New Internationalist

Is China good for Africa?

October 2012

Writer and activist Firoze Manji and professor Stephen Chan go head-to-head.

ARGUMENT

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online. The best comments will be printed in the next magazine.

This feature was published in the October issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Firoze

I don’t think the matter can be reduced to the level of fairy stories where there are the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’; a more nuanced approach is required. Certainly there are positive aspects, such as that China has been willing to break the stronghold of the Western powers and the international financial institutions that they control who have, since the early 1980s, been prohibiting investment in infrastructure in Africa. Indeed, African countries now have alternative trading partners rather than just being dominated by the advanced capitalist countries.

But we have to go beyond that. The entry of China into Africa was not a challenge to the neoliberal agendas that have had such a devastating impact on the majority of people in Africa. On the contrary, it has been facilitated by the same policies that ‘opened up’ Africa’s economies to the international markets. China has not challenged the policies that have led to mass privatization: it has benefited from them.

The critical issue is, who has really profited from China’s intervention? China is driven by its own economic concerns, not solidarity. On the surface African economies seem to have benefited. Take Angola, for example. China’s investment in oil has helped their economy, but the vast majority of people have not seen this wealth. Why? Because the ruling élite has engaged in widescale parasitic accumulation of most of the income, meaning the rich have got richer, the poor poorer.

Stephen

I agree that the time is ripe for a nuanced approach to this issue. There has been too much hysteria from those who have had established positions in extracting value from Africa – as if no new kid on the block was allowed. Only, of course, China is not a new kid. China’s support for liberation movements, although sometimes wrongly judged, has been powerful. Listening to the hysteria from the Western powers, one might be forgiven for thinking this was a re-run of the racist ‘yellow peril’ propaganda that arose at the same time Africa was being colonized.

I think there is also a larger global picture, and I agree absolutely that China is not challenging neoliberalism. Instead, this is a challenge for ownership of globalization, global capital flows, and the beginnings of new forms of neoliberalism. This is not in itself a good thing. What is a good thing is the break-up of Western hegemony over all our financial futures.

You use the example of Angola, where an oligarchic élite enjoys a patrimonial and almost exclusive control of the nation’s wealth. The Chinese economic presence has not changed that. Only the Angolan people can do that. But what is often not appreciated is that, before the Chinese economic arrival, Angolan public finances were so lacking in transparency that it was clear the national budget was no more than a slush fund for corrupt leaders and officials. But the Chinese do not put in capital to see it stolen. The idea of ‘value for money’ is strong in China. The Chinese have demanded that the Angolan public finances be more transparent. No-one can claim Angolan budgets and accounts are now honest – but they are a lot clearer.

What concerns me about Chinese involvement in Africa is not the public and official Chinese investment and trade, not the aid projects, and not the infrastructural development; but the often openly racist, uneducated and dishonest practices of private Chinese companies and entrepreneurs. China as a state, a nation and a people should be ashamed of many of these private entrepreneurs

Firoze

I agree with you that the practice of private companies from China operating in Africa needs to be examined critically. But the same goes for all corporations in Africa. Despite all the publicity given to China’s intervention, the reality is that Western corporations have far more extensive operations across the African continent. And it’s true that when people talk about American or European corporations operating in Africa, they refer to the specific companies – Anglo-American, Unilever, Shell, BP, Chevron, etc – but when they refer to corporations from China, it is always ‘the Chinese’. But the operations of many private corporations, whether Western or Chinese, are heavily subsidized by the state using public funds, so we can’t let the Chinese government completely off the hook.

You’re quite right to say that it is only the people who can change things. That is true of all our countries. If Chinese companies, or indeed any international corporations, get away with exploiting African labour, a large part of the blame must lie with our governments in Africa that allow such practices to continue. Do you think it is better to be exploited by private Chinese corporations than by Western international corporations? Both benefit from cheap labour and from shifting the social cost of the reproduction of labour on to women, especially peasant farmers. What is missing in the discussion is how we democratize our societies, economies and production processes so that the majority, rather than a minority, benefit. Does China’s engagement increase the likelihood of greater democratization? I think not.

Stephen

I don’t think companies from any country should exploit others. And don’t forget we’re also talking about other players, apart from the different parts of the West and China. Some Indian practice is not edifying. The point is that, often, these companies behave the same back home and treat their own people terribly. There is a genuine global problem of exploitation. So my point is that all the blame should not be heaped on the Chinese.

Nir Relias/Reuters
China and Africa 'hand in hand' - but who is benefiting? Nir Relias/Reuters

The larger Chinese corporations do indeed have state or Party ‘shareholdings’, but exploitation seems greatest among those just small enough to escape major involvement by the state or Party. Many African countries, such as Zambia, have advanced labour legislation. As Zambia is now carefully and tentatively doing, such legislation needs to be enforced in all cases, including those concerning local ownership.

China’s population is huge and there are several generations of Chinese in Africa. In South Africa, when the fightback against apartheid began with the Freedom Congress in Kliptown, Soweto, the thousands who gathered were fed by local Chinese grocers. When I went to Kliptown recently, old people amazingly remembered this. China in Africa is a long and varied story.

Firoze

I’ve tried to find out more about those ‘small’ Chinese companies whose ‘exploitation is greatest’, but wasn’t able to find adequate data.

But to come back to the main question: is China good for Africa? I think the question needs unpacking: is China’s intervention good for African people? If so, which people? I have argued that the majority of Africans have not benefited directly, and the jury is out on what the indirect benefits might be. Perhaps it would help if we were more precise about what we mean by ‘good’. Surely the criteria should include at least some of the following: increasing the capacity of citizens to determine their own future; democratization; challenging the power of the corporations, banks and international financial institutions; and strengthening popular organizations such as those of workers and transformative social movements. The list could go on.

My point here is that judged from this perspective, there seems little evidence that China is ‘good’ for the citizens of Africa. True, the other imperial and emerging powers are not any better. But that doesn’t make China good.

Stephen

You’re right, of course. But, if no foreign power is ‘good’ for Africa, then that indicates an African powerlessness when dealing with every outside power, or African leaderships who do not care for their people. I think the trick is not singling out any Western or Eastern power as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but asking a key question about how skilful African governments can be when dealing with the outside world. There is a huge controversy right now, for instance, about Middle East interests buying up Maasai land in Tanzania, dispossessing local people, for the sake of big game hunting.

As for China, it’s been around for ages and previous generations have integrated very well in Africa. Jean Ping, the recent Chair of the African Union, is half-Chinese; Fay Chung, a minister in early Zimbabwean governments and a liberation figure before then, is Chinese; there are huge Chinese populations in Madagascar and Mauritius.

What I’m against is the singling out of the Chinese. I think that much is a Western con trick. It’s a pretty neat trick, trying to turn one formerly imperialized people against another.

Firoze Manji is Kenyan and the founder and former editor-in-chief of Pambazuka News. He is Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford University, and editor of a number of books on China in Africa including African Perspectives on China in Africa (Pambazuka Press).

Stephen Chan is the winner of the 2010 International Studies Association award, Eminent Scholar in Global Development. His new book is Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits (Yale University Press).

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