LSE’s Waiswa Nkwanga argues that there is great need for African elites to protect their economies and people from potential Chinese exploitation, even if the latter’s vast investment into the African continent is to be a force for good in the long term.
Africa was barely mentioned in the US presidential debates. Mitt Romney mentioned Mali twice in the final debate in reference to terrorist groups and Obama mentioned Somalia only once in the same vein. That was it.
But something else caught my attention during the presidential debates, which I think offers some lessons for African policymakers —China.
In all three debates, China was discussed at length as an adversary not to be taken lightly. Both Obama and Romney charged that China is a currency manipulator and a violator of trade rules and property rights laws, and vowed to do whatever it takes to stop China’s dubious trade practices.
Yet, in Africa, China is seen in a completely different light—as a trusted and benevolent partner, especially in contrast to western powers. China enjoys unconditional support from African policymakers and scholars like Dambisa Moyo.
Of course, US’s and Africa’s issues with China are vastly different, but their situations are similar, centring on a common theme rooted in China’s economic prowess. Like the US, China is an important economic partner for Africa.
Moreover, the main issue of concern for both may be similar—China’s readiness to undermine international rules whether in terms of trade rules or human rights for its economic pursuits.
For a while, westerners, including the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have expressed their concern about China’s disregard for international human rights in Africa. The most blatant of which was in Sudan where China sold arms to the Sudanese government, even as it became clear that the regime was engaging in gross human rights violations.
In Zimbabwe, Chinese workers have been accused of mistreating their African subordinates, including administering harsh physical punishments reminiscent of Belgium’s conduct in Congo in the 1880s and apartheid South Africa.
Chinese workers in Africa have adopted a pseudo-colonial attitude that, to them, justifies the treatment of Africans as inferior. Thus, when Zimbabwean workers complain about mistreatment, their Chinese superiors simply retort, “you should appreciate we’ve come to assist you.” The Chinese have gone so far as to eat off plates and then offer their leftovers to Africans, according to one article by the Guardian newspaper.
Africa is desperate for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and China is the only economic power that is willing to take a gamble on this resource rich, yet unstable and neglected continent. Currently the biggest investor, China poured $150 billion last year into Africa and helped with building the infrastructure that has been largely lacking on the continent.
But whether China is a force for good will ultimately depend on what African elites do. Thus far, African elites have reaped huge rewards from their relationship with China, including the $200 million African Union headquarters recently donated by China to the continent.
Here, I must say that I’m not an expert on African affairs, but something seems very wrong with this picture — at least to me. This strategy, which focuses on appeasing those at the very top, is bound to fail. Successful developers, including China herself, have done so by putting ordinary people at the forefront of their development strategy.
Obama and Romney demonstrated further that elites have a responsibility to ensure that their economies and people are not exploited by an opportunist and self-serving emerging power. The question now is, whether African elites can do the same.
What human rights records is the west talking about? Are the criminal acts committed in Asia, middle East and other places by a bunch of so called western economies better than what China is doing in Africa? Patronising Africans as if they are uninformed about their strategic needs may just go to show how feeble minded those who seek to advise Africa about China are!
The moral and economic bankruptcy engulfing Europe and the US goes to show how inept thinkers they are. Mind your unemployment and the crisis, Africa will mind its growth.
I do sometimes wonder whether it’s too easy to demonise the Chinese esp when West has historically had access to all the big contracts / resources in Africa until recently. A case of having our nose put out of joint? What’s most disturbing tho is the (majority) African elites’ feathering of their own nest with total disregard to their citizens’ interests; that’s what makes the Chinese-African partnership so potentially toxic.
(SOAS politics graduate, resident Kampala, Uganda)
Far too simplistic a piece. Many Africans, both “elite” and ordinary, do not share the view of China as a “trusted and benevolent partner”. In fact, far from it. Ordinary African consumers have realized that the negative effects of cheap Chinese goods (e.g. short operational life, defective parts) also come with the good (e.g. far more diversity of manufactured goods, more purchasing power). And “elite” African entrepreneurs aren’t stupid as well – they know more than most the damage to their livelihoods and the threat to their business classes effected by surges of Chinese imports, as well as, at times, services run by Chinese. It is not a one-dimensional relationship, though in my experience most Africans, at the very least, respect the Chinese for their lack of foreign policy hypocrisy. And I’d further be wary of equating expatriate Chinese residents on the continent with a “pseudo colonial attitude”. For every negative headline regarding Chinese expats at a Zambian copper mine or Ghanaian gold mine, there are untold positive stories, such as Chinese capital owners gradually allowing local African talent to rise up their organization and gain valuable managerial and technological expertise, especially in relation to their Lebanese and Indian colleagues, many of whom are often held in worse regard by embittered locals.
Thanks for your contribution but I have a few question for you?
1. “most Africans, at the very least, respect the Chinese for their lack of foreign policy hypocrisy”
What do you think the Sudan scenario was?
2. “I’d further be wary of equating expatriate Chinese residents on the continent with a “pseudo colonial attitude”. For every negative headline regarding Chinese expats at a Zambian copper mine or Ghanaian gold mine, there are untold positive stories, such as Chinese capital owners gradually allowing local African talent to rise up their organization and gain valuable managerial and technological expertise”
What about Europeans who built Africa’s infrastructure from scratch? Should we cerebrate them?
3 “And “elite” African entrepreneurs aren’t stupid as well – they know more than most the damage to their livelihoods and the threat to their business classes effected by surges of Chinese imports…”
What have they done about it?
4. “Far too simplistic a piece.”
Were the US presidential debates too simplistic for focusing on China?
No problem, I enjoyed reading it.
1. It was exactly that. The Chinese made had no high and holy position regarding human rights. They may have defended Sudan at the UN Security Council when it was beleaguered by the West during the Darfur and South Sudan conflicts due to their cherished principle of non-intervention, but when South Sudan became independent, they equally pushed for a full peace between the two sides, and even financially and politically supported Juba in its infancy. That is foreign policy pragmatism at its best.
2. We obviously shouldn’t gloss over or ignore their massive atrocities, but at the same time should recognize that they made huge developments (albeit incomplete and faulty) in the continent’s infrastructure, health, education, and civil service that remain integral to this day. This is about analyzing the impact of past events, not taking subjective and emotive sides. Further, Chinese economic influence in Africa is in no way comparable to conquest of foreign lands.
3. There have been some efforts, such as lobbying their governments to take a harder stand on Chinese immigration and exploitation of national assets, like the recent raids on illegal Chinese gold mines in Ghana, as well as learning from Chinese production methods and producing labor-intensive goods like textiles in a more efficient fashion. But, by and large, it’s a losing battle. They can’t compete with the Chinese price point on manufactured goods, and certainly can’t compete with the interest-free loans and infrastructure projects that coax their governments into looking the other way.
4. Yes, clearly, as they misrepresented some issues (i.e. Beijing’s perceived currency manipulation) and had a one-sided view of others (i.e. China’s competitiveness vis-a-vis America’s). However, in this age of soundbite politics and inward-looking American voters, it was to be expected.