Everything you wanted to know about China's involvement in Africa but were afraid to ask.
While foreign flags no longer fly over African capitals, Africa continues to be viewed within a neo-colonial context, with Western states characterizing their relations on the continent in terms of dependency and victimhood. The rise of China has stoked discussions of neo-colonialism, with many wondering whether Africa is being re-colonialised by powers such as China, under the guise of commerce and globalization.
Whereas tense labour relations often occur in a globalized world, many of the perceived negative externalities must be contextualized and be viewed objectively, as opposed to simply falling back on colonialist rhetoric. Similarly the ascendancy of China does not spell the inevitable subordination of Africa, rather offers new opportunities and avenues of engagement.
China's Entry into Africa Decried by West
Many in the West, already wary of China's meteoric economic and political rise, have begun to question China's motives. Beijing's detractors portray Chinese activities in Africa as “economically predatory: profiting the Chinese state and its commercial interests, displacing African industries and markets, and embedding the continent in relations of dependency that resemble colonialism” (Rupp 65).
Characterizations of China's activities in Africa as neo-colonial find fertile ground amongst Western commentators, (Caniglia 165) who cite rapacious Chinese economic policies and poor labour relations with indigenous workers / communities. In response China often touts its long standing opposition to imperialism. Chinese government also stresses its non-involvement in the slave trade, as well its lack of colonial or genocidal history in Africa (Campbell 100). This long history of peaceful interchange is a key talking point in Chinese-African relations, and is explicitly mentioned in China's 2006 African Policy White Paper (Zheng 275).
Following the Chinese civil war, Chinese involvement in Africa dramatically increased. Following the pivotal Bandung Conference in 1955, the PRC sought to “cultivate ties and offer economic, technical and military support for African countries and liberation movements, in an effort to unite them against both superpowers” (Adisu 3). During this time, the PRC also wooed newly independent African nations, in its ongoing effort to erode Taiwanese support on the continent (Zheng 271).
The PRC's eventual success in usurping Taiwan's security council seat was due in no small part to the support of African countries; a fact acknowledged by Mao Zedong, who stated that “It [was] our African brothers who lifted us into the UN” (Zheng 271).
China also undertook large infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the TAZARA or 'freedom railway' thus bypassing white-controlled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) (Lee 649). The Chinese government also publicly supported Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda's efforts in promoting humanism, as well as Julius Nyerere's (President of Tanzania) Pan-African overtures (Lee, 649). The enthusiasm of many African leaders for China was vocalized in the 1980s by Abdurrahman Mohammed Babu. In his book, The Future that Works, Babu stated that “the old is dying yet the new is yet to be born;” referencing the rapid dismantling of European colonialism, and the emerging powers hovering nearby (Campbell 91).
Whilst Chinese involvement prior to the end of the Cold War was wide-ranging; ideological rhetoric and symbolic support aside, very little trade and investment occurred. In 1979, total China-Africa trade stood at only $81.7 million (Campbell 99). This figure plummeted to approximately $10 million per annum in the 1980s, as China pursued market reforms, and focused its attention and resources inward (Zheng 272). This trend was soon reversed with bilateral trade rising to $6.84 billion in 1989 (Zheng 272). As the Chinese economy began to rapidly expand, the government imported more natural resources.
China Barred from Traditional Markets, Eyes Opening in Africa
Until 1993, the Chinese economy relied on domestic oil reserves, yet as rapid industrialization took hold, the PRC sought to increase its energy imports (Caniglia 166). Secondly, in the wake of the global condemnation of China's actions during the Tienanmen Square Massacre in 1989, sanctions were introduced by the West and China was forced to seek alternatives (Zheng 272). Foreign distrust, often under the guise of national security concerns effectively barred Chinese bids in many Western countries.
Coincidentally, during this time, public opposition in the West led many Western companies to withdraw from controversial African projects / areas. This in turn offered China access to the historically Western controlled and dominated African resource market (Zheng 273). China's entrance into such controversial theatres resulted in China's critics claiming that “Beijing's resource-based foreign policy has little room for morality” (Adisu 6).
