Beijing has dropped its own usual excuse to oppose a coup for practical reasons.
On Sept. 5, Guinean special forces swarmed Conakry, the capital of the West African state, blocking key roads and detaining Alpha Condé, the 83-year-old president. Photos and videos quickly emerged of Condé unarmed but in captivity. Soon after, the 41-year-old head of Guinea’s special forces, Mamady Doumbouya, appeared on state television to announce the dissolution of the government and constitution, saying a new government would be formed soon.
As news spread, the usual suspects spoke out: The United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and others condemned Doumbouya’s actions, calling for what they said would be a return to democracy. But what made this different was China’s rare appearance in the international choir, with Chinese spokesperson Wang Wenbin saying: “China opposes coup attempts to seize power and calls for the immediate release of President Condé.”
China’s condemnation is something of a surprise, given that Beijing has predicated its foreign policy on the principle of noninterference since 1955—basically staying out of other countries’ “internal affairs,” whether that’s a rebellion, coup, or human rights abuses. China never truly abided by this principle—former Chinese leader Mao Zedong aided violent Maoist groups around the world for decades—but over the last 15 years, China has made noninterference a central piece of its engagement with leaders frustrated by the West’s human rights pressure.
At times, China did walk the walk: Beijing hesitated to involve itself in the 2011 Libyan civil war, stayed out of the Syria conflict, and played “the role of spoiler” at the U.N. Security Council by stonewalling or slowing down the body’s efforts to sanction Yemen and Syria’s governments. And when coups happened, autocracies hardened, or violent groups seized power in Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe, China refused to join international denunciations, instead prosaically pursuing ties with new regimes (and other groups empowered by them) to secure Chinese interests.
Beijing’s mercurial wielding of noninterference risks further exposing the ugly underbelly of China’s fiercely realpolitik foreign policy.
In the case of Guinea, however, China’s calculus was different. Beijing was more invested in Condé than it was in former Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, or former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. China was all-in on Condé, relying on him to facilitate the mining and selling of minerals like bauxite (around 50 percent of China’s supply comes from Guinea, making it China’s number one source of the mineral) and iron ore, which are used for making steel and aluminum, respectively. Beijing’s opposition to Condé’s ouster is thus geopolitically understandable.
But the inconsistency it demonstrates—nonintervention but only when it works for China—risks undermining the validity of China’s promises to potential partners, among whom only the “irredeemably corrupt or terminally naive” take Beijing’s “win-win” rhetoric seriously. Indeed, Beijing’s mercurial wielding of noninterference risks further exposing the ugly underbelly of China’s fiercely realpolitik foreign policy.
China’s pitch to leaders the world over is straightforward: Beijing offers vast sums of development funds (and political support) and expects certain goods—natural resources, ports, military bases, and international political support—in return. Many developing world leaders sign up for this bargain not out of authoritarian solidarity but for Chinese money; it solves problems, and there is no obvious Western alternative. Where poverty and underdevelopment are the most pressing issues, leaders will not say “no.” But with Chinese money, leaders often lean more autocratic.
The China-Guinea relationship is a very typical example.
Described as “Guinea’s Mandela,” Condé is not your average strongman. For decades, he loudly criticized several Guinean dictators, which forced him into French exile; in 2010, he won the country’s first democratic elections, becoming its first freely elected president. He promised to turn Guinea—one of most impoverished, corrupt, and mineral-rich countries on Earth—into a stable democracy. To do so, he enlisted then-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and billionaire George Soros as advisors; then-U.S. President Barack Obama granted him an audience. Hopes were high.
But Condé soon recognized that making good on his huge promises would require money—a lot of it and quickly. So rather than wait on Western financial aid, which remains limited in speed by bureaucratic red tape and limited in size by voters’ preference for spending money at home, and investment, which can be fickle, he turned to China, whose autocratic leadership could bring huge sums of money, fast.
By 2011, Condé was engaged in negotiations with China over the development of a bauxite mine, the construction of an alumina refinery, a deep-water port, and a coal-fired power plant. By 2014, the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto mining company and Chinalco, the Chinese state-owned mining company, had signed a $20 billion deal to mine Guinea’s iron ore. By 2016, Chinalco had bought out Rio Tinto, leaving it in control of the project. In 2017, China agreed to loan Guinea $20 billion over almost 20 years in exchange for concessions on bauxite. By 2020, China had huge mining interests in Guinea’s iron ore and bauxite, of which China is the world’s top producer.
