Last year, the world’s fifth least-developed country, Burundi, inaugurated a $22 million presidential palace. In Zimbabwe, whose economy the World Bank believes contracted by nearly 8 percent last year, a six-story, $100 million parliament building is nearing completion. The Liberian government, which oversees the world’s ninth least-developed country, is adding two new annexes to its capitol building and a new ministerial complex. The $66 million combined cost of the project equals more than 2 percent of Liberia’s estimated 2019 GDP.
All of the buildings — and many more across the continent — were gifts from the Chinese government.
Posh government buildings gleaming in the midst of the world’s poorest countries are part of what I call China’s “palace diplomacy,” the decades-long cultivation of senior African leaders that has been hugely successful. Palace diplomacy helps explain the reason behind an increasingly obvious phenomenon: Many African rulers will likely side with Beijing over Washington on key strategic issues and in international fora like the United Nations. This unpleasant reality should spark a rethink of the U.S. approach towards Africa if it wishes to better compete with an aggressive Chinese government that sees African countries as critical sources of support.
China’s Investments in African Leaders
A central element of palace diplomacy is lavishing African rulers with personal benefits, such as grand new workplaces that serve little purpose other than to curry favor with recipient governments. In a recently published report — which so irked the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that its spokesman attacked it during a press conference — I explain how I found that since 1966, Chinese companies have built or renovated at least 186 African government buildings, including 24 offices or residences of heads of state. Of the 70 buildings for which I found financing information, the Chinese government or a Chinese company financed all but three, and Beijing partially or fully subsidized the construction costs for at least 45 of the 70 buildings.
African rulers do business with Beijing not only out of self-interest, of course. The continent needs wise infrastructure development, and China is sometimes the only willing lender. Certain cheap Chinese products, particularly technology such as smart phones, are hugely popular with African consumers, and Chinese firms have built most of the continent’s 3G and 4G telecoms networks. There is also a sense of developing world solidarity and the attendant mistrust of the developed world that accounts for some of the warmth in the official China-Africa relationship.