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Is Chinese Investment Good for Africa?

Discussants: Deborah Brautigam, and Adama Gaye
Updated: February 20, 2007


China’s trade in Africa reached some $50 billion in 2006, boosting growth rates on the continent and spurring much-needed infrastructure improvements. Many African countries view Chinese investment as an opportunity and welcome Beijing’s “strictly business” policy of noninterference in domestic affairs. But China has come under fire from the international community for its refusal to pressure Sudan on the crisis in Darfur, and there is growing tension within some African countries over China’s business practices.

Deborah Brautigam of American University, author of Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting Green Revolution, and Senegalese journalist Adama Gaye, author of China-Africa: The Dragon and the Ostrich, debate whether Chinese investment is good for Africa.

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Deborah BrautigamMost Recent

February 20, 2007

Deborah Brautigam

Doing Well or Doing Good?

Africa has a long history of unhappy experiences with outside powers coming to exploit the continent. This is the background for Adama’s concern that China is a new “imperial power” with a “colonialist project” who will “pretend to be the savior of Africa”. Once they get what they want, Adama fears, they are then likely to “forget about Africa.” 

Adama, we should be wary of slotting the China-Africa relationship into categories we know from the colonial period or the Cold War. There is no evidence that China is trying to carve up Africa or form cozy relationships with a few proxy states that bow to its ideology or grant it military bases. They may be sending hard-nosed, profit-oriented investors, but China does not demand that African countries grant it imperial preferences, captive markets, or land.

I respect and share Adama’s concerns that China’s neutrality about dreadful dictators in places like Zimbabwe or Sudan makes no contribution to regime change in these countries.  Chinese leaders have repeatedly stressed the principle of “mutual noninterference in domestic affairs” since the Asian-African Bandung Conference in 1955. But be careful, Adama, what you wish for. Do you really want to see a China that interferes in the domestic affairs of African countries? 

Is China an “unreliable partner,” as Adama charges?  I disagree. China did not “forget about Africa” after 1978.  China’s top leaders made high level visits to Africa in 1979 (Li Xiannian), 1982-83 (Zhao Ziyang), 1984, 1997, 1999, 2001 (Li Peng), 1992 (Yang Shangkun), 1996, 2000, and 2002 (Jiang Zemin), and 2002 (Zhu Rongji - twice). Vice-premier Qian Qichen visited more than thirty-six African countries between 1990 and 1998. We just weren’t paying attention.

During these years, China also kept up an active menu of aid projects in more than forty-five African countries. Their annual aid commitments in Africa sometimes surpassed those of Japan, Norway, Sweden, and even Britain. The flurry of activity we see today has deep roots.

Adama is right that the Chinese are not “philanthropists.” But they never claimed to be. Since the days of Zhou Enlai, Chinese leaders have repeatedly said that their aid program is not a form of charity but based on “mutual benefit.” One rarely sees this kind of frankness in aid programs of the West. 

All good relationships involve communication. I see some signs that China is listening.  When South Africa complained about the “tsunami” of textiles from China, Beijing agreed to voluntary export restraints. When Zambian workers rioted at Chinese-owned mines, Chinese officials openly criticized the owners’ labor practices. There are clearly rocky areas in this relationship, but on balance, I see more on the positive side of the ledger here. Yes, the Chinese are certainly doing well by Africa. It is up to Africans to ensure that the net result for them, too, is good.

Adama GayeFebruary 16, 2007

Adama Gaye

Buying Goodwill

Certainly I agree with a lot of points Deborah raised—and especially the fact that China’s increasing involvement in Africa, and its financial muscle, may further reduce the already damaged legitimacy of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It offers also an alternative route to African countries. They realize that Europe, their traditional partner, now confronted with various internal economic and social issues, cannot act in a decisive way on Africa’s challenges. America, now associated with the deployment of hard military power in its fight against terrorism, has even given a good face to China’s maneuvers, making it somehow the soft face and solutions provider of international politics.

But one has to be naïve to believe that the sudden interest of China is out of philanthropy.

Even if Deborah may be right to highlight China’s role in infrastructural and industrial developments and its swift cancellation of debts owed by Africa, it remains that this generosity is only deployed to buy goodwill. China gets more in return. It has now grabbed huge natural resources while dumping into the continent cheap industrial manufactured products. So far, China’s help has not reversed the unequal terms of trade that attracted wide criticisms against Western nations. The early colonizers came to Africa with alcohol and useless gifts to lure the locals. Is not China doing the same with the help of greedy leaders?

Once its objectives are attained, it may just drop Africa as it did just two decades ago, when it had another agenda, forgetting about the internationalist agenda it was promoting before.

