What is China really doing for Africa?

Africa’s relationship with China blossomed in the mid-1950s, as many African states gained independence. As the Cold War intensified, many African states opted for “non-alignment” – a position adopted by China, which became a key partner against the imperialist exploitation of African resources and support for remnants of colonial domination. China offered military support to a series of African liberation movements, in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Many other astute African leaders managed to win aid both from NATO countries and from the Soviet Union.

Among major benefits for Africa was the construction – with Chinese aid – of the TAZARA Rail project. The World Bank had refused to finance the rail and road link between Zambia’s copper-producing area and the Tanzanian sea port of Dar es Salaam. China stepped in with a 30-year interest-free loan and the project was successfully completed in 1975. In the words of one of Africa’s leading statesman, former Tanzanian president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, “You don’t need to be a communist to see that China has a lot to teach about development”.

China generated affection in Africa in the 1960s and continues to do so among many parts of African society and growing section of Africa’s ruling class. When elected in 2002, Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki said it was time for African countries to look eastwards. He visited China in 2010 and came back with unprecedented infrastructure deals covering transport, energy and telecommunications1.

Fast forward to this decade, and China’s presence is felt all over Africa, in technology, manufacturing, oil, hospitality, agriculture, construction and textiles. China continues to intensify its efforts to foster economic and diplomatic ties with all African countries: it has embassies and/or consulates in 49 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africa seems at last to have an alternative partner in the quest for development. It can no longer be dictated to by the Breton Woods institutions. One example: in the midst of a financial crisis, Nigeria turned to China and reached an agreement on a currency swap deal (issuing renminbi-denominated bonds) as a way of shoring up the Nigerian currency, the naira, and funding the country’s budget deficit. In addition, a visit by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari yielded more than US$6bn of additional investments in Nigeria’s economy. In the same vein, Zimbabwe is combating American and British sanctions and surviving as a nation thanks to Chinese government-funded projects.

Africans can no longer be trampled upon by Western imperialists, as Chinese companies pump in investment with no political and other strings attached. The rise of right-wing, populist politics in Europe and the Americas is also fuelling perceptions of political risks for Africa regarding aid and foreign direct investment from these economies. And compare the economic situations: dire reports of rising unemployment rates in Europe, increasing inequality, and an inability of governments in Europe and the United States to guarantee their citizens a basic standard of living; meanwhile, living standards in China have been doubling roughly every decade for the past 30 years2.

Why should Africa continue servitude to Europe – which, according to historian Walter Rodney, is hostile to the idea of developed Africa3 – when China offers aid and assistance programmes without condition? According to a Chinese State Council Information Office white paper on China’s Foreign Aid4, “China does not attach any political strings to its aid and its foreign aid programmes are based on the principles of equality, mutual benefit and mutual development”. The prospect of partnering with a country that does not have explicit political agenda is the main incentive for several African rulers’ to build relations with China. Put more baldly, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe says he prefers Chinese aid because Beijing does not force him to ‘embrace homosexuality’.5

China’s ties with sub-Saharan African countries have flourished over the past decade. In 1995 China-Africa trade accounted for just one percent of China’s total foreign trade volume. Between 1995 and 2012, China-Africa trade volume grew to 26%, including a 19% increase from 2011 to 2012. The value of China-Africa trade went from approximately $166bn in 2011 to around $198bn in 2012.6 Meanwhile, China’s official development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa expanded from $500m in 2000 to $3.2bn in 2013.

We must, however, ask the question: who is benefiting most from these relationships – Africa or China? And how well have China and its investments and soft aid contributed to the economies of the countries in which they operate? For instance, while cheap Chinese exports into Africa benefit consumers, they have crippled domestic producers. The Nigerian textile sector, previously a large employer, shrank from 124 firms to 45 firms7 between 1994 and 2005, largely due to cheap imports from China and other Asian countries. 87% of jobs were lost in that period, with a fall from 150,000 employees to about 20,000. The few surviving firms have been operating at less than 40% of installed capacity; the total collapse of the industry is imminent.

As China continues to build economic relationships with Africa, it is important to critically analyse the extent to which the series of agreements between African governments and China contribute to job creation and reduce the high levels of unemployment in Africa. Besides poor working conditions, China imports citizens as menial labourers. One highly visible case is the $124m African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, financed with a loan to Ethiopia and constructed by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. 90% of the workforce is thought to be Chinese.

