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China’s role in Africa: iLIVE

Martin Meredith | 2015-10-29 09:58:07.0
South African President Jacob Zuma and Chinese President Xi Jinping. File photo.
Image by: POOL / REUTERS

There is said to be an ancient Chinese curse that is intended to inflict on its victims a future of turbulence and danger. According to tradition, the curse is embedded in the phrase: “May you live in interesting times”.

Curiously enough, it is a phrase that first gained prominence in the West as a result of an event in Cape Town. In 1966, the American senator, Robert Kennedy, addressed students at the University of Cape Town and used the phrase to speak of the hazards that lay ahead but also the opportunities that troubled times can present.

Kennedy told the students – and I quote: ‘There is a Chinese curse which says: “May he live in interesting times”. Like it or not,’ Kennedy continued, ‘we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.’

Well, South Africa has certainly lived through interesting times, and indeed it continues to do so. But there is a riddle about the origin of the phrase. For in China, there is no such curse. It is, in fact, a Western invention, wrongly attributed to the Chinese.

Keeping pace with the extraordinary rise of China as a global power produces many riddles. China has chosen Africa as one of the main theatres for its foreign ambitions. Its Great Trek into Africa is the most significant phenomenon on the continent in this century. So what are we to make of China’s impact on Africa and where is it heading?

China’s record in Africa since the beginning of the independence era nearly sixty years ago has been mixed. Lacking the economic resources to compete on trade and aid with the West and with the Soviet Union, China began by seeking revolutionary opportunities in independent Africa, hoping to gain more by spreading its own brand of revolutionary ideology.

On a tour of African states in 1964, premier Zhou en-Lai memorably declared that “revolutionary prospects are excellent”. The Lagos Daily Times described him as ‘one of the world’s most dangerous men’. The reputation that the Chinese acquired, in African eyes as much as in the Western view, was of a dangerous breed of men, capable of any feat of subversion.

Their most significant project was the construction of the railway from Zambia to Dar-es-Salaam, the Tan-Zam railway, a project that was regarded in the West with a great deal of suspicion and scepticism.

As it happens, I spent a week with Chinese engineers and workers – all of them members of the People’s Liberation Army – on an assignment for my London newspaper, trying to ascertain what they were really up to.

I came away, having eaten too much tinned Peking Duck, impressed by their single-minded determination to finish the task, despite tough living conditions and appalling traffic accidents, and I could find no trace of revolutionary activity. Letter-writers to the newspaper subsequently chided me for being gullible and naïve. But the Chinese finished the project two years ahead of schedule and duly went home.

The scale of China’s ambition in Africa in the twenty-first century far surpasses any previous endeavour. As Western interest in Africa flagged in the 1990s, China saw vast opportunities and embarked on a long-term strategy to make itself the most important and influential foreign player in Africa. And in a short time, it has gone a long way to achieving that aim.

The foundation stone was laid at the first summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing in 2000, an event attended by ministers from 44 African states. China’s leaders there spoke of their ambition to establish “a new international political and economic order in the twenty-first century”. The main testing ground was to be Africa. In six weeks’ time, South Africa will be hosting the sixth summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

What China has achieved over that 15-year period is remarkable. Parts of Africa’s economic landscape have been transformed as a result of China’s involvement.

Its approach has been three-fold. First, China needed to secure a long-term supply of raw materials – mainly hydrocarbons and minerals – that were vital for its industrial expansion. By courting African governments, China has engineered a succession of deals for raw materials in exchange for undertaking the construction of roads, railways, refineries, schools, hospitals and sports stadiums. The arrangement is, in effect, a modern-day barter system, but one of great benefit to Chinese companies that have gained massive contracts.

A second part of the strategy has been to secure new markets for the prodigious output of China’s factories as well as contracts for its construction and engineering groups and jobs in Africa for its workforce. Both state-controlled corporations and private-sector companies have been instructed and encouraged to take part in new enterprises in Africa. China’s banks have signed hundreds of deals, offering attractive project financing that, again, is usually tied to the use of Chinese companies, Chinese materials and Chinese workers. China has also bought its way into Western companies already well-established in Africa.

