrous outcome. It could not only paralyse part or the whole route, but it could also facilitate such conflicts and create innovative ways of bringing military or war resources into countries or areas to produce even more disastrous outcomes. More alarming is that many of these countries have occasional conflicts for resources, so the actual route is very likely to have a very real impact on the frequency of these resources – whether it is to increase or decrease them, it is yet to be seen.
    On the environmental side, I can not really think of any positive impact it could have. The physical infrastructure would cause habitat fragmentation, while the increased human and machinery presence can lead to species loss, illegal hunting, deforestation and general habitat degradation and loss. With most of the countries involved having very lenient or almost completely lacking environmental regulations in place, the environmental impact is likely to be very negative and of global importance.
    Overall, I believe the project is of great economic potential but must be very carefully managed. The ability to and involvement in honest, careful and rigorous management is what will determine the outcome in a project of such great magnitude. There will be no neutral outcome – it will either be a global achievement or a global catastrophe.

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