China must give Africans their due

By Sanou Mbaye

China’s sacred text is not a holy book like the Torah, the Bible, or the Quran. Instead, it is The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. Sun’s core belief is that the “ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”.

So it is no surprise that cunning and deception form an essential part of Chinese diplomatic and corporate culture. Indeed, down through the ages they have served as the touchstone for Chinese leaders’ survival and success.

Nowadays, we are witnessing the application of Sun’s ideas in Africa, where China’s prime objectives are to secure energy and mineral supplies to fuel its breakneck economic expansion, open up new markets, curtail Taiwan’s influence on the continent, consolidate its burgeoning global authority, and clinch for themselves African-allocated export quotas.

The Chinese takeovers of South African and Nigerian textile industries are good examples of this strategy. The textiles exported the world over by these industries are deemed African exports when in reality they are Chinese exports.

In trying to depict its current dealings with Africa as ‘win-win’ cooperation, China deliberately seeks to portray Africa’s current relations with the West as exploitative. Unlike China, its leaders claim, the West continues to hold African countries hostage through a combination of unequal trade deals, lack of access to capital markets, aid dependency, financial deregulation and economic liberalisation, budget austerity, crippling debt, political meddling, and military intervention.

What the Chinese are silent about is that their country’s growing engagement in Africa has created both opportunities and risks for African development.

Although China’s trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), and aid may broaden Africa’s growth options, they also promote what can only be called a win-lose situation. For, excluding oil, Africa has a negative trade balance with China.

Making matters worse, African exports to China are even less technology-intensive than its exports to the world. China’s share of Africa’s unprocessed primary products was more than 80 per cent of its total imports from Africa. Equally, imports consist of cheap Chinese products of appalling poor quality.

China’s credo of ‘non-interference in domestic affairs’ and ‘separation of business and politics’ is, not surprisingly, music to the ears of African leaders, who fall over each other to sing the praises of Chinese cooperation with their countries.

When slavery was abolished, the terms of partnership with western colonisers changed from trade in slaves to trade in commodities. After independence in the early 1960s, during the Cold War, they played the West against the Soviet bloc for the same purpose.

Today, many African leaders pursue similar policies with China, which has struck bargains across Africa to secure crude oil, minerals and metals in exchange for infrastructure built by Chinese companies. Hence, the import of Chinese labour into a continent not lacking in able-bodied workers.

Indeed, within a mere decade, more Chinese have come to live in Africa than there are Europeans on the continent, even after many centuries of European colonial and neo-colonial rule. With apartheid-style practices, including the gunning down of local workers by a Chinese manager in Zambia, Chinese managers impose appalling working conditions on their African employees.

Today, China has seized control of a huge swath of local African industries, in the process grabbing their allocated export quotas. As China’s global economic role increases, its labour costs will rise and its currency will appreciate, eroding its competitiveness.

Might Chinese manufacturers then look to Africa as a base for production, using the facilities they have built and the hordes of workers they have been steadily exporting there?

In perpetuating a partnership with the same breed of corrupt leaders that colluded with Africa’s previous invaders and exploiters, the Chinese have forgotten that Africans, albeit often their own worst enemies, have nonetheless gained the upper hand over their foes in the end.

The descendants of slave traders and slave owners in the US now have a black man as their president; Africa’s colonisers have all been defeated; and apartheid’s proponents are now governed by those they despised and abused for generations. Unless the Chinese mend their ways, the same fate awaits them in Africa. Sun-Tzu would understand that.

Project Syndicate, 2011

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