Why China is building gleaming new government facilities in Africa
- From foreign ministry headquarters to presidential palaces, Beijing is funding projects across the continent
- But concerns have been raised over the potential for bugging and how African nations will ‘pay back’ China
The latest is a new building to house Kenya’s foreign ministry, which its principal secretary Macharia Kamau this month revealed would be paid for by China. That came after China made a similar promise to the Democratic Republic of Congo in January. Work has also begun on a new China-funded US$80 million Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Ethiopia.
The Kenyan foreign ministry announcement was made at an event in Nairobi on May 13 during which the Chinese embassy donated two buses for ministry use. “We have special gratitude to the government of the People’s Republic of China for the generous grant towards the construction of a new ministry headquarters,” Kamau said.
Lina Benabdallah, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, said the new Kenyan foreign ministry building would stand as a symbolic reminder of the close ties between the countries.
China is funding such buildings across the continent, including in Zimbabwe, where it is paying for the construction of a US$140 million six-storey parliament building on Mount Hampden, about 18km northwest of Harare.
In Zambia, Lusaka last year announced that China had agreed to fund the construction of a new international conference centre that would be used to host the African Union Heads of State Summit in 2022.
French newspaper Le Monde in a 2018 report cited anonymous AU sources as saying that for five years, data had been transferred nightly from computers in the building to Chinese servers. It said hidden microphones had also been found.
“The Chinese have a technical explanation for it – the data was transferred to China for backup,” said Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington.
She said building foreign affairs headquarters “certainly will be frowned upon as it suggests Chinese influence”. “[But] unless the construction of the building is directly linked to a specific deal in which China is considered in favour, we can’t say it violates the conflict of interest rules.”
Benabdallah noted that the African Union headquarters was “still very much defined as the AU building that China built for Africans”.
She said such “gifts” to some extent also showed defiance against criticism of China’s engagement in Africa. They proved African leaders would not shy away from striking deals with China when they serve their interests, despite pressure from other governments to steer clear of Chinese funding, Benabdallah said.
She said there were two areas of concern over Chinese-built government facilities – one of them about the buildings being bugged.
“Here the issue does not actually stand because one does not offer the whole building as a gift to install a particular type of technology to listen in on conversations,” she said.
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The second issue was how African nations would “pay back” China.
“Here the assumption is that they will concede something to China in return for this gift. That something is sometimes imagined as a vote somewhere, a favourable deal, or even bigger concessions,” Benabdallah said. “We have no evidence to back these speculations but from an African perspective, these speculations have one thing in common: they imagine Africans to be incapable of making decisions on their own.”
David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the facilities were being built by China under contract, and sometimes they were provided for free.
He gave the examples of foreign ministry buildings being constructed as gifts in Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Uganda.
When such buildings were provided for free it inevitably created a conflict of interest, he said, and it also raised questions about the potential for the facilities being bugged.
“Any sensitive structure, like a presidential palace or foreign ministry, built by any foreign government raises questions of listening devices,” Shinn said.