China's acquisition of a foothold in the African resource market at the end of the 20th century helped laid the groundwork for a new China-Africa paradigm for the 21st century. The initiation of the 10th Five Year Plan in 2001 saw the implementation of the policies of 'going out' (foreign trade and investment) and 'bringing in' (importing the necessary materials for Chinese growth) (Caniglia 171, Adisu 4). The turn of the century also saw the emergence of the Beijing Consensus, which defines the Chinese model of investment in terms of multilateralism, cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.
The Beijing Consensus
Specifically the Beijing Consensus advocates a combination of economic growth and a 'no strings attached' foreign policy (Adisu 4). These factors have contributed to mold “China's engagement with Africa in the 21st century [as] mostly based on pragmatic concerns such as political and economic cooperation...[and] diluting the ideological tinge that characterized the relationship during the 20th century” (Zheng 275).
Opponents of Chinese activities in Africa characterize the PRC's policies as fundamentally opportunistic in nature (Alden, 71), with the country placing its own resource needs ahead of those of local populations (Campbell 99). Chinese interaction in Africa has been developing independently, and it is clear that “support for Africa's development is not what drove China to Africa” (Caniglia 170).
The perception of China's forays into Africa as self-centred is bolstered by claims that Chinese success on the continent is the result of morally objectionable business practices. Specifically, many in the West have “cried foul with respect to Chinese bidding practices and point out that systematic undervaluation of labour and managerial costs”(Alden 45) are key to Chinese success.
The issue of labour was an important feature of European colonial domination, and remains “the fulcrum of Chinese capitalism in Africa today.” (Lee 648). In particular China commentators note the increasing levels of casualization / informalization which characterize Chinese holdings in Africa (Lee 648). Upon acquiring the Chambishi mine in Zambia, Chinese firms reclassified employees as casual workers (Lee 651).
Similarly, under Tanzanian ownership, 98.5 percent of the Urafiki workforce were contracted employees. Under the new Chinese administration, 90 percent of the employees became temporary workers (Lee 652). Such casualization of employment in turn frees Chinese companies from their obligations to provide worker with their legally entitled benefits (Jauch 52).
Moreover the absence of effective collective bargaining agreements and the resulting tense labour relations only further suppress African wages (Jauch 52). Chinese employers are widely recognized as the lowest paying in many African nations (Lee 651 & Jauch 52). In Angola, Chinese firms pay employees a dollar a day, whereas non-Chinese companies are obligated to pay three to four dollars a day (Alden 45). Similarly, Chinese construction companies in Namibia routinely pay workers only a third of the legally mandated minimum wage, with Chinese managers stating that Namibians are not productive enough to deserve minimum wage (Jauch 52).
Is China Destroying African Industry?
Western media has also been very vocal in its opposition to the influx of Chinese imports into Africa, for the deluge of cheap products in turn destroys local production capacity (Caniglia 161). Detractors of Chinese involvement in Africa, see the torrent of Chinese goods as an “economic malignancy spreading through African markets” (Rupp 69). Following the end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2005, under whose aegis many African nations were able to establish burgeoning textile industries (Rupp 70), cheap Chinese imports obliterated Africa's market share in the West (Alden 48).
Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in Kenya and Mauritius (Alden 48) and South Africa witnessed the closure of eight hundred businesses and the loss of 60,000 jobs (Alden 80). Similarly Swaziland lost 23,000 jobs, Lesotho 28,0000, and Nigerian 250,000 positions (Alden 80). Whilst this influx of Chinese goods results in the loss of foreign market share for African companies,it also creates a situation in which African companies cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, even in African markets (Adisu 5).
In several African countries, Chinese vendors have also begun displacing local merchants selling menial items. Chinese businesspeople in Cameroon have displaced street corner Cameroonian sellers of 'beignets' – round fried donuts; instead selling 'beignets Chinoise' (Rupp 73). Nigeria has also witnessed protests by local businessmen following the opening of Chinese wholesale and retail shopping centres (Alden 48). As a result “Chinese migrants are often seen as intruders even by the people who buy at their shops” (Alden 54).
