How will China’s 19th National Congress affect Africa?

Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

The author, Richard Li, is a Singapore-based partner with Steel Advisory Partners, a management consulting firm that serves clients across industries. This article was produced for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation.

China-Africa relations have been long and stable. Since 2000, the economic and political relations between China and Africa have further grown by leaps and bounds. Moreover, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, 中华人民共和国) has grown rapidly and steadily to be now the world’s second largest economy.

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会) will be held on 18 October 2017. In the Chinese context, this coming event will probably be equivalent to the United States Presidential elections. The current Chinese president, Xi Jinping, took over from the former president, Hu Jintao, in 2012 during the 18th National Congress. This coming congress will not only be about renewing the mandate of President Xi for another five years, but also about renewing the leadership within the Politburo and the Central Committee, as well as potentially identifying the successor of President Xi. Although Africa is just a bystander in this event, many plans and policies that President Xi and his team have put in place, may affect its future.

The 19th National Congress (十九大)

Since last year, the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party of China (CPC, 中国共产党) have been meticulously preparing for this big event by ensuring that everything related directly or indirectly to China is fully managed and running smoothly. This is to make sure that during the 19th National Congress of the CPC, nothing will tarnish the image of President Xi and his team and that the transition will be smooth.

Although there will be a leadership renewal within the Central Committee (中国共产党中央委员会) of the CPC, the main focus will be on the top 25 members of the Politburo (中国共产党中央政治局), as well as the 7 core members of the Politburo Standing Committee (中国共产党中央政治局常务委员会), people closest to President Xi Jinping. By default of age, it looks like 11 of the 25 Politburo members will retire, while five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members will also be replaced. It is expected that President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will probably remain, but it will be critical to know who will be the next Chinese leaders representing China, as well as potentially taking over from President Xi in the future.

Africa in the context of the Chinese hierarchy

President Xi met up with the African leaders during the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in South Africa, while in 2014, Premier Li Keqiang attended the World Economic Forum on Africa in Nigeria and visited Angola, Ethiopia and Kenya as well. Besides, African leaders are also regularly invited to meet up and hold talks with the Chinese leaders in Beijing.

Another example showing that the engagement with Africa is at the highest level, was when the third highest ranking Chinese official, Zhang Dejiang, who is the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (中华人民共和国全国人民代表大会), visited Rwanda, Kenya and Zambia last year. In addition, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been diligently visiting Africa at the beginning of every year and since 2015, he has visited at least 14 countries to keep the momentum on strengthening the political and economic ties with Africa.

Action speaks louder than words

There is probably nothing that symbolises best the China-Africa relationship than the 2012 inauguration of the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where all the African leaders regularly meet nowadays. The whole construction project needed an investment of US$200m and the entire complex was donated to the African Union by China. This is probably China’s way of showing that it is and will continue to be a strong partner for Africa in its future economic development.

In 2013, China and Ethiopia signed an agreement to develop the railway line between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, thereby connecting the landlocked country to a seaport. By late 2016, the railway line was completed and opened. Similarly for Kenya, in 2014 Premier Li Keqiang signed an agreement with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to build a railway line linking Nairobi to the port of Mombasa. By May 2017, its construction was completed and President Kenyatta officially opened this line on Madaraka Day.

For the 2015 FOCAC event, President Xi not only announced a $60bn commitment to Africa, but he also agreed to upgrade the China-Africa relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. This is based on five pillars, that are mainly related to political, economic and cultural interests shared between China and Africa.

Africa and the incoming Chinese leadership

It is very likely that President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang will be in the incoming leadership team. For Africa, this means that there will be a continuity in the China-Africa relations and that whatever plans President Xi and Premier Li have put in place, will continue and be fully executed. In addition, the 7th FOCAC event, that will be held in Beijing next year together with all the African leaders, will probably extend further and deeper the relationships built from the last FOCAC event in South Africa (2015).

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that was launched by President Xi in 2013, will also be a major transformational project linking 65 countries. Africa will indeed be part of it, with namely Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, as well as Sudan, among the identified BRI countries. During the BRI summit, that took place in May, Africa was also present with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta attending. The Nairobi-Mombasa and Addis-Ababa-Djibouti railway lines, that are planned to link up further other landlocked East African countries, are already testaments of China’s BRI plans.

By and large, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang potentially continuing on another mandate, the China-Africa partnership is expected to continue growing after the 19th National Congress. However, with the new leadership team to look after China’s interests, there will be spillover effects on Africa and the world from China’s need to reform its own domestic economy, as well as China’s endeavours to carve itself a place in the world’s political, economic and cultural space.

The People’s Republic of China and its leaders have shown to Africa that they are not fair-weather friends, but that they will work on having win-win economic cooperation. During the 2015 FOCAC event, President Xi described the China-Africa relations as “风雨同舟、相互支持” (During stormy weather, we share the same boat, supporting each other).

Hence, for the African continent, while it is gaining significantly from its relations with China, the responsibility also lies on the shoulders of the respective African leaders to look after their national interests, as well as spearhead their economic development to greater heights.

Richard Li is a Singapore-based Partner with Steel Advisory Partners, a management consulting firm that serves clients across industries. Having spent his working career in strategy consulting, he worked with various global clients and covers themes such as Corporate Strategy, Transformation, Digital Innovation and Risk Management. He can be contacted via the Steel Advisory Partners site. This article was specifically written for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies.