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China’s involvement on the continent is to be welcomed, but must take place between equals



Muhidin Shangwe,

Rwandan President Paul Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame bid farewell to Chinese President Xi Jinping and First Lady Peng Liyuan as they depart Rwanda at the end of their two-day state visit to the country, 23 July 2018
  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Flickr/Paul Kagame

Egypt was the first African country to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in1956. But it was in the 1960s when diplomatic relations between Africa and China were cemented. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s visit to ten African states between 1963 and 1965 not only earned him near household-name status in those countries, but strengthened China’s diplomatic presence on the continent.

Throughout that decade and the one that followed, China intensified other aspects of relations, becoming one of Africa’s most important sources of foreign assistance in economic and military terms. By 1972, 75 percent of military aid given to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) came from China. Around the same time, Beijing constructed a 1,860-kilometre railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia, a landlocked country.

Muhidin Shangwe is Lecturer of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In return, Africa offered political support to China on the global stage—first by playing a key role in the restoration of China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971 (26 out of 76 votes came from African countries), and second by switching diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. In 1963, 19 African countries recognized Taiwan, compared to 13 which recognized China. The tables had turned by 1975, with 37 out of 48 African countries recognizing China. Today, only the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) has diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

What this brief background presents is a relationship based on mutual interests resulting from a period of anticolonial struggle and Cold War. The need for a third way beyond the East-West rivalry resulted in Third Worldism, often expressed in terms of Afro-Asian solidarity.

Contemporary Africa-China Relations

Both Africa and China have undergone significant changes since the late 1970s. China embarked on extensive economic reforms after Deng Xiaoping took charge of the People’s Republic, known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It is essentially a market economy that has some resemblance to the hardcore capitalism of the Western world and a highly centralized political system under the Communist Party of China (CPC).

While post-Mao China has recorded rapid economic transformation, the same cannot be said about Africa—despite spells of steady economic growth by some countries. China is now the world’s second-largest economy and the number-one exporter. Not only has China’s demand for raw materials grown exponentially, but the need for external market for Chinese goods has also become apparent.

In the early 1990s Beijing initiated what was called the “Go Out policy”, intended to encourage Chinese state-owned and private companies to venture into foreign territories. Africa presented a good opportunity for its riches in natural resources. Since then, China has become Africa’s single largest contributor of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In 2009, China also surpassed the United States to become Africa’s single largest trading partner. The rest, as the old adage goes, is history.

African countries have also undergone reforms of their own. Since the 1980s, they have in different phases attempted to adjust themselves to align with policy recommendations mainly prescribed by individual Western countries and multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The results have been dismal at best, as growth has not succeeded in transforming the lives of most Africans. In economic terms, this reality juxtaposes Africa, which is in need of industrialization, with China, which is in need of natural resources to feed its manufacturing sector but also new markets. As a result, contemporary Africa-China relations point to business relations measured in terms of economic benefits. This is not to downplay the political and ideological aspects of relations, but rather to give emphasis to the economic nature of the current relations.

The China Edge

China matters to Africa for several reasons. Firstly, the Chinese deliver tangible outcomes in the form of roads, railways, ports, and airports. Western creditors showed little interest in infrastructure development after the Cold War, paving the way for China and other emerging creditors to fill the void. Secondly, Beijing maintains a non-interference policy in its dealing with African countries, which is suggestive of a relationship of equals. Thirdly, China has no colonial history on the African continent. Zheng He, the legendary Chinese admiral whose fifteenth-century expeditions took him to the coast of East Africa, is not considered an agent of colonialism as was, say, Christopher Columbus. His expeditions were benign and carry symbolic meaning of Chinese goodwill in the current Africa-China relationship. Fourthly, China’s economic transformation is happening in real time, sparking hope among Africans that they too can achieve such development feat.

These factors constitute the foundation of Chinese soft power. Looked at carefully, one realizes the stark difference between China and, say, Europe, in terms of its relationship with Africa. Whereas the Chinese would grant a concessional loan and provide a contractor to build a road in an African country, the Europeans would demand that the recipient country first undertake effort to curb corruption to qualify for the loan. The Europeans are concerned about human rights as much as they are concerned about roads, if not more. This is usually perceived by the recipient country as meddling in its internal affairs. Whereas the Chinese take pride in the benign historical relations between their country and Africa, Europeans wallow in their past with embarrassment resulting from colonial guilt.