China’s claim to "help" Africa lacks credibility in the face of the way it treats hundreds of millions of its own people and vast regions that are poorer than Africa.

China is only involved in infrastructural and industrial development in Africa for one reason: Such "sacrifices" serve its own national interests.

At what ultimate cost to Africa?

China's complacency toward African leaders is eroding a healthy trend. Political structural adjustment, meaning real democratization and the entrenchment of better economic governance, are no longer priorities. Even if the China "model" proves to be effective, the inconsistencies and failures of Western nations and institutions are not enough to leave this Asian dragon to destroy essential values to Africa’s development.

Deborah BrautigamFebruary 14, 2007

Deborah Brautigam

China and African Governance

I agree with your conclusion, Adama. Development does begin at home. Better leadership and better governance are key. Where does China fit here? Will China’s large loans to corrupt leaders upset the good governance agenda? Will new Chinese loans pile more debt onto countries recently emerging from HIPC loan cancellations? Will Chinese oil investments in Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola fuel the “resource curse” and make a mockery of human rights? 

It’s fair to question the governance impact of China’s expansion in Africa, even if (in Washington, anyway) the critique rings a bit hollow (we are shocked, shocked, that China is giving loans to odious regimes!). But China has learned from the West. They’re not operating in the same way. Loans from China don’t get deposited into a dictator’s bank account and promptly sent to Swiss bank accounts.    

In Angola, for example, China’s recent $2 billion and $2.4 billion Eximbank credit lines were tied to infrastructure investments. Teams of Chinese are already in the country building roads, rehabilitating railways, and building schools and a huge neighborhood of low-cost housing. Thirty percent of the contracts under the loan are targeted to Angolan firms. Angola pays for this infrastructure with oil. Compare this with the completely non-transparent $2.35 billion loan extended to Angola by Britain’s Standard Chartered Bank, Barclays, and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Do I sense a double standard here? 

China has also been proactive on Africa’s debt burden. They regularly cancel the loans of African countries, loans that were usually granted at zero interest. They do this without the long dance of negotiations and questionable conditions required by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Of course this worries the international financial institutions: Their leverage is weakened. But as William Easterly has demonstrated, there is scant evidence that conditionality ever worked to bring about economic growth in Africa. 

Chinese leaders do see the costs of stepping into oil-based conflicts. Fourteen Chinese were recently kidnapped in two separate incidents in Nigeria, where China has large investments.  China has become a major investor in Sudan, an oil market off-limits for the United States because of congressional sanctions. When Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Sudan just last week, however, journalists reported that the Chinese president “chided” his Sudanese counterpart, delivering a “blunt message” on the crisis in Darfur. True, China is not going to push for democracy. But political stability and a more peaceful and prosperous Africa are clearly in its interest.    

China’s huge demand for Africa’s commodities is creating new opportunities for African governments to realize the hopes of their people for a better life. Countries that set their house in order, as Adama puts it, can position themselves to benefit, and those that do not will find their resources continue to be simply a “curse”—with or without China. 

Adama Gaye February 13, 2007

Adama Gaye

Development Begins at Home

The opportunities highlighted by Deborah are certainly there, but let us not forget that China is not in Africa for philanthropic reasons. It is another imperial power pursuing its national interest, and it can be an unreliable partner despite its claim to build a true equal partnership with Africa.

Don’t forget that at the end of the 1970s when it decided to focus on its internal challenges, China’s leadership forgot about Africa. That they invite now African leaders for grandiose gatherings such as the China-Africa Summit should not fool us. Even at that gathering it was almost an insult to African leaders who were forced to queue up to greet the Chinese president just before the opening ceremony as if, for a country so much concerned with symbols, to show that Africa was paying tribute to its new tutor.

The figures mentioned in terms of new funds from China to Africa may be impressive, but their primary target is to help China secure markets abroad. Beijing has learnt the lesson of Japan after World War II, when it built its recovery through securing captive foreign markets. The money China is giving Africa is far from being enough to address the level of financing needed by the continent.

Don’t be surprised also to trace that money to countries that will give back more to China either in terms of diplomatic support or in natural resources. This interest-driven approach will only offer a cushion to those in Africa who are champions in siphoning the continent’s foreign aid. Is it not time to put in place an international tribunal to prosecute financial criminals who do even more damage in Africa than the warlords?

Chinese officials are not prepared to accept the real message coming out of Africa. Instead, they prefer to deal with African predators not concerned with the necessity of improving the lot of their nations.

That China pretends to be the savior of Africa is another falsehood. What is the most important in Africa is the emergence of visionary, dedicated, democratic leaders who put their countries, not their pockets, first.

