Who's Afraid of China in AFrica?
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Dec 18 14:45:21 UTC 2006
Africa: 'Who's Afraid of China in Africa?'
December 14, 2006
The rapidly evolving relationship between China and Africa is reflected in
the evolution of African perceptions of China and its motives for
engagement with Africa. For decades during the Cold War, the primary
perception of China in much of Africa was as an ally against colonialism,
neo-imperialism and Western domination, especially amongst left-wing
circles. China was the alternate source to the Soviet Union of political,
diplomatic and military assistance for African liberation movements.
Post-liberation governments however often had to contend with Sino-Soviet
rivalry for influence as well as the vexed question of Taiwan. Chinese
aid, particularly scholarships, were welcomed across Africa. In the eyes
of many Africans, the Tan-Zam railway project established China's profile
as a friend and ally against Western neo-colonialism and the apartheid
regime in South Africa. Chinese success in building a railway pooh-poohed
by 'Africa hands' in the West was a turning point in Sino-African
relations and led to wider recognition in Africa of China's growing
industrial and technological prowess.
>>From the 1950s, Chinese businesspeople from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well
the overseas Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia established trading ties
with African counterparts. Taiwan and Hong Kong were widely known across
Africa by the early 1970s as sources for cheap imports of textiles and
consumer goods although often of dubious quality. In particular, traders
from southeastern Nigeria established elaborate trade networks with Hong
Kong and Taiwan manufacturers and traders as well as with overseas Chinese
businesses in southeast Asia. The increased popularity of kung fu movies
and the establishment of schools of martial arts in major African cities
led to relatively greater awareness of China among ordinary Africans -
although often with distorted perceptions of Chinese history and culture.
Virtually in tandem with the shift in China's focus in its relations with
Africa from ideology to trade, the dominant image of China in Africa by
the 1990s had changed from ideological ally against colonialism, apartheid
and Western domination to business partner and emerging economic colossus.
The Chinese doctor or technical aid worker traded places with the Chinese
entrepreneur or state corporation. The impact on Africa of China's trade
with Africa and the wider world as well as the activities of Chinese
businesses operating in Africa elicits diverse perceptions from local
populations which deserve extensive and careful study as well as nuanced
analysis. It is immensely difficult to attempt to describe popular
perceptions in Africa of Chinese business or of China itself with a
tolerable degree of accuracy because this is a relatively new area of
scholarly inquiry and reliable information beyond anecdotal sources is
hard to come by.
Perceptions among Africa's political leadership and intelligentsia of the
prospects and implications of China-African engagement warrant further
research and measured analysis. China's offer of trade and aid without
apparent political or humanitarian conditionalities is apparently much
appreciated by some of Africa's politicians (French 20/11/05).
It is noteworthy however that perceptions of China among Africa's
political leaders go beyond appreciation for 'no-strings' aid and trade.
China as 'alternative' political and economic model to Western
prescriptions appears to be a pervasive optic among African politicians,
intellectuals, civil society and media. While the end of the Cold War
brought welcome changes including the end of proxy wars fought on Africa's
soil and the liberation of Namibia and South Africa, the unipolar world
characterized by Western dominance that followed has been the source of
much discomfort for many African intellectuals and political leaders. In
this light, China's emergence as a major axis of global power is often
welcomed among African intellectuals who hope that it may herald a return
to global multi-polarity in which milieu Africa and the developing
countries will have a greater role on the global stage than they currently
A Chinese model?
In a nuanced perspective on China, the senior leader of the Nigerian
legislature, Senate President Ken Nnamani, in a welcome address entitled
"China: A Partner and Example of Development and Democracy" during
President Hu's April visit to Nigeria, describes China's 'outstanding
(economic) performance exclusive of western democracy' as "the paradox of
development and democracy".
Nnamani's comments highlight the increasingly common perception in Africa
of China as an alternate political and economic model to the Washington
Consensus. Since the mid-1980s, many African countries have been compelled
to adopt a series of 'Structural Adjustment', 'Economic Recovery' and
'Poverty Reduction' programmes often under pressure from Western donors
and international financial institutions. From the early 1990s, demands by
Western donors that African governments adopt economic reforms prescribed
by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have often been
'bundled' with so-called 'conditionalities' usually consisting of demands
for 'political reforms' such as political liberalization, ending of
one-party regimes, respect for human rights etc. Environmental advocacy
groups in Western countries often pressure their governments to demand
environmental audits and impact assessments before funding new
infrastructure and industrial projects in Africa.
