As China continues to face criticism for pressuring Hong Kong on the ongoing democracy protests, Beijing received an odd voice of support from Uganda, where analysts say Kampala is backing Beijing as a gesture to China due to Kampala’s growing economic reliance on the Asian giant.
Uganda’s Foreign Ministry last week issued a statement describing the protests in Hong Kong as radical and violent and expressing deep concern about the situation.
The rare African voice on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests mimicked China’s own talking points on the demonstration, which has seen sporadic clashes and property destruction.
“Hong Kong is part of China,” it read, adding, “Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s domestic affairs.”
In a telephone interview, Uganda’s junior Minister for Foreign Affairs Okello Oryem said the statement was about supporting their Chinese friends.
“Historically and ideologically, we have been aligned to China in our most difficult times. In a time when we needed friends, China stood with us. So, when they are in times of need, we have to stand by them. We think they are going through some difficulties and they need a voice of a friend to support their position, so we just naturally gave a voice,” Oryem said.
Hong Kong has been consumed in protests since June as pro-democracy groups clashed with security over what they see as China’s efforts to restrict the city’s autonomy.
Critics have described Uganda’s political system under President Yoweri Museveni as authoritarian. But, unlike China, Uganda is not a one-party state.
Ugandan economic analyst Fred Muhumuza says Kampala’s outspoken support for Beijing is not about ideology but a reflection of its growing reliance on China.
“I know countries like Uganda, we’ve had a lot of people pushing for governance, pushing for human rights, who may certainly have different opinions. But we’ve reached levels where countries now treasure more, what is my military alliance? What is my economic alliance? And so, what do I need to say?” Muhumuza asked.
Uganda’s bilateral trade with China, like much of Africa, has steadily grown to about a $1 billion annually, the vast majority being Chinese imports.
Uganda’s Auditor General in a January report indicated China loaned the East African nation $3 billion since 2011.
In recent years, Beijing has injected over $120 billion in African economies, much of it aimed at big infrastructure projects and exploiting natural resources.
China is using that leverage to be more assertive in its relations with African nations, Muhumuza said.
“Going by our inefficiencies in administration, slow project implementation and a host of so many other challenges, that even when you get the power you can’t use it, you get an airport you can’t market it and use it. You get a road you can’t use it,” Muhumuza said.
“So, it’s going to be true that the investments China has made are going to be very low yielding and, therefore, will not generate enough thrust to actually pay them at the rate that China wants to pay,” he added.
Muhumuza argued China’s support does not come without strings attached and many African countries are bound to find themselves in debt to Beijing one way or another.
For Uganda, some of the payback appears to be political support for Beijing and against the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.