Chinese vendors have also incited the ire of locals in Lusaka, who claim that the Chinese “just come here to make money and take away from us the simplest businesses like selling groceries in markets. Honestly is this is the kind of foreign investment we can be celebrating about?” (Alden 87).
Similar sentiments have been espoused by Dipak Patel, the Zambian Minister of commerce, trade and industry, who argues whether “Zambia needs Chinese investors who sell shoes, clothes food, chickens and eggs in our markets when indigenous people can?... (Alden 49) China is displacing local people and causing a lot of friction...I understand that they have 1.2 billion people, but they don't have to send them to Africa” (Rupp 72).
Economies of Scale Favour China
There does exist some merit in the criticisms levelled against China, yet one must place contentious policies / issues within the greater geo-political context of globalization. The casualization of African labour is a real phenomenon, yet such policies are not unique to Chinese corporations (Lee 649). Moreover casualization is not the result of Chinese efforts to denigrate African labour, for similar policies are common practice in mainland China. China employed casualization tactics in order to reform inefficient industries at home, in part by breaking the hold of 'cradle to grave' employment contracts (Lee 652).
Similarly Chinese corporations employ analogous tactics in their efforts to rehabilitate inefficient African holdings; often the former wards of indebted, arthritic public sector conglomerates (Lee 652). Chinese firms do not “act with imperial impunity” (Campbell 101), and as a result the Chinese “cannot be blamed for pursing their own particular development objectives...needed to sustain China's industrialization process” (Jauch 55).
One must acknowledge that China's economic ascendancy has undermined Africa's own efforts to acquire foreign markets. The drastic reversal suffered by African textile manufactures following the end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2005, is often cited by China critics. In response China voluntarily agreed to restrict apparel exports to southern Africa, in order to allow for indigenous industry to reorganize. This willingness to engage in compromise with African nations “indeed [to make] concessions to support African industries that compete directly with Chinese investments marks a significant departure from classic relations of dependency” (Rupp 71).
Despite these actions, the void in the regional market was quickly filled by cheap imports from Vietnam and Bangladesh (Rupp 71). This highlights an important fact: China-Africa relations exist within an environment of highly competitive South-South interactions. Other emerging markets such as Malaysia, Brazil, South Korea and India all have significant presences in Africa, all competing for market share in both the West and in the global South (Frynas & Paulo 231-32). It is within this context that the effects of Chinese economic and trade policy must be viewed, as market forces are never fully, if at all under the control of individual states.
No Zhing-Zhong Wanted
As Chinese firms and businesses encroach into African markets, Chinese run operations also exhibit the tendency of importing and utilizing Chinese nationals as labourers (Alden 45). Although Africans are hired for unskilled work, Chinese staff are preferred for higher positions, with companies citing language, competency and work ethic / culture as the main benefits of utilizing imported employees (Alden 45). This in turn further limits employment opportunities for Africans, and results in discontent, with communities perceiving that Chinese companies are not integrating into and benefiting the local economy (Adisu 5).
African workers are often suspicious of Chinese wealth as well as perceive the Chinese as stingy and aloof (Alden 78). Such perceptions are reinforced by the Chinese enclaves in which workers live work and play, wilfully segregating themselves from local communities (Rupp 77). Chinese managers often “advise them [Chinese workers] not to go down-town or mingle with the locals, for their own safety” (Lee 653). In turn African workers claim the Chinese are stealing their labour power, wealth and profits and sending them to China (Lee 653).
