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China’s “Military Political Work” and Professional Military Education in Africa

China envisages professional military education in Africa as an opportunity to promote China’s governance model while deepening ties to Africa’s ruling political parties.

Xi Jinping inspects a military honor guard in Pretoria South Africa.

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping inspects a military honor guard in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: AFP/Phill Magakoe)

The education of foreign officers—part of what China calls “military political work”—has emerged as a key area of Chinese engagement in Africa. “Military political work” (jundui zhengzhi gongzuo; 军队政治工作) describes all the activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to shape the civilian environment to achieve political, ideological, and military objectives set by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). These include political and ideological consciousness-raising across the force, public affairs and “United Front work” (to mobilize support from outside the party), and educational functions like professional military education (PME).

The PLA’s service arms were educating roughly 2,000 African military officers annually at military and political academies prior to COVID. An additional 500 African officers were attending the PLA Naval Medical University. Between 2018 and 2021, roughly 2,000 African police and law enforcement personnel had trained at the People’s Armed Police (PAP) schools. Like the PLA, the PAP is run by the CCP’s Central Military Commission.

China had been offering approximately 100,000 academic scholarships, media fellowships, and invitations to local government trainings to African countries every 3 years through the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) prior to the pandemic. PME has constituted between 4 to 6 percent of these slots. The scale and scope of China’s trainings are unmatched by other international partners.

The PLA is not a national army of the type described in most African constitutions and laws governing the armed forces. It is a “political army.”

The PLA adheres to the principle of absolute party control of the military, or “the party commands the gun” (dang zhihui qiang; 党指挥枪). The CCP itself admits that this is how it has retained power since 1949. The PLA is not a national army of the type described in most African constitutions and laws governing the armed forces. It is a “political army” and the backbone of the CCP. Uniformed members are loyal to the party and custodians of its values, history, and spirit, not to the constitution, government, or state. The CCP is above all three.

During the democratic wave of the 1990s, African countries—including those that came from a liberation movement tradition where the party controls the military—adopted new models that removed militaries from party politics and transferred their allegiance to the constitution. Many ruling parties continue to find the party-army model attractive, however, especially those focused on regime survival. They will likely use their engagements with China to “re-learn” the techniques that have kept the CCP in power and enabled it to control the PLA—the world’s largest army—in ways that ensure their perpetual rule.

The dangers of reinforcing this model are obvious, especially in light of the steady decline of democracy in Africa in the past decade, marked by fraudulent elections, manipulation of constitutions, and the return of coups and military takeovers. These events deplete trust between governments, militaries, and citizens—ultimately breeding instability. African Union (AU) officials have repeatedly warned that it is a bad idea to invite military intervention in politics and to socialize militaries to serve the party in power. Yet, such interventions have become more common.

The CCP’s Model of PME

The military academy is one of the repositories of each nation’s strategic culture, societal norms, and values. African students enrolled in Chinese military academies are exposed to China’s worldviews and way of doing things, including PLA strategic culture, how the CCP operates, and how it interacts with and controls China’s armed forces.

Foreign students at the PLA Command College in Nanjing

Foreign students at the PLA Command College in Nanjing. (Photo: China.org.cn)

Chinese PME also conveys the CCP’s messages on domestic policies, ideology, and Chinese foreign initiatives like One Belt One Road. An illustration is captured in observations made by African and Asian alumni of the PLA’s National Defense University in China in the Eyes of Foreign Military Officers. They identify how Chinese domestic policies can be adapted in their countries and explain how their long stays in China shaped their attitudes.

African students are enrolled in most of China’s 34 officer academic institutions and their subordinate noncommissioned officer schools. Reflecting the party-army model, the PLA educational system covers five career tracks: military officer, political officer (including technical civilian cadres), logistics, equipment, and technical officer. All Chinese officers serve in one of these tracks. African officers train across these tracks at different schools like the Dalian Naval Academy and the Army Command College in Nanjing, which hosts China’s International Military Education Exchange Center (IMEEC). This college is particularly popular with African countries given its role in training African independence movements.

The Nanjing Army Command College’s African alumni include:

  • 10 defense chiefs
  • 8 defense ministers
  • Former presidents:
    • Democratic Republic of the Congo (Laurent Kabila)
    • Guinea-Bissau (João Bernardo Vieira)
    • Namibia (Sam Nujoma)
    • Tanzania (Jakaya Kikwete)
  • Current presidents:
    • Eritrea (Isaias Afwerki)
    • Zimbabwe (Emmerson Mnangagwa)

Ninety-four Mozambican senior officers have studied there, including the longest-serving defense chief, General Lagos Lidimo, as have their counterparts in Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

The CCP’s model of military education filters through three types of schools:

  • Midlevel command and academic institutions, like the command colleges of the PLA’s service branches
  • Specialized academic and professional institutions, like the PLA’s Army Engineering University and military medical universities
  • Strategic-level schools, like the PLA National Defense University (NDU) and its component colleges

The PLA National Defense University has run an “Ethiopian Senior Leaders Course,” a specialized masters-level course designed for senior Ethiopian officers, since 2015. It remains to be seen if this experimental program will be extended to other African countries.

The CCP Central Military Commission’s (CMC) Political Work Department (zhengzhi gongzuo bu; 政治工作部), which exercises command and control over the PLA, is at the apex of the “military political work” system. It is part of the CMC leadership structure chaired by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. It has its own United Front organization, the China Association for International Friendly Contact, which conducts outreach to foreign (including African) military academies, engages in political and ideological work on the PLA’s behalf, and participates in shaping foreign PME.

