China targets African support in Western institutions

China is stepping up legal cooperation with the continent in the hope of formulating a greater joint voice in international forums typically dominated by the West.


China is stepping up legal cooperation with the continent in the hope of formulating a greater joint voice in international forums typically dominated by the West. 

In October 1971, when Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) tussled with Taiwan for membership of the United Nations, the former won in no small part thanks to its African allies. Twenty-six African countries voted for the PRC in the UN General Assembly in an act of historic legal and diplomatic solidarity. Four decades later, China is seeking to deepen that legal relationship with a different long-term goal.

Since 1999, when the Chinese government launched its “Going Global” policy, trade with Africa has soared. In 2000, trade between China and the continent was estimated to be worth just $10bn. But by 2012, it had reportedly jumped to just under $200bn. And this year, bilateral trade is expected to surpass $300bn. Meanwhile, according to Standard Bank, Chinese investment in Africa is projected to reach $50bn this year, a 70% rise on figures from 2009.

This trend is only likely to continue, but as Ruth Lumbongo Mbambi, a senior research advocate at the Supreme Court of Zambia, points out, closer economic ties also mean closer legal ties.

“Where there is trade, disputes are inevitable,” she says. In a day’s work in Lusaka, Mbambi frequently comes across cases of contract breaches, labour law and human rights violations, and crime involving Chinese companies. And as she puts it: “It is in the best interests of both China and African countries to have a wide knowledge of each other’s laws and customs. This will foster more trade relations…and allow for fair dispute resolution as well as possible enforcement of judicial decisions in the near future.”

Both African and Chinese authorities are aware of the need for greater collaboration and understanding. In 2000, China and African countries established the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) for greater cooperation. In 2009, FOCAC ministers met in Egypt and agreed to set up a FOCAC legal forum. The first FOCAC legal forum in Cairo that year discussed the role of law in bilateral cooperation, the impact of legal systems on bilateral trade and investment, and the formulation of a dispute resolution mechanism.

China has been proactive in other ways too and has established various departments dedicated to African laws. The Xiangtan University in Kunming, for instance, has an African Law and Society Research Centre. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the party’s highest organ, has overseen the creation of an African legal system research office, an African law research institute, and an African Last year, a China-Africa Legal Professionals’ Exchange Project was started by the China Law Society. The month-long annual programme hosts legal practitioners and scholars from African countries in Beijing, educating them in Chinese laws and customs.

Taking the law into Africa’s hands

Though there is a long history of legal cooperation between China and Africa, starting from the Asian-African Conference in Indonesia’s Bandung in 1955, many agree that it is now more crucial than ever to promote a bilateral legal understanding.

From Africa’s perspective, African law has long been dominated by Europe. This first occurred under colonialism, but many laws were kept in place after independence. Some argue that these are out of sync with the continent’s needs and have called for reforms to the legal system. Some suggest that learning from China’s approach could prove fruitful.

“China has borrowed a lot from Western nations’ civil and common law jurisdictions but has managed to not replicate but adopt those legal systems along with their own characteristics,” says Madeline Kimei, founder of Resolution Experts, a dispute resolution service firm in Dar es Salaam. She visited Beijing this year to attend the legal professionals’ exchange project and returned home influenced by the Chinese elements of China’s legal system.

“It is truly saddening for African nations who…[copy] the Western world, neglecting to preserve African cultures. This is a change I aspire to make back in my country.”

One aim of China’s legal cooperation with Africa is to remind the continent of their shared colonised past and rise together for form a greater voice in world affairs and forums, offsetting the West’s long-standing dominance.

“There is hard power (economic and military strength), soft power (cultural influence) and smart power (the ability to influence international rules and governing structures)”, write Zhang Wenxian and Gu Zhaomin, China Law Society officials, in the brochure for the legal professionals’ exchange project.

In the days of colonisation, the UK and France imposed their domestic laws on their colonies, making them the foundations of most legal systems. In modern times, US-led developing countries have been ruling the roost, as evidenced in the UN Charter and WTO regulations. But today, legal diplomacy, the two Chinese legal experts write, is necessary to elevate China’s international standing.

It’s a view that is resonating with many African legal practitioners, especially the young and idealistic. Ahmed Radwan Sallam, an associate at Matouk Bassiouny, a law firm in Cairo, welcomes greater legal cooperation with China. Like many others, he sees it as a means to reshape the balance of world power and lead to a “more equitable world order”.

Sudeshna Sarkar

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