China is big in Africa. The Asian giant is the continent’s largest trading partner. According to data from 2015, China takes in 15 percent of African exports, and 20 percent of the continent’s imports comes from China. Further, in recent years, Chinese money, machines and workers have been frenziedly ripping up earth and forest in the continent to plant modern roads, railways and dams; and in turn harvest minerals and other natural resources.
One much commented-on feature of the Chinese relationship with Africa is that China does not, like many Western countries, condition its engagement on matters like human rights, good governance and financial responsibility prior to advancing any help. In this way the Asian giant has managed to carry out massive infrastructure projects on the continent, opening up countless areas that were hitherto inaccessible or hard to reach, without ruffling too many local feathers.
China has been extensively criticised for this, because it cooperates with authoritarian regimes without demanding that they clean up their act. Much has also been said about China’s seeming indifference to environmental conservation. But it is another aspect of this relationship that has many people fearing that the country might be colonising the continent; China demands complete, end-to-end control of most of its projects in Africa.
The consequence of this is that there are now up to a million Chinese people on the continent, working for large state-owned companies, and doing jobs that local people could just as easily do. What’s more, their numbers are increasing, and they are winding up everywhere, to state it bluntly. In addition, it is argued, Chinese imports are decimating local industries and making African countries more dependent on China.
In truth, however, these fears are not only unjustified, but might actually be patronisingly so. Not because they are unfounded, but because they are not the only sentiments that can be built on the foundations they claim, nor are they the most beneficial.
For a start, they reinforce the stereotype that African countries have no agency and are unable to decide for themselves what to do. This is false. One more time: African countries do have agency (and they are tired of being bossed around).
Secondly, these fears are based on the assumption that the presence of a certain number of foreigners in Africa amounts, in some way, to the continent being colonised. I don’t know where the line is drawn on these numbers, but I know that many Western countries have far more Chinese immigrants than any single African country.
And third, the claim seems to ignore the simple fact that China’s activity in Africa can be credited with a large amount of the continent’s economic growth in the recent past. Africa has reaped enormous benefits from its engagement with China.
To illustrate the emptiness of “colonisation” fears, it is expedient to point out that China does not relate any differently to other trading partners. Much of China’s trade with Australia, for example, falls within the same paradigm. China buys mostly raw materials – bulk minerals and agricultural produce – and sends back manufactured goods.
In fact, one could argue, the deal with Australia is worse than with Africa because the Chinese are not building infrastructure in return as they are doing in Africa. Yet no one talks of this as colonialism.
This does not mean that current Africa-China relationship is the best trade arrangement in the world, only that it isn’t unique to Africa. One could also argue that Australia is more powerful than any African country and can stand up to China if it needs to. True. But it is also true that few African countries, as yet, have seen any need of standing up to China.
Having dealt with the fears, I must state that I am not unreservedly endorsing what China is doing in Africa. There are multiple sticking points that could be improved on.
It is a shame, for example, that China is using its growing influence on the continent only to advance economic prospects and not other aspects of human development, like the promotion of human rights. Yet even in this, China cannot be blamed for missing the chance. It doesn’t have a particularly good record on these matters at home either. This, actually, is a fact that anyone interested in bashing China for not championing human rights in Africa should first grasp.
China’s trade relationship with Africa is certainly one-sided. Its exports to the continent are stifling local production. And its importing of low-priced natural resources from the continent does no favours to the widening trade imbalance, which might torpedo the very development China certainly wants for Africa. This phenomenon has wreaked havoc in many of China’s other trading partners, and is certainly a matter of concern in Africa.
If the trend continues, it will increase the amount of leverage the Chinese government has in relation to African countries, and, while it doesn’t do so now, China may use that leverage to whatever end it wishes. To make its intentions clear, China will need to show more mercy, so to speak, to local production in Africa. Interestingly, it is already making moves in this direction by helping set up industrial zones and parks in several African countries.
So, to go back to that question once again: does China’s activity in Africa amount to colonialism? No, please. This is as close to having an option as Africa has had in modern times.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi in Kenya.