While majority of the western world condemns China for its treatment of its Muslim Uyghur population in the north-western region of Xinjiang, African countries choose not to call out Beijing on the issue.
In fact, some African diplomats recently attended the Seventh Ambassador Lecture themed “Xinjiang in the Eyes of African Ambassadors to China” held in Beijing and lauded China’s policy in the region.
“Some Western forces hyping up the so-called Xinjiang-related issues are actually launching unprovoked attacks on China to serve their own ulterior motives,” Adama Compaoré, Burkina Faso’s ambassador, was quoted as saying at the event in March.
The event was also attended by Sudan and Congo-Brazzaville, whose envoy Daniel Owassa reportedly said he supported what China has called a series of anti-terrorism measures in the region, saying he appreciated “Xinjiang’s great development achievements in various fields in recent years”.
The UN and human rights groups estimated at least a million Uyghurs are believed to have been detained in Xinjiang in a sprawling network of camps. China faces accusations of forced labour, forced sterilisation, torture and genocide – allegations it denies.
The Chinese government has defended the detention camps, claiming they are vocational “re-education centres” for combating terrorism and religious extremism.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the gathering at Beijing was an example of Africa’s silence on a key global concern.
“[It] might be routine diplomacy, but African governments’ willingness to remain silent on Beijing’s suppression of rights has real-world consequences,” Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa advocacy director at HRW, said in a statement.
“[Africans] have often justifiably decried other countries’ indifference to their plight and sought global solidarity with human suffering,” she added.
But Ejeviome Otobo, a non-resident fellow at the Global Governance Institute in Brussels, says African leaders and China have a common understanding, based on three main areas: Human rights, economic interests and non-interference in internal affairs.
Increasingly Africa’s largely pro-China position is pitting the continent against the West when it comes to human rights.
During a vote in June 2020 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva about the controversial Hong Kong national security law, which imposed harsh penalties on political dissent and which effectively ended the territory’s autonomy, 25 African countries – the largest grouping from any continent – backed China.
Months later in October no African country signed up to a stinging rebuke of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, which was backed by Western nations.
HRW accuses Africa’s leaders of prioritising economic benefits from China at the expense of other global concerns.
Yet Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project, says for African policymakers not antagonising Beijing “is a much more important foreign policy priority”.
“What these critics don’t seem to understand is that as poor, developing countries – many that are also highly indebted to Beijing and depend on China for the bulk of their trade – they are not in a position to withstand the immediate blowback that would result from upsetting China,” he told the BBC.
Another big factor is a decades-old relationship which was cemented in 1970 when African countries played a critical role in helping China re-join the United Nations amid protests from the US.
“Since then the relationship has only strengthened,” Cliff Mboya, a Kenya-based China-Africa analyst, told the BBC.
In the last 20 years, China has also transformed the continent’s landscape with expansive roads, bridges, railways, ports and an internet infrastructure that has ensured the continent is not a pariah in the digital economy.
Some of these projects are part of China’s multibillion Belt and Road Initiative which 46 African countries have signed, says Mr Otobo.
“Where is the equivalent from the West?” he asks, adding that it would be difficult to match the scale of China’s funding.
Since the pandemic hit, Chinese flags have been a common sight at airports on the African continent signalling the arrival of vital donations such as personal protective equipment and lately of Chinese-manufactured vaccines.
China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy has so far reached 13 African countries, which have either bought them or have benefited from donations.
In comparison, there has not been any direct support from the UK or the US except through the global Covax initiative – which is also supported by China. Covax has administered 18 million doses so far in 41 African countries. (Source: BBC)