China in Africa: A Critique

China’s business-oriented approach has attracted criticism within and outside Africa. China is accused of many things, but chief among them is that it is recolonizing Africa through so-called “debt-trap diplomacy”—that Beijing is taking advantage of poor African countries to lend them money knowing that they will not be able to pay back. Critics claim that defaulting African countries fall prey to China’s demands, which include seizure of assets or access to natural resources.

This criticism has been dealt with, and there is an emerging consensus among researchers that there is no evidence to indicate that Beijing deliberately lends to countries expecting that they will default. One study has shown that, in fact, Chinese loans play a modest role in Africa’s struggle with debt sustainability. Moreover, the debt-trap critique often overlooks Africa’s own need for Chinese loans, undermining the continent’s agency in the process.

Yet part of the criticism levelled against China is difficult to dismiss. Consider the non-interference policy, which is the landmark of Chinese foreign policy and has allowed Beijing to thrive diplomatically in Africa. In many instances, China has been found cosying up to the political leadership at the expense of African citizens and civil society. Its indifference during the Darfur atrocities, for instance, was criticized by some African scholars who demanded the condemnation of all, including the Chinese. Indeed, this has been the underbelly of Chinese diplomacy, which lacks broader consultation with actors beyond governments even after years of people-to-people exchange programs.

Experience elsewhere has taught us that this approach is counterproductive to both China and partner countries. In Sri Lanka, the Hambantota port saga was in part a result of China not paying attention to domestic politics. We now know that the ambitious project was partly a result of the then-Sri Lankan president’s aspiration to build something big for his hometown. Did Beijing take into account concerns raised by civil society and other individual actors within and outside Sri Lanka before embarking on the project?

In Kenya, the overly expensive Mombasa-Nairobi Railway built with a Chinese loan and by a Chinese company is now a topic of discussion as to whether East Africa’s largest economy will be able to service the debt. Africans are asking serious questions concerning whether the Chinese side considered the railway’s economic viability, or if it was a matter of the Kenyan leadership wanting a railway and China only too willing to make it happen.

At the 4th Wenzhou Forum on Targeted Poverty Alleviation and China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing in 2018, I raised this question to a Malawian colleague who, in an attempt to demonstrate how China was helping his country, made reference to a state-of-the-art parliament building built by China. My question was how the parliament building would help transform the lives of Malawians, given that the theme of the forum was poverty alleviation. These are the type of questions that Beijing needs to pay attention to before it embarks on projects that do not have direct benefits to the people of Africa. The “Debt Sustainability Framework for Participating Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative” document issued by China in April 2019 is thus welcomed, as it signals that China is now bringing sovereign risk assessment on board.

China’s tendency to dismiss nearly every criticism directed its way as Western propaganda needs re-examination, as it may lead to ignoring Africa’s genuine concerns. The global reaction to the treatment of African immigrants in the city of Guangzhou in the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus early this year cannot be attributed only to “misunderstanding” and Western propaganda, as the Chinese side has frequently suggested. This position assumes that Africans are gullible, unable to formulate and dissect information on their own. Admittedly, the Western media was having a field day reporting on the issue, but Africans themselves expressed genuine concerns, even summoning Chinese diplomats for explanation. It is farfetched to think the African reaction was solely informed by reports in the Western media.

Broader Engagement, Equal Partnership

China earned its influence in Africa after decades of advancing mutual interests from the days of anticolonialism and Cold War. Lots of mistakes have been committed and lots of lessons learned. Recent developments, however, call for re-examination of policies and attitudes towards each other. In particular, there is a need for a broader engagement that will bring on board diverse actors apart from governments and their ruling political parties.

This task cannot be China’s alone—contrary to most commentaries from China watchers. Africa needs to step up its agency and live up to the ideals of partnership of equals. China, on the other hand, needs to demonstrate a degree of responsibility not only to African governments and politicians, but most importantly to the people of Africa.