We have been debating the presence of China in Africa here at #itchysilk since last year but our attention and discussions were diverted as is the case in this fast-paced world.
On the 29 06 17 that discussion was re-visited with the story that an in-completed bridge had collapsed in Kenya killing some 60 people. The collapse of the 12 million-dollar bridge under construction by a Chinese company was surprising in today’s technical advances. It suggested bad workmanship of the highest order.
Since China have set up camp in Africa, lucrative and numerous construction projects have ensued all characterised by speed of work. While promises of infrastructure, cheap clothing, cars, new-ish technology and of course loans are all part of the attractive ‘package’ as it were, is all that glitters gold?
Historically Africa has attracted those who seek to make their pockets heavy with the trappings of legitimate and illegitimate gains.
China’s gaze as this new superpower (in many respects) is firmly fixed on Africa but it’s not clear that this new relationship will be beneficial to Africa. It appears while the time is different the plundering of Africa with impunity by China maybe a dark nostalgia.
It is only in the last three decades or so that China’s status has been elevated. Through a staunch ideology (which interestingly rejected much of the Western ideologies) China has become a power house. In fact, a few years ago, Time Magazine ran a cover with the powerful words ‘The Sleeping Giant’. The cover was an evocative visual image. It was a parody of the famous book Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1762). A giant, (China)is bound down by inadequate bindings while the Lilliputians (everyone else) stare on. It is obvious that the Lilliputians will be in for a rude awakening once the giant wakes up.
Twenty years since that cover and China has indeed risen and not only has it struck fear in the Western world but it has brought to the world amazing technology and surplus cash. With numerous loans to countries including the US this translates as a powerful hold over the globe. With such finance at their disposal it is no surprise that China have searched for further financial growth and what better place than Africa?
China’s push into Africa is not new. A Chinese presence in Africa goes back 600 years when a man called Zhen went on a global voyage that included Africa. The current push into Africa however has happened in the last 20-25 years and it has been pushed with a vigour and appetite that is rapacious. In his article entitled ‘China’s Economic Invasion Of Africa’ which appeared in the 2011 edition of the Guardian, Xan Rice states that, ‘a decade ago there were no more than 100,000 Chinese people working in Africa. Today there are around a million.’ A staggering increase in such a short period of time.
On a purely instinctive level, one needs to question who the real beneficiaries of China in Africa will be. Africa’s history in terms of business relationships with the West should serve as a warning. To this day Africa suffers from hundreds of years of promises from past deals with a plethora of European countries who claimed lands and resources through nefarious means. The United Kingdom, France and Belgium with the maniacal and evidently brutal King Leopold just a few of the culprits.
Let’s be under no illusions China in Africa is a relationship built on business. By their nature business deals are selfish with each party seeking the best deal possible-moralistic ideas, pangs of guilt rarely come into play. To expect China to roll into Africa and take a deal that is not beneficial to China and its inhabitants would be stupid and naive.
There are stories of Chinese construction companies (among others) making little effort to employ indigenous people preferring to employ their own people. Building homes away from home social and cultural integration is limited to interactions that are necessary. They provide no clear economic benefit to Africa aside from loans which must be re-payed. Shoddy work, dangerous working conditions just the tip of an iceberg where the need for results with the least expenditure apparently the driving force.
Perhaps more worryingly is a murmur that China are in fact seeking to build a second China in Africa as it were to ease the pressure from their ever-growing population of some 1,331,460,000 and as the earlier figures will attest, there may be some truth in that.
But to take these negative stories at face value would not be objective since positive stories do exist. Let’s further not forget that in the West it is helpful to have these negative stories proliferating the media as it is clear that a powerful China scares the West tremendously. These negative stories in effect fit into the whole narrative where China is demonized.
Stories abound of China investing in Africa, using the inhabitants to build roads and schools, to create an infrastructure, bringing much needed practical items like cheap clothing, technology and most importantly teaching Africans by educating the indigenous people. A recent survey conducted in Africa found that some 63% of Africans found the Chinese presence in Africa to be positive. Andrew Malone wrote in the Daily Mail on the 18 July 2008. ‘The result of China’s demand for raw materials and its sales of products to Africa is that turnover in trade between Africa and China has risen from 5 million annually a decade ago to 6 billion today’.
Western narratives of Africa are being forced to change from the popular emaciated child, covered by flies, eager for Western handouts to a further narrative that acknowledges African billionaires. Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa are just a few of the African countries dispelling those notions. Savvy well educated Africans are forging business alliances globally. Hundreds of years of inferiority perpetuated by the West and by Africans who were either being made wealthy by that continued narrative or simply by those who did not know any better are being challenged but there is a massive BUT.
Africa still has a way to go before it can truly rid itself of that stereotypical narrative. Africa must lay the ground work and that ground work comes in the face of those who seek to step into a continent awash with natural resources and make their profits while giving nothing back to the country.
Honestly to ask if China in Africa is about exploitation is not the question but rather can Africa make good its current relationship with China and ensure it benefits Africa?
Africa evidently needs to put in measures that ensures African stability, longevity and growth. This is no easy task and there are a multitude of measures with a multitude of variables. Surely however rather than long term deals, short-term opportunities to use the resources of Africa should be the norm. Under no circumstances should ownership of Africa leave Africa. It was the selling of these resources that saw (and sees) Africa plundered by the ‘others’ and Africans for their own financial gain. Indeed (and rightly so) the Chinese businessmen and women may seek out these unscrupulous Africans who should have the concern of their own country at their hearts rather than their own pockets.
Africans must stop sucking Africa dry for short-term monetary gain. They must think more long term and indeed be prepared to refuse the short-term lure of the yen. Admittedly cushioned by the trappings of relative comfort in a Western city, typing on a Chinese made laptop these words are easy to say.
If this happens then the African giant which has been kept sedated can awaken. China in Africa is NOT the problem. Rather how Africa views her worth and indeed how cheaply African resources are sold for short term enticements and money by those Africans who are riddled and infected with greed.
China in Africa is an opportunity to ensure that the mistakes made when the colonials came in are not repeated with the dire and negative consequences that history shows. It’s a chance for Africa to forge a relationship with China but with a level of equality through discussion in bodies such as the Forum On China African Co-operation (FOCAC). After all, China DO need Africa just as much as Africa needs China. With this equality and with the help of a mutually beneficial relationship the sedative employed by outside and inside forces on Africa can hopefully wear off. Then giant that is Africa can rip away the bindings.