Development begins at home—China is another illusion. If Africa does not set its house in order first, there is no way it will achieve anything. China will end up taking advantage of its resources before leaving it dry under the sun as it did in the 1970s.

Deborah BrautigamFebruary 13, 2007

Deborah Brautigam

More Opportunity Than Threat

Adama Gaye is not alone in his fears about the growing Chinese presence in Africa.  Many here in Washington share his worry. Yet in focusing on the "threat" China poses, it is all too easy to ignore the opportunity. 

And opportunities abound. Forty-eight African leaders came to Beijing in November for a historic summit on China-Africa cooperation. True, some were the dictators and crooks that worry Adama. But others were solid democrats. The point is: They all came and in large numbers because China has the kind of economic record that democrats and dictators can both admire, and the Chinese promise that their expanded presence in Africa will be for mutual benefit is credible.

Why credible? First, China’s African aid program, launched in 1958, has proven better over time than the West’s at addressing African concerns about their expensive transport costs, crumbling infrastructure, and local "ownership" of aid. Chinese teams have built bridges, hydroelectric power plants, ports, highways and even railroads. Western donors turned away from infrastructure long ago. China listened to what Africans wanted, and now their example is prodding the West to target new aid to this vital sector.

Second, China is already ratcheting up its manufacturing investment in Africa, where new industries are sorely needed to counter two decades of deindustrialization. At the November summit, China announced a $5 billion fund to promote Chinese investment in Africa. Within weeks, teams from China arrived in Mauritius, South Africa, and elsewhere to scout locations for enterprise zones and industrial districts. These would join Chinese industrial zones already planned or underway in Liberia, Zambia, and Sierra Leone, and Chinese factories making batteries in Mozambique, shoes in Nigeria, ethyl alcohol in Benin, and a host of other products across the continent.

Chinese factories offer not only jobs—they also use production technologies that African entrepreneurs can easily adopt. The World Bank estimates that African elites keep some 40 percent of their wealth outside the continent, far more than the Asian average of only 6 percent. Chinese firms as catalysts and models could offer incentives for some of that wealth to return to a capital-starved region, much as Japan did when its firms began to relocate to Southeast Asia’s ‘little tigers’ decades ago, and as Korea did in Bangladesh.

There is precedent for this East Asian catalytic effect in Africa. For example: Taiwanese and Hong Kong firms stimulated a rush of copy-cat local investment in Nigeria and were catalysts for the boom of local investment in the "Mauritius miracle" of the 1980s and 1990s. 

If this is the capitalistic behavior that concerns Adama, I say: Let’s have more of it. 

Adama Gaye February 12, 2007

Adama Gaye

Listen to the People

China's presence in Africa may be progressively rejected unless the Chinese understand that they should NOW take into account what the vast majority of Africans want for their continent instead of colluding with so-called African leaders in order to achieve their long-term African hidden agenda which smacks of colonialism.

China does not realize that Africa has become a place where people yearn for democracy, good governance and economic development.

By overemphasizing sovereignty and non-interference, the Chinese are running the risk of losing the support of the African population.

Even as someone who believed in China's relationship with Africa, I am having second thoughts in view of the cynicism that drives its Africa policy.

The fact that China closes its eyes and refuses to address publicly the lapses in good leadership [in Africa] can only lead to the negative consequences we all know: corruption, human rights violations, wars, and destruction of democratic gains.

Sudan may be the most obvious case in point, but China's attitude is emboldening dictators and crooks across the continent. In attempting to fill the gap left by the former Soviet Union, China has indirectly encouraged the return of political authoritarianism in Africa. African leaders have abandoned the road to economic reforms and political liberalization. Among them, many dictators are finding comfort in China's involvement—and are ready to facilitate its colonialist project against their continent. It is indeed a win-win project in this regard.

These dictators find China attractive for its complete package solution (financial aid, technology compatible solutions, and infrastructure) and they can even argue that the West—and its backed institutions—failed in Africa.

Yet China's colonial approach is also doomed to fail. It cannot continue hijacking the continent's natural resources or practicing virtual colonialism. Western colonial powers projected their power physically from ports and forts to take over Africa while China is doing it the soft way—uttering nice words such as "win-win partnership."

But in view of the ruthless, capitalistic behavior of its people in Africa, some of whom even act in a racist way, China is poised to face growing discontent. This will happen despite the staggering numbers in trade relations and financial support to Africa. The imperial power China is in Africa may soon learn to hear more from another breed of Africans different from the political dictators who have rushed into the arms of China in search for an umpteenth tutor.

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