Manifestly, Chinese President Xi Jinping (64) is outshining American President Donald Trump as the world’s thought leader.
But African foreign policy pundits are now reflecting on what the rise of President Xi as the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) means as China expands its footprints on the continent.
As General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi has been the most powerful Chinese politician since 2012.
But in the wake of the recently concluded 2018 National People’s Congress held in Beijing on March 5-20, 2018, Xi has emerged as China’s new revolutionary hero.
In 2016, Xi became the first leader since Deng Xiaoping to be addressed as “core leader”.
Last year, the 19th CPC amended the Party Constitution to include Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as a new component of the Party’s guide for action.
The NPC removed the two-term limit on the presidency, effectively allowing Xi to rule beyond 2023, when he was due to step down.
Africa’s focus is on how Xi is re-engineering and re-inventing the ‘Chinese model’ to address the challenges of the 21st century. Notably, he is advancing on two thoughts.
On the one hand, Xi is consolidating the democratic centralism of Mao Zedong, defined as a method of leadership in which political decisions reached by the party (through its democratically elected bodies) are binding upon all members of the party.
In this regard, Xi is consciously anchoring China’s ‘democratic centralism’ on the ethos of constitutionalism.
He made history as China’s first leader to swear an oath to the constitution after the National People’s Congress confirmed his second term in charge.
On the other, he is refining the idea of “socialist market” of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, who, as China’s leader (1978- 1989), became the chief architect of China’s economic reforms and its socialist modernization.
“The market economy happens under socialism, too,” Deng argued.
But now presiding over the world’s second most powerful modern economy, Xi is moving beyond the dogmatism of the past.
The re-election of President Xi for a second term presents an opportunity for Africa to deepen its political engagement and strategic cooperation with China.
Although global focus is on the impact of the elimination of term limits on democracy, continuity in power in China may be a diplomatic boon for Africa.
Over the last five years, Africa’s foreign policy and security establishment have learnt immense lessons about Xi’s grand vision for China and the world, his style of functioning, leadership trait, ideology and economic thought.
The shift in power in China comes as Africa is preparing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit on September 2018.
Since its formation in 2000, FOCAC has become a game-changer in Africa’s development.
The continent’s image has dramatically changed from the pessimism of a “hopeless continent” to the optimism of “Africa rising”.
This is partly a result of China’s heavy investment across Africa through dramatically increased trade, foreign direct investments and loans from the China Export-Import Bank, which have deepened cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas.
But Africa is yet to emulate Xi’s unrelenting fight on corruption, which has been a cornerstone of his rule.
A new anti-corruption super agency, the National Supervision Commission (NSC), has been created with massively expanded powers, including the powers to question, interrogate, freeze assets and put individuals into detention during its investigations.
The agency, the sharpest arrow in Xi’s quiver, will oversee the entire state bureaucracy and outranks the supreme court.
Africa should borrow a leaf from China’s fight against corruption.
The changes by the NPC are likely to deepen China’s economic footprints on the continent.
Moreover, China-Africa trade volumes continue to increase, rising by 19 per cent last year.
Since 2013, Xi’s China has been implementing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), enabling China to pump billions of dollars into infrastructure such as Kenya’s monumental SGR Railway.
The newly signed agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is likely to bolster China’s confidence in Africa as an investment destination and an emerging market.
On March 21, 2018, 44 African leaders signed the agreement that envisages a 55-nation bloc and potentially transforms the continent as the world’s biggest single market for goods and services with free movement of businesses and investments of over 1.2 billion people and a collective GDP of more than $2.5 trillion.
The removal of intra-African tariffs is likely to bring $3.6 billion in welfare gains to the continent through a boost in production and cheaper goods.
The new free-trade zone is likely to increase intra-African trade by 52 per cent by 2022.
Africa is likely to benefit from China’s newly created international development co-operation agency designed to co-ordinate China’s foreign aid programme.
Africa’s military planners are also reflecting on the implications of Xi’s energetic push to reform and modernise Chinese military on Africa’s peace and security.
The NPC has voted a military budget of $175 billion, the largest defence spending increase in three years.
This budget comes at a time when China is expanding its military ties across Africa.
In 2015, Xi committed 8,000 troops to the UN peacekeeping standby force, one-fifth of the 40,000 total troops committed by 50 nations.
China also pledged $100 million to the African Union standby force and $1 billion to establish the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund.
Cooperation with Africa on peace and security is now an “explicit part of Beijing’s foreign policy”.
Africa is also likely to reap the dividends of China’s efforts to create a new “ecological civilization”.
The creation of a new ministry for ecological environment provides China with a sharp tool to protect the environment at home and abroad.
On December 2017, China, the world’s largest importer of ivory, finally outlawed trade in ivory, blamed for the deaths of up to 30,000 elephants per year on the continent.
Hong Kong followed suit the following month. A petition signed by 32 African leaders has called on the EU — the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory — to emulate China and shut its thriving market in elephant tusks.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is a former Government Adviser and Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute.