How does China’s development model affect state stability in African countries?

Both World Bank and Chinese aid projects are associated with a reduction in violence against civilians, but regions with Chinese aid see an increase in government repression.

January 22, 2020
Melvin H.L. Wong, Lennart Kaplan, Kai Gehring
Photo by the UN/Isaac Billy via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Photo by the UN/Isaac Billy via Flickr, licensed under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

China is rapidly reshaping the aid landscape with alternative development approaches—in which economic performance and political stability, instead of democratization, are leading elements—that challenge the aid models of Western donors. Chinese policymakers highlight non-interference in recipient countries’ domestic issues as a central tenet, exemplified recently by President Xi Jinping’s statement that there will be “no interference in African countries’ internal affairs.” By contrast, Western donors traditionally apply economic as well as political conditions to encourage democratization and ensure compliance with human rights norms. The underlying credo: democracy, along with liberal market institutions, leads to economic growth and political stability. The Chinese development model has gained significant traction among developing countries that have had mixed experiences with Western development approaches. Yet China’s expanding influence in Africa troubles many Western observers concerned about potential adverse effects.

But how do these very different development approaches affect state stability writ large? Existing studies that use country-level data or examine specific aid types do not conclusively answer the question. In our recent AidData Working Paper, we use precise sub-national data to systematically compare the impact of Chinese aid on stability with that of one of the most important traditional Western donors: the World Bank. The World Bank is a prototypical example of the Western-led, expert-based approach to development that uses conditionality to minimize the risk of conflict and maximize democratic procedures and human rights. Its foreign aid arm, the International Development Association (IDA), promotes a Conflict Analysis Framework, which considers specific screening indicators on conflict histories, resource wealth, and freedom of the press when formulating development programs.

In our analysis, we find that aid by both the World Bank and China does not fuel outright conflict, on average. Aid from both donors is even associated with a reduction in violence by the government against civilians. Increasing Chinese aid by 100% halves the probability of violence against civilians in a sub-national region from 3.4% to 1.5%. We also find that projects by both donors are not associated with a change in protests. Given these findings, what can we conclude about governance and Chinese aid versus traditional development cooperation?

When considering government repression, we see a small negative correlation with World Bank aid, but a significant increase in repression in regions where China starts to become active. This finding lends empirical support to recent news reports alleging that countries receiving Chinese aid become more repressive and that China is exporting surveillance technology through aid that could be used for repressive ends. Our analysis of village-level information on individual perceptions and attitudes taken from Afrobarometer survey data also reveals that populations in areas receiving more Chinese aid are more likely to support the enforcement of the rule of law by any means. More importantly, they are also more likely to support different forms of autocratic governments; by contrast, World Bank projects strengthen the acceptance of democratic values.

How we measured Chinese and World Bank aid’s impacts

Systematically measuring the actual impact of aid on stability is challenging. Prior analyses that use country-level data yield correlations, but do not allow testing of whether conflicts are really related to aid projects in the same part of a country. Our statistical analysis relies on novel data that were collected using modern georeferencing techniques to match the sites of aid projects and the locations of conflict incidences much more precisely than earlier studies. Using data from AidData, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, and the Social Conflict Analysis Database, we can map aid projects exactly to administrative regions and the locations of events that may affect state stability. To measure outcomes corresponding to our holistic view of state stability, we consider both outright conflicts and the actors involved, but also protest events like demonstrations, strikes, or riots, as well as measures of government repression. The maps below display the frequency of these incidences and aid project locations over time for the World Bank and China.

Locations of Chinese and World Bank aid projects and conflict

Chinese (2000-2012) and World Bank (1995-2012) development aid

Lethal conflict (1996-2014)

Demonstrations, riots, strikes and non-lethal government repression (1996-2014)

Importantly, the locations of aid projects themselves may be dependent on conflict occurrences. That is, projects may be postponed or not implemented because of active conflicts or the threat of conflict. We take this into account by combining variation over time in the number of funds available to the donors in a particular year with geographic differences in how much different regions profit from those additional funds. The crucial feature of this research design is that the availability of funds affects the potential for conflict, but not the other way around.

Ultimately, Chinese aid may prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, China’s approach may contribute to stability—for instance, by supporting growth more effectively through being faster and less bureaucratic. The rapid implementation of large-scale infrastructure projects like roads, ports, and railways is a key feature of China’s approach. An example is the TAZARA railway in Tanzania, which was funded by China in the 1960s after several traditional donors declined support.

On the other hand, observers fear that these projects may inflame existing tensions and cause instability in recipient countries. A specific concern centers around China ”exporting repression”— while social stability is a key feature of the Chinese model, the methods by which that stability is achieved include the use of new technologies for surveillance and the repression of 'problematic' views and groups. Recent reports describe how China "propagate[s] its model abroad by conducting large-scale training of foreign officials," including those from African countries ranking poorly on transparency and human rights. As a result, some countries, including Uganda and Tanzania, have introduced cybersecurity laws similar to Chinese laws after their officials attended Chinese training sessions. China has also signed agreements with Zimbabwe, Angola, and Ethiopia to deploy new facial recognition software to monitor their populations.

The Chinese development model has gained support in developing countries and has been associated with positive outcomes such as higher growth rates, less inequality, and quicker implementation. But China’s reshaping of the aid landscape has given rise to fears of negative impacts on countries’ stability, some of which are validated by the evidence. In our working paper, we conclude that China’s aid is a two-sided coin: Chinese development assistance, like World Bank aid, does not seem to cause outright conflict, when taking the actual locations of aid projects and conflicts into account. However, Chinese aid does appear to weaken support for democracy and is associated with the use of increased government repression as a tool to maintain social stability. Traditional Western donors looking to promote the stability of recipient countries and maintain or regain their position as preferred providers of aid should therefore seek to engage with and respond to some of the challenges and criticisms of the traditional aid model, without deprioritizing their support for democracy and human rights.

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Melvin H.L. Wong, Leibniz University Hannover

Lennart Kaplan, German Development Institute

Kai Gehring, University of Zurich, CESifo