The new silk road: China’s interest in African law and trade grows deeper roots

Friday August 09 2019

It was 9am in a hot and humid Beijing – at 34 degrees Celsius and a feels-like of 40 degrees. The sky was bluish and the air was cleaner than usual for it had rained heavily the whole night.

As soon as we got our bags, a taxi was waiting to rush us to the conference venue. Nobody spoke English but everybody knew who we were and where we were supposed to go. We had no option but to put our trust in them and be taken wherever they thought we should go.

An hour later, we were already settled in the beautiful auditorium of the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University. Chinese courtesy and finesse with visitors is unmatchable. They were aware that our trip had been long and tiring. Everyone told us the equivalent of ‘pole kwa safari’ in Chinese and offered us materials, food and what not.

Analysing the AfCFTA in Beijing

This was the first Africa-China workshop on the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), organised by the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University. Kenya was well represented by Prof James Gathii with his wife and daughter, Mukami Wangai, Ndanga Kamau and myself. Tanzania had a large delegation, headed by Ambassador Sani Mohammed of the African International Law Institute, and so were Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia and Gabon.

Justice Abdulqawi Yusuf, President of the International Court of Justice, delivered the keynote, and Justice Fatsah Ouguergouz, from Algeria, former Vice President of the African Court of Peoples’ and Human Rights, was also present, among other high-ranking personalities.


The discussions were engaging and pragmatic, in Chinese and English, with simultaneous translation when necessary. The tempo vertiginously fast. The Chinese are accurate, pragmatic and swing speedily to the next thing once they get things done. They have no time to waste and do not get distracted by feelings or long introductions.

Quite a few Chinese participants approached me without any introduction and gave me their business cards straight away, expecting me to reciprocate. I had run out of business cards by the end of the first panel discussion.

Scaring and fascinating

It is fascinating and scary to observe China when you are in China. The new China is a country with a purpose, an agenda, and clear goals. The force of numbers and their discipline in following an ideology makes them adept at advancing their projects.

A good friend and an unconventional thinker, Rajadurai Jeyapaul, told me when he knew that I was traveling to China, “the world must understand that China is on an unprecedented expanding mode, in all directions. China is engaged in a new type of war. It is cultural and economic. The Chinese art of war is psychological, all-round, comprehensive, where several ways and fronts come into play simultaneously. They believe in defeating the enemy without a physical fight.”

For Rajadurai, Germany’s unification in the late 19th century brought about structural changes in Central Europe. In a few years, the German Empire reduced other European nations to an embarrassing passive status. Europe became a bipolar system with no diplomatic flexibility.

History may repeat itself. This time between East and West. China is advancing rapidly on an intent of supremacy, and there is no doubt that they are fast getting the upper hand…take it or leave it.

China’s history is captivating and mysterious

China’s history is captivating and mysterious. The Chinese were always incredible innovators. China invented complicated irrigation systems and implemented fast road construction techniques during the Qin dynasty (205 B.C.). They also invented paper under the Han dynasty and block printing and porcelain during the Sui dynasty.

The Tang dynasty expanded the Chinese economy by creating the silk road and new trade routes. It also developed medicine, the first opera and the first Chinese criminal code in 624 A.D. The Song dynasty invented and used banknotes for the first time. Later, gunpowder bombs were created under the Yuan dynasty.

The last dynasty, the Qing, solved military problems by making armour lighter, increasing the length of sword blades, intensifying the use of gun powder bombs and creating the first machine gun with a capacity of up to 28 bullets.

Despite all these inventions and many other scientific and culinary advancements (including pasta), China did not rule the world. It lacked a sense of causality. It is as if the Chinese were largely unable or unwilling to put together their scientific and military innovations for a higher purpose, whether economic, military or social.

Historically, China was always engaged in inner struggles to preserve its identity and unity. Every dynasty suppressed and subdued dissenters who were considered to be a cancer to the empire. In 1911, after the fall of their last emperor, the six-year-old Puyi, China was systematically mismanaged, ransacked and humiliated, by or with the nod of the West.

When the West plundered China

Taking advantage of a tired and weak republican government, European powers quickly rushed to take possession of bits and pieces of their land. To add insult to injury, article 156 of the 1919 Versailles Treaty gave vast portions of Chinese land to Japan.

These were lands that had been seized by Germany (such as the Shandong Peninsula). At the same time, Western multinationals ripped off Chinese mines and riches, abused the land and treated local workers with contempt.

China progressively disintegrated and fell into anarchy until a new dynasty arose, Mao Zedong’s. This new dynasty was not based on hereditary blood; it was not monarchical but built on an ideal. Millions of people lost their lives and livelihoods in this bloodiest of revolutions. The country took decades to heal and get back on its feet.

No more bullying

The air is tense. China is growing. The “21st Century is China's Century,” Hu Jintao stated. Xi Jinping has more recently said that nobody, not even the United States, can bully China anymore “even if a trade war hurts everybody”.

In 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as One Belt, One Road - OBOR) was announced. This initiative aims at strengthening China’s presence, trade, influence and connectivity with the world. It brings together “new and old projects that cover an expansive geographic scope, and includes efforts to strengthen hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure, and cultural ties.”

China seems to have put its causality together. China has an agenda and the financial muscle to push it through. Those who see China as a goldfish within a bowl are in for a surprise. Is the world ready to deal with this new reality? Why does China need to understand the AfCFTA? To be continued…

Prof Luis Franceschi
Founding Dean – Strathmore Law School
[email protected]