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Much global thought and attention are being paid to China’s inexorable rise, but far less to its underlying weaknesses. China is guaranteed to cement its superpower status, yet history has shown — without fail — that even superpowers get overextended and are forced into making trade-offs between conflicting priorities. Or they make strategic blunders born from vanity and hubris. The present-day US offers a clear illustration, and China’s future will be no different, just for reasons and timelines yet to be known.

President Xi Jinping and the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have signalled grand ambitions of reshaping the global order in favour of authoritarianism. They are working to achieve this through dominating key emerging technologies, immense levels of trade and investment, military expansion, hollowing out international institutions and generating synergies among the world’s autocracies.

But China is contending with growing economic, demographic and environmental challenges too, plus the political dilemma of whether the CCP’s command-and-control governance model will undermine its ability to keep delivering on the party’s existential promise of prosperity in exchange for freedoms.

This will bring risks and opportunities for African countries, many of which have grown significantly closer to China over the past two decades, some to the point of quasi-dependence. A lack of colonial baggage, no-strings-attached loans and a foreign policy of avoiding intervention in the domestic affairs of its clients has rendered China an appealing partner to virtually every government across the continent.

This has been problematic in a lot of ways. The environmental damage, corruption and labour abuses stemming from Chinese megaprojects in Africa are well documented. As is the enablement of antidemocratic governing parties, exemplified by how Chinese firms are the leading supplier of artificial intelligence powered surveillance technology to African regimes, training them how to use these tools for population control. Above all, China has been criticised for its debt-trap diplomacy by allegedly co-opting African governments with a deluge of inflated loans and financing to be wielded as leverage for cut-rate access to natural resources, citizens’ data, state contracts or political support in multilateral settings.

Yet only the most ardent China hawk would say the country’s involvement in Africa has been purely negative. From 2000 to 2019 China increased its foreign direct investment in Africa by an average of 40% a year, displacing the US as Africa’s top foreign investor nearly a decade ago. This investment predatory or not and the economic activity it has spurred has led to billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure improvements and development initiatives in nations where rapidly growing populations require better transportation and communications networks, more hospitals and schools, and greater access to finance, clean water and electricity. In some cases this has boosted local job creation and private enterprise to the benefit of African suppliers, buyers, subcontractors and entrepreneurs.

Africa’s consumer markets also now feature a wider array of affordable products. As journalist Nosmot Gbadamosi wrote recently: “The US may provide military hardware and boots on the ground, but in Africans’ daily lives, the mobile phones used, the televisions watched and roads driven, are built by China.”

At the end of November Xi pledged to deliver 1-billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to Africa on top of the 200-million China has already provided, with 400-million of the new jabs to be produced locally.

China has its own concerns as well, foreign and domestic. Foremost is the country’s plummeting birth rate — just 0.03% last year, according to data released in January by China’s national statistics bureau, or less than 500,000 more births than deaths in a country of more than 1.4-billion people, the slowest birth rate since 1950. This trend will continue given the country’s high cost of living compared to median income, an ultracompetitive work culture that invites burnout, withering marriage rates and the burden on adults born in the one-child policy era to care for ageing parents.

China’s working-age population has contracted 4% since 2015, and Chinese state media said in 2021 that the national population could peak as soon as this year, far faster than even ageing Western countries because of the CCP’s aversion to loosening immigration policies. These dynamics have ramifications for China’s shrinking labour force, which is expected to lose 103-million workers — one in eight — to retirement before 2040, and another 100-million by 2050. The number of Chinese citizens aged 60 and over is on pace to double to about 500-million by midcentury.

Economically, the implosion of property developer Evergrande has ripped the cover off China’s sterling growth numbers to reveal astronomic levels of Chinese private sector debt. Real estate comprises 29% of GDP, yet after a credit-fuelled construction boom one-fifth of China’s housing stock now sits vacant and undesirable amid grave levels of socioeconomic inequality. Meanwhile, inefficient state-owned enterprises and arbitrary crackdowns on domestic tech companies continue to stifle innovation. China at the same time “risks becoming the villain of the climate crisis, as it cannot easily kick the habit of burning coal to power its industry”, historian Niall Ferguson argues.

But China’s future ultimately hinges on decisions made by the CCP regime. The party’s monopoly on power has cultivated a homogeneity of views and more and more resembles a personality cult around Xi. The party scrapped presidential term limits in 2018, allowing the 68-year-old leader — China’s most revered figure since Mao Zedong — to potentially rule for life. Over time this may erode the trust and base of support provided to the CCP by China’s elite.

Xi’s conspicuous anticorruption drive has also been smoke and mirrors — a means to purge intraparty rivals rather than to tackle the widespread self-enrichment overlooked by the CCP to retain member loyalty. Obsessed with control, the Chinese government allocates more annual funding towards domestic security than defence, even though Chinese cities are home to the most sophisticated and intrusive state surveillance networks in the world.

China’s quest for economic and geopolitical primacy will generate new challenges and intensify current ones. As a one-party state whose existence depends on suffocating dissent, China will turn inward much faster than the US has once problems start to pile up closer to home. And a distracted China may not be as generous or attentive to African states in future, something African governments should be preparing for already.

Part of this includes exploring the partnership options that are increasingly available to African nations, and assessing the benefits and drawbacks of each. The Group of Seven’s Build Back Better World scheme and the EU’s Global Gateway programme, both announced last year, plan to marshal hundreds of billions of dollars to compete with China’s Belt & Road Initiative in the developing world. Turkey, Russia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates are among many individual state actors also seeking to deepen their involvement in Africa.

Aspects of the African Continental Free Trade Area and related policies that can enhance agriculture and food processing should be accelerated too. China is heavily dependent on Western countries it is increasingly at odds with — Australia, Canada and the US — for large portions of its more than $180bn annual agri-food and seafood imports. With a growing middle class, only 0.21 acres of arable land per person and huge amounts of groundwater too heavily polluted to use, China’s food deficits are expected to continue well into the middle of the century.

During a debate last year over whether the US’s best days were behind it, foreign policy expert and former US government senior official Kori Schake issued words of caution: “The world may be worrying about the consequences of a rising China too much, over risks of a stalled China.”

African countries that have grown accustomed to China’s largesse should be preparing for the day that happens. History has shown it inevitably will.

• Hiebert, a former deputy editor of Africa Conflict Monitor, is now a researcher and analyst based in Canada.

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