To consolidate its trading position, China lends billions of dollars to Africa. The terms of these loans are secret, but are tied to guaranteeing Chinese companies contractor rights and ensuring the use of Chinese goods in development projects (deals with Western countries have similar clauses). The loans tend to be granted when their repayment can be guaranteed by payments from China for African exports. As is typical of Western commercial practices, China is buying African exports but trying to ensure that African export revenues are spent on Chinese goods and companies. China is also trying, in the longer term, to boost African GDP and its share of the African market of one billion consumers.

On the human rights front, the labour conditions meted out to Africans working in Chinese firms have been described as inhumane. In Nigeria, there is a popular saying that you ‘work with Chinese and lose your groin’. This is based on allegations that Chinese employers often kick non-submissive staff in the testicles: Maaji Meriga, a former employee of China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), was left potentially impotent due to injuries afflicted during the construction of railway tracks in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.8 There are similar stories of brutal conditions in Chinese firms across the continent. These stories have unwelcome consequences not just for development, but also for people’s acceptance of China as a partner. They fuel a belief that China is in Africa only to exploit its resources, and is in no way different from the other colonialists.

On the political front, China has maintained that it does not attach any political strings to its foreign aid programmes. But this statement is a long way from reality. Many democracy-watchers and activists fear that the political impact of China and its foreign aid is a cementing and spreading of authoritarian regimes across the continent. For instance, the lack of conditions attached to aid programmes means that leaders such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Haile Mariam Desalign of Ethiopia – to mention just a few – can continue to flout basic human rights and get away with it.

Africans also worry about the impact on human rights and good governance of Britain’s departure from the European Union. One immediate concern is that if foreign aid from Britain and the European Union reduces, there will be less incentive to implement good governance practices. Will we see the return of “presidents-for-life”? What will happen to defenders of human rights in Africa, especially as more countries gravitate towards China?  How do we encourage China to promote human rights and good governance when they flout local regulations in countries in which they operate? Paradoxically, European and American corporations have invested heavily in China at the expense of jobs in their own countries and, thereby built up massive popular support for racist and xenophobic political parties in their countries.

Transparency is another key area. Secret government-to-government agreements entered into by China and most African states militate against transparency and accountability. Corruption remains the bane of African governments, and while African countries subscribe more and more to the open data and government system, one of the imminent challenges civic groups will face is the secrecy that clouds agreements with China.

To the Africans, the proposed EU-Chinese Cooperation on Africa represents a rehash of the same old imperialist relationships, based on European access to Africa and its resources – Africa, once again, being shared like a cake.

Moving forward, any engagement with Africa must be on a people-to-people basis, not government-to-government. If China wants to strengthen its political and economic ties on the African continent and among African people, it must seriously address people-to-people relations. Part of this must be to start hiring the majority of work forces locally, which is likely to reduce local hostility.

1 See more at: http://africanbusinessmagazine.com/uncategorised/kenya-want-growth-look-east/#sthash.Jwf7nlcO.dpuf
2 “What is Wrong with Democracy”: The Economist. Accessed at www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do
3How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”: Walter Rodney, 1972.
4“China’s foreign aid comes with ‘no strings attached’”: Beijing international. http://www.ebeijing.gov.cn/BeijingInformation/BeijingNewsUpdate/t1164362.htm
5 “Robert Mugabe says he prefers Chinese aid because Beijing does not force him to accept homosexuality”: The Telegraph, 31 August 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zimbabwe/11066454/Robert-Mugabe-says-he-prefers-Chinese-aid-because-Beijing-does-not-force-him-to-accept-homosexuality.html
6 “Africa and China Trade Relations”. Accessed at: http://www.tralac.org/files/2013/08/Africa-China-trading-relationship-Synopsis.pdf
7 “Nigeria’s troubled textile industry”: National Mirror, 15 February 2015. http://nationalmirroronline.net/new/nigerias-troubled-textile-industry
8 “Chinese Expats Treat Nigerian Employees As Punching Bags”: Sahara Reporters, 18 October 2011.
http://saharareporters.com/2011/10/18/chinese-expats-treat-nigerian-employees-punching-bags

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ’ published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa. These articles provide insight into stakeholders’ views and recommendations as China evolves from an economic to a security player in Africa.

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