A third part has been to encourage large-scale emigration to Africa. Chinese businessmen have followed in the slipstream of major projects, buying property, building factories, investing in farms, retail outlets and restaurants. Chinese traders and products are now a common feature in many African cities and rural towns. About one million or more Chinese citizens have moved into Africa over the last 15 years – entrepreneurs, technical experts, medical staff, prospectors and farmers. They have built networks that loop back to China channelling goods and products and capital via informal circuits that often escape official control or even accounting.

The overall effect of China’s advance in Africa has been dramatic. China has become by far Africa’s largest single trade partner. Trade between China and Africa reached 220 billion US dollars last year. It now accounts for more than 20 per cent of Africa’s total foreign trade. Furthermore, China’s investment stock in Africa has now surpassed 30 billion US dollars.

This trend is likely to continue, despite the current slowdown of China’s economy. A senior Chinese banking official has predicted that in the next 10 years China will channel as much as 1 trillion dollars to Africa in investments and loans. Even by Chinese standards, this is a substantial sum but needs to be seen in perspective. Despite the huge surge in China’s activities over the last 15 years, Africa presently accounts for only about three percent of China’s total global investment profile.

There are several features about China’s advance into Africa that are worth noting. And I speak here in generalisations.

- China uses its economic muscle to make up its own rules about doing business in Africa. Its conducts big business with an utter lack of transparency, provides scant public information and blocks media attempts to take an interest.

- The Chinese largely decide on their own terms about what project they want to get involved in. They arrange the financing. They send their companies. They consult with African governments but often only as a formality.

- Chinese companies have a propensity for bribery and corruption, practices that were once common among Western firms but are now contrary to official Western policy.

- China also has a deep involvement in the illegal ivory trade which is decimating Africa’s remaining elephant herds.

Critics list a number of other drawbacks. They accuse the Chinese of violating labour laws, of damaging the environment and of flooding markets with cheap products that ruin local industries. The Chinese maintain they are addressing these issues.

Western critics argue further that China undermines efforts to improve good governance and democracy by signing deals with dictators, despots and unsavoury regimes of all kinds, with no strings attached.

Many African leaders, however, welcome China’s pragmatic, business-first approach, preferring it to Western meddling and lectures about elections, corruption, transparency and human rights.

The balance of advantage clearly lies in the hands of the Chinese and their economic and financial clout. Furthermore, the slowdown in China’s economy, and with it, the collapse in commodity prices which helped sustain Africa’s recent boom years, also works in China’s favour. The commodity price fall means that the value of Africa’s exports to China this year is likely to be about 40% below the value last year, leaving China with a trade surplus with Africa of nearly $50 billion. For Africa, this represents a significant outflow of resources.

So what can we expect from the sixth summit of the Forum on China – Africa Cooperation in December?

China will undoubtedly announce new lending commitments to African governments and new assistance targets across Africa.

It is also likely to push forward on a new front of using soft power to bolster its influence with Africa’s elites, notably through the use of media, think-tanks and cultural activities.

But whether China’s attempts to use soft power will succeed in taking root is far from clear. China faces a deep cultural divide with societies in Africa that are more accustomed to Western or indigenous habits and traditions. The Chinese themselves refer to their ‘intellectual disadvantage’ in a continent heavily influenced in the colonial era by European powers and in the modern era by Western fashions.

Another area where China is becoming more assertive is in the politics and diplomacy of Africa’s conflict zones. For several decades, in its post-revolutionary phase, China followed a policy of non-interference on the ground. But the risks it faces from an ever-growing profile in Africa have drawn it into taking a more active role in specific regions.

In South Sudan, for example, where it has huge oil interests, China is engaged directly in mediation efforts to end civil war. It has sent military engineers to Mali and contributed a naval contingent to anti-piracy actions in the Gulf of Aden. Out of necessity, rather than by design, China’s willingness to participate in open intervention in areas of instability is likely to become a more prominent feature.

For the foreseeable future, therefore, China’s presence in Africa will be inescapable. It is not clear how much of an answer it will provide to Africa’s great conundrum: of how a continent endowed with such fabulous resources of land and minerals remains the poorest continent in the world.

Indeed, it seems to me that the most important factor in improving Africa’s fortunes would be if African leaders implemented more competent, more accountable and more honest government rather than rely on the involvement of foreign benefactors.

But whatever happens, the Chinese juggernaut will ensure that we continue to live in interesting times.

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