Social interactions and relations between Africans and Chinese individuals are “marked by a tension between mutual admiration and mutual loathing...Chinese and Africans share robustly negative perceptions of one another” (Rupp, 77). In terms of African xenophobia vis-à-vis Chinese nationals there is “something disturbingly akin to racism in the singling out of the Chinese presence for scrutiny when other ethnic groups and nationalities establish themselves without much local commentary” (Alden 50). For instance, in Zimbabwean markets Chinese goods are referred to as 'zhing-zhong', a “derogatory racialized epithet that mimics Chinese speech and highlights the deep dissatisfaction with the quality of Chinese goods, and their propensity to undercut African-made products” (Rupp 69).
Conversely, Chinese managers and businesspeople often adopt racial stereotypes and paternalistic attitudes when dealing with their African employees. Some Chinese employers hark back to sentiments redolent of Kipling and Rhodes, to explain local behaviour; “[Africans] have lived a much longer time in a primitive state...you see Africans sleeping under trees all the time” (Lee 655). Many Chinese managers also exhibit paternalistic attitudes towards African workers, who in turn bear the brunt of “cadres of managers convinced by reform at home that China and they know the way to break out of poverty and underdevelopment” (Lee 652-53).
Neo-Colonialism or South-South Collaboration?
Critics and 'Sinophobes' repeatedly argue that African workers bear the brunt of exploitative policies, and who in turn, sometimes refer to Chinese businesspeople as the 'new colonizers' (Jauch 55). The West often views China within a neo-colonial context (Caniglai 165), sentiments echoed in the reports of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) which finds the “patterns of trade between China and Africa worrisome, as it merely replicates the continents traditional role in the political-economy of neo-colonialism” (Alden 86-87). Similar sentiments have been expressed by African workers in Urafiki, who describe their Chinese employers as cruel who “don't treat us like people...white colonialists were better, at least they greeted you” (Lee 657).
Similarly following the previously mentioned incident in Chambishi, local opposition candidate Michael Seta, lamented that “Zambia is becoming a province – no a district of China!” (Alden, 74-75). Such views are not isolated, as witnessed by the warnings of South African Prime Minister Thabo Mbeki in 2006, to “guard against sinking into a 'colonial relationship' with China as Beijing expands its push for raw materials across the continent” (Rupp 66).
Despite tense labour relations, jingoistic and racist views as well as the various negative externalities associated with globalization, one must remember that “neither Chinese capital nor Africa is singular” (Lee 648). Any characterization of China-Africa relations as wholly neo-colonial commits a grievous error. The entrance of China into Africa has invariably resulted in some problems, however it can be argued that much of the upset in the West is caused by simplistic conceptualizations of Africa.
Many in the West seem to view international interaction with Africa as a zero-sum game, reverting back to mercantilist perceptions and alarmist posturing. Critics of China have argued that there is currently a 'New Scramble' for African resources (Frynas & Paulo 230), viewing Chinese inroads as a direct geostrategic threat to American global hegemony (Campbell 91). Yet worries over an emerging Sino-American rivalry in Africa, come less than a decade after talk of a similar emerging Franco-American rivalry (Frynas & Paulo 230).
The Myths Surrounding China-Africa Interactions
Opponents of China's actions in Africa become agitated by the exponential growth in China-Africa trade and investment which has occurred since the late 1990s. Critics cite said growth as evidence of China's insatiable appetite for resources, and its destabilizing influence in the region. China-Africa trade has indeed increased massively, reaching $40 billion in 2005 (Campbell 99), and as of 2009 stands at $168 billion (Zheng 272). However, Africa remains “by no means a major destination for Chinese investments,” garnering only three percent of China's overall FDI in 2007 (Jauch 50).
Despite this fact, Chinese energy investments has played a key role in propelling African growth figure to an annual rate of over five percent (Alden 14). Much attention has been given to Chinese investments in energy and other natural resources, with the West portraying Chinese activities in Africa as one-dimensional, superficial and exploitative. Whereas 31 percent of China's oil imports come from Africa (Alden 12), China is not the only nation which utilizes African resources for its own uses, with 79.8 percent of all US purchases in Africa pertaining to oil (Frynas & Paulo 231).