All the while, Condé drifted from his democratic promises, consolidating power while leaving most Guineans in poverty. His tenure was marred also by ethnic violence, his government’s brutal crackdowns on protesters, and an Ebola outbreak that killed more than 2,500 people. By the time Condé announced his plans to scrap a constitutional two-term limit in 2020—thereby allowing him to run for a third term—his democratic credentials were essentially nil.
The main opposition parties accordingly boycotted that year’s elections. Condé’s party won a supermajority, despite accusations of fraud. And when Guinea’s top court confirmed Conde’s victory in late 2020, rejecting fraud accusations and handing him a third term his opponents said was unconstitutional, China congratulated him on his victory. (Months before, Condé had built up further goodwill with Beijing by making Guinea one of 53 countries to back China’s national security law for Hong Kong at the United Nations.)
China-Guinea relations were plainly transactional: money and political support in exchange for minerals and political support. Yet in most countries where China has relationships like these, Beijing usually maintains relations with other forces and factions in case their leader is ousted from power.
In recent years, China engaged Myanmar’s military (and the ethnic insurgent groups that fought against it and controlled pockets of the country), even as it deepened ties with the quasi-democratic civilian government, putting Beijing in a decent position when the military took power in a February coup. In Afghanistan, China engaged the Taliban as the Ghani government collapsed. In Sudan (and what would become South Sudan), China supported secessionist insurgents after first backing the government they were fighting against, securing major oil investments in both countries.
During the Venezuelan political crisis, China engaged opposition leader Juan Guaidó to protect Chinese oil investments despite previously being on close terms with the man he was challenging, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. When Maduro held on, China promptly reengaged him, helping prop up his government as if nothing had happened. In Zimbabwe, China courted Mugabe’s opposition when it looked like he might fall in 2012 and then cozied up to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who ousted him in 2017.
China’s anti-coup stance in Guinea is not evidence of some newfound concern for democracy—it’s evidence that the coup caught China off guard.
And in perhaps the most obvious example of China’s fair-weather friendship, when the deeply China-friendly Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to his surprising 2013 electoral setback by seeking support from China’s Phnom Penh embassy, Chinese diplomats said they would not support him unconditionally but would back “any Cambodian leader who guarded Beijing’s interests.”
China is evidently willing to back anyone who supports Chinese interests and will not hesitate to discard any ousted leader, even the most pro-China ones.
But because the Guinea coup came far out of left field, China was unprepared. Beijing had not cultivated relationships with any of Condé’s opponents, so Chinese leaders had no cards to play. They had no plan B in Guinea.
And because Doumbouya justified the coup on the populist grounds of beating back government “mismanagement” and returning power and money to the people—which perhaps explains why crowds in Conakry are celebrating the takeover—China was left with little options but to back their leader.
Indeed, with Doumbouya declaring, “we are no longer going to entrust politics to one man; we are going to entrust politics to the people” and “Guinea is beautiful—we don’t need to rape Guinea anymore; we just need to make love to her,” it’s not hard to see why Chinese diplomats in Guinea are telling Chinese state-run media that his government may seek to review the signed contracts and propose altered existing terms—including diluting shares held by Chinese investors—more taxes, or greater local involvement in mining projects (even though Doumbouya promised mining will continue and Chinalco has not yet reported any disruptions).
China’s anti-coup stance in Guinea is not evidence of some newfound concern for democracy. Instead, it’s evidence that the coup caught China off guard. And with a potentially less China-friendly regime coming into power, Chinese leaders found themselves with no choice but to stick by Condé in hopes that he is eventually reinstalled.
Yet Beijing’s approach to Guinea has only further exposed the farce that is China’s promised nonintervention policy. China is hardly committed; Chinese leaders are wedded to it only as long as internal developments are favorable or at least tolerable for Beijing, as they were in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and other countries.
Despite what Chinese leaders tell their partners in Asia, Africa, and beyond—that China is a new kind of great power, one that truly respects and cares about its junior partners—China has no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. It also has no committed principles, whether they be since-jettisoned communist economics or nonintervention practices. For China, like countless great powers before it, realpolitik will always triumph over nonintervention and other promises because China has no permanent friends, enemies, or commitments—only permanent interests, which Beijing wants no matter the inconsistencies or costs. It isn’t alone in that.