When African post-colonial governments began moving towards one-party
states and 'African socialism' in the 1960s, they often proffered the
rationale that Western models of democracy were unsuited to Africa's
material conditions and to its history and cultures. Through the 1970s and
1980s, the debate raged in Africa as to whether Western political and
economic models could be transported to non-Western societies, whether
capitalism or Soviet-style socialism was the better model for Africa or
whether African states could craft a 'Third Way' to nirvana. The end of
the Cold War and the apparent triumph of the Washington Consensus led to a
temporary cessation of the debate partly due to the disillusionment and
intellectual exhaustion of the African Left. When donor conditionalities
were introduced, some African governments vigorously resisted the
political conditionalities and argued that Western democracy was unsuited
to Africa's needs and would fuel ethnic conflict and instability but their
dissent was increasingly muted as aid flows dried up.
Through the 1990s, it appeared that the debate had been settled for good
and that most Africans, at least implicitly, accepted the thesis that
political liberalization and structural adjustment would lead to economic
recovery in the short term and sustainable development in the long term.
By the turn of the millennium, virtually no African government openly
questioned the Washington Consensus or suggested 'African alternatives'.
China's emergence as a major economic power in the 1990s despite not being
a democracy or adopting economic policies typically recommended by the
IFIs has become a source of great interest for both Africa's rulers and
ruled. For some among Africa's contemporary rulers, China is living proof
of 'successful' alternatives to Western political and economic models. The
semi-colonial Western domination of pre-revolutionary China is often cited
as being analogous to Western colonialism in Africa in the early-mid 20th
century while China's status as a developing country in the 1950s through
the 1990s is also cited as co-terminous with Africa's post-colonial
experience. For many, China represents hope that another world is possible
in which bread comes before the freedom to vote.
Given the democratic reversals experienced in much of Africa from the late
1990s onwards, there is a distinct possibility that some authoritarian
regimes in Africa will seek to utilize China's economic success to
rationalize avoiding further political liberalization and genuine
democratization. Human rights advocates and democratic actors in Africa
may increasingly find their traditional arguments that respect for human
rights and political liberalization will inexorably lead to economic
success challenged by some African governments pointing to China as the
poster-child for development sans democracy. A mid-term prognosis could be
some African governments invoking the 'China paradigm' to justify the
adoption of state-led economic policies coupled with intensified political
Virtually by stealth, the old debate about appropriate paths to Africa's
development has been re-ignited by China's emergence as a major global
power. The implications of this debate for advancing human rights and
democracy in Africa are critical. A failure to re-establish the primacy
and legitimacy of liberal democracy and strong human rights protections
among Africa's intellectuals, media and civil society as the most
appropriate path for Africa's development may ultimately lead to popular
disillusionment with Western-inspired political and economic prescriptions
that are perceived as unable to put bread in the mouths of hungry infants
while communist China becomes the workshop of the world. More important
than the desires of some African governments to return to political
illiberality is the danger of resurgence in the old, anti-Western,
anti-democratic tendency among Africa's intellectuals, boosted by China's
It is increasingly likely that a central challenge for civil society in
Africa in the next few years will be an effort to prevent democracy
reversal especially an 'intellectual rollback' to the 1970s. It may become
necessary to re-establish or re-validate across Africa the legitimacy of
democracy and human rights per se and also as the most appropriate and
effective path to Africa's development. Africa's human rights advocates
may be well served in this effort by projections that India may eventually
surpass China's economic progress, thanks at least in part, to a freer
political and intellectual culture. As the largest democracy in the world
with long standing ties to Africa, India's economic progress in the last
decade especially the exponential growth of its ICT industries could serve
as an 'alternate' model to China.
A human rights perspective
While China's rapidly expanding engagement in Africa is enthusiastically
welcomed by African governments and some African intellectuals, China's
relations with Africa's governments is often perceived among human rights
NGOs and Western commentators as increasingly problematic for governance
and human rights in Africa. China's increasing presence in Africa has
generated a flurry of Western media reportage and commentary, often with
graphic headlines, the prevailing note of which is that Chinese trade,
political and security cooperation may enable repressive regimes in Africa
to avoid even the relatively limited constraints on their conduct imposed
by Western donor conditionalities. Elements in Africa's civil society are
concerned about the potential implications of China's relationship with
African governments for the advancement of human rights and democracy in
China-Africa security cooperation is particularly problematic.
