Inside Chinese-Africa relations - the lies, damn lies, truths, and everything in between

Separating myth from fact when it comes to Beijing's activities in Africa is far from an easy call.

EARLIER this month Kenyan officials let out that 5,000 Chinese workers will make the near-10,000 kilometre journey to Africa to build the first phase of a railway that President Uhuru Kenyatta has staked a huge chunk of his legacy on.

The 609 kilometres of track, valued at $3.7 billion, would be the first additions that Kenya has made to its ageing British-built railway network since the 19th century, and when complete would connect the hinterlands of South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda.

Kenyan public reaction online neared uproar. Rights body the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) is currently running a poll that shows nearly 80% of Kenyans oppose the influx of such a large number of Chinese, even if 30,000 locals would also be employed.

The debate has dredged up myth and fact, and to help cut through the fog Mail and Guardian Africa looked at five of the most common depictions of Sino-African relations, and what some of the more authoritative experts on Sino-African relations have to say about these perceptions.


1: That China is in direct competition for Africa with the West.


The widely-covered US-Africa Leaders Summit earlier this month led to talk of the United States awakening to the “threat” of China’s advance in Africa, and how Washington will have to play catch-up, with the $33-billion headline investment figure announced by President Barack Obama immediately compared to figures offered up by Beijing in recent years. 

This perception is a “gross oversimplification”, says Howard French, the author of China’s Second Continent, an eye-opening book that details how a million Chinese migrants are building a new empire in Africa.

The idea that China’s big recent successes—which have led to the famous “Look East” policy that is a favourite of African leaders—have come at the expense of the West are largely untrue, says French in this interview with Chinese weblog, citing the way the global economy is segmented and increasingly specialised. (Read: 7 startling facts you didn’t know about US-Africa trade)

“The goods that China is selling are generally not mainstays of Western commerce anymore. I would also say that China has large, inherent competitive advantages in infrastructure and public works, because of the scale of infrastructure building in China, and because of the low cost of capital there, and that much of the business it is winning in Africa in this sector isn’t so much being taken away from anyone as it is being allocated rationally.”


2: Every move China makes in Africa is directly planned by the state, and at the highest echelons.


Not so, many Africans would be surprised—some mollified— to learn. Respected China-Africa expert Yun Sun, in her Africa in China’s Foreign Policy research paper, notes that, despite appearances, the continent is generally a low priority for Beijing, which is far more preoccupied with issues to do with the US or its immediate Asian neighbours.

“In practice, policymaking specific to Africa happens mostly at the working level, and is divided among several government agencies, with the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of commerce taking the lead,” she says.

Africa is thus classified under “developing nations” and only the most important or politically important of its issues—such as the 2008 Darfur crisis that brought it unwelcome international attention – make it to Politburo level. 

Surprisingly, China’s own policy community loudly criticises the fact that Beijing does not have an Africa strategy, and that commercial interests have taken precedence over national interests. Indeed the two ministries are often seen fighting to take a lead role in Africa policy, with foreign aid the main battlefield.


3: Chinese interest-free loans flow unhindered, by the billions


China is happy to dole out easy cash on even easier terms (read zero-interest loans) as it relentlessly pushes its resource-driven “cheque-book” diplomacy model, has been the perception. But scholars note that concessional loans now make up the majority of China’s aid financing, while zero interest loans are down to single digits—8.1% from nearly 30% in 2011.

Interestingly, Chinese aid to Africa is on the rise as richer nations cut theirs. In 2012 China allocated Africa 51.8% of its total aid, up from 45.7% in 2009, according to its second White Paper on foreign aid (Chinese) released last month.

A grey area is that China, in keeping with its regular befuddling manner, categorises concessional loans as aid, but it did rather helpfully note that it had raised the principals on such loans but would meet any market difference.  A lot of Chinese aid is also tied to the purchase of Chinese goods and services, but as Ghanaian scholar Vladimir Antwi-Danso argues, this is also often the case for western aid. 

Antwi-Danso points out too that China is also not on a lone ranger mission, and has been working with multilateral organisations in Africa. The Financial Times further reported on an “unprecedented proposal” by Beijing to the US to link up on infrastructural projects in Africa.

It is definitely true that overall trade (over $210 billion last year) and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into Africa have increased exponentially. But many have been quick to note that Beijing does not cancel concessional loans when giving debt relief to stressed African debtors. 


4: China’s only interest is economic…and it created the oil-backed loan


It is also true that Africa’s resources come in as a natural anchor to the seminal “Going Out” strategy announced by then-president Jiang Zemin in 1996 following a six-nation African tour, where Chinese were encouraged to “utilise both domestic and international markets and resources”.

Africa’s markets play to China’s competitive advantage in manufacturing, and came in handy during the 2008 financial crisis that saw western demand for Chinese goods shrink. This is seen as a major reason why China overtook the US as Africa’s main trading partner in 2009. 

China is also seeking to tap Africa’s vast labour resources by exporting low skilled jobs and labour intensive industries to help its own climb up in the global supply system. 

However Yun Sun in her highly informative paper notes that contrary to perception, China’s interests involve four |(not one) pillars—political, economic, security, and ideological.

Beijing actively seeks African diplomatic recognition for its communist model vis-a-vis the western one (and in the battle against Taiwan), and also the continent’s support at key forums such as the United Nations. China has been particularly keen to point out that its brand of authoritarianism and economic capitalism has produced the growth that is so admired by Africans.

Yun also notes that commodity-backed loans were not a brainchild of China: the West had been doing them with Ghana and Angola, before China inked its first oil-backed loan deal with Luanda in 2004.


5:  After Africa’s resources, Africa’s vast land


The next huge farmland grab is on its way, as China, not content with gobbling up all of Africa’s resources, seeks to feed its billion-plus population with food grown on the continent’s vast land, so the story goes.

Africa farmland grab stories continue to evoke a lot of emotion, with several countries from Ethiopia and Madagascar to Ghana and Zimbabwe said to have struck deals with governments and foreign agribusinesses for export-oriented food ventures, in the process displacing many indigenous people.

As would be expected China is coming into the thick of it, having been present in African agriculture for decades. The most recent “scare” was sparked by a USAID-linked report that highlighted the end of China’s food self-sufficiency policy.

But Prof Deborah Bräutigam—a leading author and expert on Sino-African relations, points out that China is currently not exploring feeding its population with African food, and highlights the work of economic journalist Adama Wade, with the argument that it would simply be uneconomical for China to do so. In fact the converse is true—Chinese companies develop food crops for African markets.

Prof Brautigam in her China in Africa: The Real Story blog also offers pointers to other misconceptions, including that China’s no-bid deals with African governments bring down costs, and that Chinese investors in Zambian copper mines, famously perceived as modern day slavedrivers, actually perform just as good as the industry average. Just how high—or low—that average is, would actually be the question.  

Twitter: @LMAfrican


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