Yesterday at the United Nations Human Rights Council 26 African states leant support to China over its new national security law in the Hong Kong Special administrative region, constituting part of a coalition of 52 countries which sought to respond to a western condemnation. The supportive nations on the continent included: Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Suriname, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Despite the overwhelming African solidarity in favour of the Chinese position and no condemnation from any nation on the continent, the western media sought to depict the regional opposition to its national security law in the west as “global condemnation” and used terms such as “International community” to describe such disapproval. The specific details of the support received was never given much emphasis either, apart from to say that the states in favour of China were merely “autocratic”. Yet of course, if there is a negative development in China-Africa relations, such media is quick to emphasize it.
The voting outcome illustrates that China continues to enjoy robust and widespread support on the continent, not including those who did not participate in it at all as well. This support is not “bought” but as has been frequently noted, has a long and very established history. African countries have chosen to throw their weight behind Beijing on the Hong Kong matter because for them, territorial and national sovereignty, especially in the face of the west, remains a steadfast priority. The continent knows what it is like to be dictated to by countries in Europe, and in turn the relationships of many countries to continue to be guided by post-colonial, developing world solidarity.
For China, the Hong Kong issue is at heart an issue of national sovereignty. A former British colony which was annexed from the mainland in 1842 and transformed into a trading and financial hub, using Han Chinese Labour, China sees the return of the territory to its own dominion not a question of “expansionism” or “aggression” as misleadingly portrayed, but the rightful correction of a historical injust dealt towards the country by Imperial powers. The loss of Hong Kong commenced what was China’s “century of humiliation” whereby the British Empire and others sought to use military force to impose one-sided and unequal demands on the Qing Dynasty throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a result, the modern state of the People’s Republic of China is built on the belief that national sovereignty is non-negotiable and as the west refuses to treat the country as an equal, it ought to be firm. Now whilst people highlight that Beijing has obligations to the former colony under the Sino-British declaration, including given autonomies and the one country, two systems arrangement, nevertheless the “interpretation” of this treaty is inherently unequal as a group of nations continue to hold on a monopoly on what defines such “autonomy” on a one-sided basis and treat not as an agreement, but like a guardian or restraint on the mainland promulgating the continual belief that its presence is “illegitimate”.
In this case, China makes a very real case that the attitude of the west concerning the city, as well as the role of U.S politicians in funding and openly supporting unrest, as a challenge to its national sovereignty. In turn, as a result of common colonial legacies, African countries at large are able to understand Beijing’s reasoning and background concerning the intrusion of the west, and the right of each state to be sovereign. The continent has experienced centuries of trauma as its own borders, boundaries and peoples were carved upon western imposed lines and terms of governance dictated to newly independent states by individuals in London, Paris and more.
Ultimately, China and the African continent share a common history and heritage of western colonial trauma and the experience of having their national sovereignty disrespected and violated. This is what forged the PRC’s ties with numerous African nations in the 1960s and has become the common foundation for relations, with many of the same countries who supported China at the United Nations on Wednesday equally helped support Beijing’s own bid to join that organization in place of the Republic of China (Taiwan). This foundation of post colonialism is both strong and lasting, and therefore Africa ultimately stands with China on Hong Kong, far from the so called “global condemnation” of which the BBC and others claimed.
Tom Fowdy is a Political Columnist for the Southern African Times. He is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain, and the U.S.