Chinese-made weapons are often cheaper than Western equivalents and China
does not usually impose political, human rights or humanitarian conditions
in its arms sales.
The Nigerian government is increasingly turning to China for weapons to
deal with the worsening insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The
Nigerian air force purchased 12 Chinese-made versions of the upgraded Mig
21 jet fighter; the navy has ordered patrol boats to secure the swamps and
creeks of the Niger Delta. Nigerian military officials have made clear
that they will increasingly turn to China for weapons to quell the revolt
in the Niger Delta which traditional Western suppliers appear reluctant to
In particular, China's role in the Sudan crisis, where it has supported a
military regime accused of perpetrating or at the very least encouraging
ethnic cleansing has cast a disturbing light on Chinese engagement in
Africa (Alden 2005). China bought 50 percent of Sudan's oil exports in
2005, which presently accounts for 5 percent of China's oil needs (Pan
2006). China is accused of blocking or diluting UN Security Council
efforts to effectively address the Sudanese government's role in the
humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region.
Human rights concerns about China's renewed engagement in Africa must of
necessity extend beyond China-Africa inter-governmental relations. Indeed,
it may be argued that in the near future, the role of the Chinese private
sector in Africa may come to acquire as great a significance, if not
greater, than that of the Chinese government or its state-owned
enterprises in Africa. Some Chinese companies operating in Africa have
been accused by NGOs of violating employment and environmental rights in
the communities where they operate.
NGOs in Nigeria have accused the Chinese logging company WEMPCO of
discharged untreated effluents into the Cross River in southeastern
Nigeria, thereby damaging the health and livelihoods of local fisher folk.
The company is also accused of colluding with local officials and law
enforcement to suppress protests by the local community.
Western commentators contend that China's lack of domestic political
criticism frees its government and companies in their business endeavours
in Africa from "reputational risks" and other pressures that Western
companies operating in Africa are routinely exposed to. Whereas
shareholders of Western companies may be cautious about investing in
state-led energy projects in African countries which rely on a
brutally-enforced stability, such issues have little visibility to the
Chinese public (Melville and Owen 2005). This presents significant
challenges for human rights advocates in Africa.
A common African response?
An effective common African response at the governmental level appears
unlikely for quite a while to come due to the structural weaknesses of
Africa's regional organization, the African Union. China effectively deals
with Africa on its own terms via the China-Africa Cooperation Forum which
is convened by China. The AU, which should lead Africa's engagement with
China, is enfeebled by the language and culture divides which still plague
Africa's regional politics.
A common African response is more likely at the civil society level where
there is often a mutuality of concerns about human rights, democracy,
labour and trade issues. Enhanced Africa-wide networking to develop common
frameworks for responding to human rights and governance issues arising
from China's role in Africa is imperative.
What can African civil society do?
Civil society in Africa is increasingly concerned with the role of China
in Africa especially the Chinese government's relations with repressive
regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. As China becomes a major weapons supplier
to Africa's governments and Chinese energy and mining companies take up
substantial stake in resource extraction in Africa, these concerns can
China's enhanced presence in Africa is primarily driven by economic
considerations; efforts to develop policy levers to prompt more
constructive Chinese engagement in Africa will have to proceed from
China's economic interests. Accordingly, African civil society cannot
adopt the conventional 'naming-and-shaming' tactics that have served it
well in addressing human rights abuses thus far; 'naming-and-shaming'
tactics can however be adapted to deal with Chinese companies operating
As a starting point, China studies in African universities and research
institutions should be encouraged by African governments, private sector
and civil society. In this respect, the pioneering introduction of Chinese
language studies at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and the
University of Stellenbosch in South Africa are particularly noteworthy
developments which should be replicated elsewhere in Africa.
African civil society should bring pressure through the African Union for
a parallel civil society forum inclusive of business, labour and consumer
groups to be instituted at the biennial meetings of the China-Africa
Cooperation Forum. The parallel Civil Society Forum will bring together
non-governmental organisations from China and Africa to enhance
people-to-people relations, exchange of ideas and perspectives and to
lobby their respective governments to address the Social Dimension of
African civil society should take advantage of Western concerns about
China's expanding role in Africa through 'coalitions of interest' with
Western governments in raising concerns about governance and human rights
in African countries where the Chinese government is deeply engaged with
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