Despite perceptions to the contrary, resource related investment projects constitute only 9 percent of China's total investment projects in Africa (Jauch 50). Energy and mineral extraction is overshadowed by Chinese investments in manufacturing and services which total 46 and 40 percent respectively (Jauch 50). China has diversified its investments in Africa with many nations exhibiting “examples of China's emerging presence, from oil fields in the east, to farms in the south and mines in the centre of the continent...and Chinese companies, in addition to launching Nigerian satellites, have a virtual monopoly on the construction business in Botswana” (Campbell 101).
The actions of Chinese economic planners and their contemporaries in other developing economies are predicated upon visions of “an era where African minerals and genetic resources will be more worthwhile than US Treasury Bills” (Campbell 93). Such sentiments have led many nations to approach Africa as supplicants, thus creating an atmosphere in which “it is African governments, not external actors, who dictate terms for foreign investors today” (Frynas & Paulo 236). Consequently, Africa's oil boom contains few hallmarks of neo-colonialism as “Chinese firms compete...to gain endorsement [from] African governments, who remain firmly in charge of decision making” (Frynas & Paulo 236).
China in Africa Rustles Traditional Powers, Creates Opportunities for Africa
The emergence of China has in part imbued African nations with new found mobility, for “Chinese diplomacy [has] provided space for manoeuvre for Africans by laying the basis for an alternative international system in the 21st century” (Campbell 91). Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade publicly expressed his sense of relief that the ascendancy of China has imbued Africans with the power to choose not to accept funding from traditional partners(Rupp 73).
China is seen by many in Africa as the vanguard for the global south, as a rising power which can relate to the problems and concerns of other developing nations. China and the African Union (AU) have formed an effective South-South bloc in the World Trade Organization, thereby giving African nations greater negotiating power and clout (Campbell 100). China is also funding the new African Union headquarters in Ethiopia (Alden 78). China's “fundamental respect for the sovereignty of African states, its active nurturing of relations with African states in international fora...suggest that China and Africa are engaging in post-colonial relations of interdependency” (Rupp 66).
Most importantly, China has not been associated with the highly controversial structural adjustment programs, which have seen $675 billion dollars leave Africa since 1980. (Campbell 100). In contrast to these institutions, China has donated $10 billion in aid, instituted exchange programs, and is providing medical assistance to combat infectious diseases in Africa. Perhaps most importantly and progressive is the unconditional cancellation of $10 billion of African debt (Adisu 5).
Western commentators often seem unable to view Africa in any other context than one of dependency and victimhood. Such perceptions only reinforce neo-colonial attitudes towards Africa, as the continent is perceived as helpless, reactionary monolith, and Chinese investment merely another exploitative power. This paper has argued that oversimplified conceptualizations of Chinese action in Africa as purely exploitative or purely altruistic, only contribute to Africa's marginalization from the greater international globalized order.
Far more research has been devoted to the negative externalities generated by China's presence in Africa, however it is imperative that China's economic policies and business actions not be viewed as exceptional and intentionally detrimental. Tense relations with local communities do exist, however many average African workers express gratitude to Chinese firms for providing employment. The enthusiasm of African leaders for the alternative development models and more equitable relations which interaction with China offers, highlights the greater mobility now available for Africa.
Instances which reflect poorly on Chinese investments garner far more international media coverage and comment than the majority of Chinese projects which are more benign in nature. By construing China-Africa relations as merely exploitative and one-sided, one perpetuates the various preconceptions of African exceptionalism; that Africa remains outside the global order. Such attitudes only reinforce the tendency of developed nations to adopt distorted views and relations with Africa, opting to impose their own neo-liberal ideals, which merely antagonize local populations.
China's record is far from perfect, and many issues require redress; however, Western nations need to realize the hypocrisy inherent in their attempts to claim the moral high ground. Africa needs effective and genuine cooperation, mutual investment and respect, and does not benefit from paternalistic squabbles between the West and China, each claiming they know what is best for Africa.
Originally written in 2011. Republished here by the author.
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Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.