China’s expanded police engagements in Africa could have potentially far-reaching consequences for African security governance.
Ugandan Special Forces and over 30 Chinese commandos conducted a joint operation in January 2022, leading to the capture and deportation of four Chinese citizens alleged to be part of a criminal ring.
In April 2016, working in close cooperation with the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP), 44 Taiwanese nationals were boarded onto a China-bound flight by Kenyan security. Upon arrival in China, they received stiff jail sentences of up to 15 years on fraud-related charges.
The Kenyan police took this action even though some of the suspects had previously been acquitted in a Kenyan court.
Chinese intelligence, working alongside their Egyptian counterparts, reportedly interrogated Chinese students in an Egyptian prison in May 2022. They were part of a group of 200 Chinese nationals (mostly Muslims) rounded up by Egyptian security weeks after Egypt’s interior ministry signed a cooperation agreement with China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to “address the spread of terrorism ideologies.”
Egyptian human rights organisations have subsequently slammed their government for shirking its international legal obligation to protect Chinese asylum seekers from refoulment. Similar events have occurred in Morocco and other Muslim-majority countries globally.
These joint operations are but the most prominent of a wide range of expanding Chinese law enforcement activities in Africa that have largely escaped scrutiny. They also reflect the expanding promotion of Chinese policing norms within African police forces. Between 2018 and 2021, over 2,000 African police and law enforcement personnel received training in China.
In addition to technical skills, MPS training entails political and ideological principles based on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) model of absolute party control of security forces and the state. All police training is organised around this core principle – marking a fundamental difference with African constitutional models and the Pan-African Parliament’s 2019 Model Police Law for Africa, which stress apolitical, professional police organisations that subscribe to parliamentary oversight.
African participants represent 35 per cent of MPS’s foreign training, second only to Asia.
Chinese norm diffusion in law enforcement includes the training of thousands of African magistrates and lawyers through the Centre for African Law and Society at Xiangtan University, the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)-Legal Forum, which focuses on harmonising Chinese and African laws among other subjects. The latter has trained over 40,000 African lawyers since 2000.
The prospects for the wider adoption of Chinese norms by some African governments were evident in remarks by Tanzania’s former deputy communications minister at a CCP-sponsored media workshop in 2017 that, “our Chinese friends have managed to block … media in their country and replaced them with their homegrown sites that are safe, constructive, and popular.”
Human rights activists have warned that the uncritical application of China’s model of absolute party control could undermine military and police professionalism and the idea of security for all citizens. The CCP’s security model is summed up in the Party term weiwen or “stability maintenance”, which holds that vigorous regime security is the basis for national security and survival.
The wholesale application of this concept in Africa is problematic given the resurgence of dominant one-party states and authoritarian practices and the potential to use weiwen as justification for the perpetual retention of power.
With weiwen, human rights, civil liberties and public accountability are secondary. Yet, these values lie at the heart of African commitments to inclusive security. Hence, the weiwen paradigm diverts from African citizens’ aspirations for professional and accountable security services.
Unbeknownst to many, China conducts public security and law enforcement operations internationally with greater frequency than does the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Around 40 African countries have some kind of agreement with Chinese public security agencies. China has also negotiated extradition treaties with 13 African countries, up from zero in 2018.
Such agreements form the basis for the CCP to build support for key MPS goals like repatriating targeted Chinese nationals. Another MPS priority, “overseas Chinese protection” (haiwai gongmin baohu), is a politically sensitive issue for many African countries as it entails African security actors giving precedence to protecting Chinese nationals, which creates a perception that their safety is more important than that of African citizens.
Nonetheless, this practice is becoming increasingly institutionalised in China’s bilateral security agreements and in each FOCAC Action Plan adopted since 2012.
African governments access Chinese police and law enforcement training through the MPS’s International Law Enforcement Training Program, a collection of 21 police academies. This is roughly equivalent to the number of Chinese military academies open to African students, indicating the scale of police training China conducts.
China has also constructed police training schools, built police stations, and supplied police equipment in many parts of Africa. China’s “no questions asked” policy allows clients to purchase equipment without worrying about human rights-related export controls and end-user monitoring.
Between 2003 and 2017, African countries secured $3.56 billion in Chinese loans for public security, including surveillance systems, national security networks, and other security wares like anti-riot gear. This figure is almost certainly an undercount given that the bulk of this equipment is included in military sales.
China’s expanding public security frontlines and tactics in Africa have triggered debates about how much sovereignty African countries surrender by offering Chinese security agencies a highly permissive environment to craft a growing mix of security mechanisms within African countries. In doing so, African partners often show a willingness to break their own laws.
African police officers train in the following three types of schools in China: Provincial Police Academies – Shandong Police College, Beijing People’s Police College, Fujian Police College, Zhejiang Police College
Higher Academies: People’s Public Security University of China, Chinese People’s Armed Police Academy, Chinese People’s Police University
Specialized Schools: Police Senior Command College in Beijing, Special Police College in Beijing, Railway Police Academy in Shanghai, China Maritime Police Academy in Zhejiang, Chinese People’s Armed Forces Academy in Hebei and Civil Aviation Flight University of China in Sichuan.
All schools in MPS’s International Law Enforcement Training Programme have ties to specific African countries. Algeria, Lesotho, Mauritius and at least 20 other countries have relationships with the Special Police College, which conducts counter-terrorism training. Zhejiang Police College hosts China’s International Police Cooperation Mechanism.
- A Tell / Africa Centre for Strategic Studies report