Will China deliver to Africa where Europe failed?

By Peter Foster (Telegraph UK) I found myself interviewing a senior analyst (who shall have to remain nameless in this context) at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and talked turn to China’s policies in Africa.

“China’s policy on Africa is very pragmatic, which is why it is so successful, because it starts by improving people’s lives rather than asking those country’s to hold an election,” he said, “It’s a policy of non-interference in other countries affairs.”

I couldn’t help myself from laughing and – to his credit when I said words to the effect of ‘come off it’- he laughed too, unable to hold a straight face against the official line.

The exchange set me thinking about a book I’ve just finished reading called ‘China Safari: on the trail of Beijing’s expansion in Africa’ by two French journalists who put in two years of serious legwork to see for themselves how Chinese expansion in Africa is working on the ground.

It’s an excellent (though at times irritatingly written) read which explores what happens when China invests its billions ‘no strings attached’ in poor African countries, building infrastructure in exchange for the continent’s raw materials – copper, oil, uranium, lumber, diamonds etc.

What is clear is that things are moving fast. Chinese bilateral trade with Africa quintupled between 2000 and 2006 and is currently expanding at a rate of 33pc a year compared with 6pc for Europe.

The authors, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, pose a fundamental question: will China’s engagement with Africa bring anything better to that benighted Continent than its cynical exploitation at the hands of its former European colonial masters?

On this they give a mixed verdict.

While arguing that China has already done more for Africa in concrete terms (quite literally) than Europe ever did – building roads, bridges, dams, hospitals…and of course vanity projects for corrupt African kleptocrats – they don’t shrink from tackling the fundamentally exploitative nature of the relationship.

There is, for example, an insightful account of an Zambian miner trying to get justice after being beaten by his Chinese master (sorry, boss). He fails (witnesses are either bought off or intimidated into silence) and finds himself sacked and blacklisted from all the other work outlets (which are all Chinese or government run) as a troublemaker.

This was just one episode illustrating how the Chinese in Africa can use their financial muscle to live above the law, protected by African governments who do too well (personally speaking) out of the deals to want to rock the boat.

It is a kind of de facto “extra-territoriality” (the policy that exempted Europeans from Chinese law during the colonial era) that so enraged China when it was signing all those humiliating ‘unequal treaties’.

Then there was the labour union that had negotiated 10 years for a bus shelter so workers wouldn’t have to wait in the rain, and the Big Man African politicians whose election campaigns are effectively bankrolled by Chinese infrastructure programs.

As I said, this is not a one-sided book. The authors are for more cynical of Europe’s record in Africa than China’s, but it does expose the fallacy of Chinese ‘non-intervention’ for what it is. On one day they count 29 Xinhua articles in a single issue of Zambia’s Post newspaper.

Of course, Chinese high-handedness in Africa is already causing a certain amount of policy adjustment since – ever practical – the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Africa is impeding China’s ability to get at the raw materials it needs.

From Zambia to Sudan, from Algeria to the Democratic Republic of Congo China has faced a growing number of riots and protests in the last couple of years. They may be whipped up by opposition groups and rebels, but the resentment needs to be their in the first place.

From a US/European perspective, cynicism about China’s objectives in the new ‘Great Game’ in Africa is fuelled by the total lack of transparency of Chinese overseas investment. China, as a non-member of the OECD, does not comply with or provide data to the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee on its aid activities around the world.

The result is an upsurge in both popular and political suspicion, the kind of ‘China fear’ that will damage global relations, making it harder for those who want China to become a responsible player in world affairs to make their case that China must be trusted and brought into the international fold.

In the end, as the authors observe, China has on many levels been a ‘boon’ for Africa, building and investing in places where Europe and the US never bothered.

But what will this mean for Africa in the longer term? That, they conclude, will be down to Africa’s leaders, to the deals they strike with China and whether they choose to enrich themselves or use China’s massive investment capabilities to build a new future for their continent.

Personally, I find it hard to be optimistic. And nor do I take a race-based view of this. It’s a game of power and money, twin forces which, history relates, corrupts us all equally: Chinese, Africans and Westerners alike.

Share this post