At least 50 African countries participate regularly in Chinese PME.

The party-army model shapes Chinese PME in other ways too. First, all China’s officer academic institutions are led by a commandant and a political commissar of co-equal rank and authority—the latter being part of the directing staff. Second, a political department is included in the administrative structure of all 37 officer academic institutions, and political work is one of the specialties offered in these schools. For instance, at the Army Academy of Armored Forces in Beijing—popular with African countries—students study ideology along with engineering, military science, and management. Third, senior CCP officials give lectures and interact with students, especially at the higher level like the PLA National Defense University.

Chinese officers also attend some of the CCP’s roughly 2,700 political schools—including PLA political academies like the PLA National Defense University’s Political College in Jiangsu and the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong, Shanghai. So do African officers. The China Executive Leadership Academy has received hundreds of African military and civilian leaders.

China’s “Military Political Work” in Africa

China’s “military political work,” including military education, was initially concentrated in Southern Africa where most of the region’s liberation movements—which all have strong historical ties with China—are still in power. These connections were demonstrated in 2022 when the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School was opened in Kibaha, Tanzania. This was China’s first overseas ideological school built with a $40-million grant from the CCP International Liaison Department, which also deployed instructors. It is owned by the six liberation parties in power in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, and trains their cadres in party strengthening, political mobilization, and leadership among other topics.

The CCP also cultivates countries that do not share its revolutionary legacy. At least 50 African countries of different ideological stripes participate regularly in Chinese PME. By 2019, Botswana had educated over 500 officers thanks to 43 annual training slots provided by the PLA since 2007. Cabo Verde, Liberia, Mali, and Senegal each send 10 participants to China annually, while Côte d’Ivoire sends 50, on par with countries like Namibia and Tanzania. Sierra Leone sends 30. Starting in 2021, Kenya undertook to educate 400 police, paramilitary, and military officers annually in China.

The Army Command College in Nanjing, China.

The Army Command College in Nanjing, China. (Photo: Elliott Fabrizio)

African officers rate Chinese PME highly at the lower levels and in technical subjects like medicine, computers and technology, and engineering, and some functional areas like organizing and leading small units.

“These are relevant to our conditions,” said one graduate from the Army Academy of Artillery and Air Defense, who like others requested anonymity as she is still a serving officer.

Another from the PLA Infantry College said, “[China’s] approach to national security is domestically focused, like ours. Our threats are tied to lack of development, social cleavages, etc. You can’t defeat cattle rustlers and bandits with a regular structure; you need small mobile units capable of surviving without support and operating in harsh conditions. What we learn here is attuned to that.”

By contrast, African officers rate Chinese PME as weak at the strategic level like the PLA National Defense University. Student interaction is limited, as foreign and Chinese students study on different campuses. African officers also say that the quality of the programs at this level is lower than in the United States and United Kingdom on international issues, critical analysis, and national security strategy. In U.S. schools, African students work with their American colleagues and can critique their instructors and advance their own perspectives. This is not possible in the Chinese setting. Joint warfighting (also called combined arms) where all combat arms are integrated to achieve complementary effects (a concept that is of great interest to African countries), is taught at every level of American PME. In China, it is only taught at the National Defense University.

“You can’t compare what I did here with what my colleagues did at PLA NDU,” said a recent African alumni of the U.S. Army War College.

China is offering more training opportunities than Western countries and others.

Despite these downsides, China is offering more training opportunities than Western countries and others like Brazil, India, Pakistan, and Turkey.

“We love to send our people to Sandhurst, the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, or West Point, Fort Leavenworth, and the National Defense University in Washington” said one officer. “But if course directors from Nanjing, Beijing, and Dalian show up and give me 20, 30, 40 slots, then that’s where I’ll send my officers.”

African civil society and democracy activists are less sanguine about Chinese PME, which they associate with China’s closed political system. More generally, 70 percent of Africans regularly say democracy is favorable compared with any other kind of government, and 77 percent reject one-party rule. This is despite one in six Africans welcoming Chinese engagement in Africa.

China’s armed forces have also been portrayed in a negative light in certain countries, reinforcing concerns that they are a “bad influence” on their African students. Revelations in 2011 that the loan to build Zimbabwe’s National Defense University was paid off using revenues from diamond mines partly owned by the Zimbabwe military and Anjin, a notoriously corrupt Chinese firm, dented the PLA’s image in Zimbabwe.

China’s armed forces suffered another public relations disaster in neighboring South Africa in 2016, when a rogue unit trained at the Chinese People’s Armed Forces Academy was illegally deployed to some of South Africa’s most sensitive security institutions.

Such incidents fuel speculation that China’s military training programs are being used to buttress ruling political parties’ hold on power. This includes orienting their militaries toward regime protection.

Over the Horizon

Program participants at Nigeria's Army War College

Program participants at Nigeria’s Army War College. (Photo: eiforces)

China’s “military political work” can be expected to grow in the coming years given the strong African demand for PME and CCP efforts to restore its expansive PME activity prior to COVID. The extent to which this training encourages countries to adopt the party-army model remains a concern, especially within civil society. Some of the recent coups that have occurred in Africa were precipitated by a perception by certain military officers that they were political party actors in their own right.

Given Africa’s tragic legacy of military government, African countries should be mindful of adhering to well-established African norms of PME and of military management. This includes an apolitical military, loyalty to the constitution, civilian control of the military, and PME systems that impart these qualities at all levels.

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