New Internationalist

Is China good for Africa?

October 2012

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

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

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).

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 456 This feature was published in the October 2012 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Pepu 14 Oct 12

    Powers external to Africa have facilitated rise of an ’African’ leadership that has bought into the ’improve Africa’ faith. The Arab purchase of Maasai land, the influx of Chinese labour, the export of capital to Western capitals ... these feed on cheap but effective mantra, Africa needs help. Many Africa nations are measured for GDP, competitiveness etc against so called advanced nations so as to classify them as needy, after which ’saviour’ initiatives queue up. All this is not good for Africa, but good for those seeking to exploit what Africa has. The question is what is to be done - leave Africa alone. The interventions only serve to halt Africa being itself as each attempt to mould Africa into something that is good for the intervenor's interest. How does South Sudan sit in the UN as an equal member to Israel? How does Malawi enter level playing field negotiations with Britain over oil investments? How does Zimbabwe ’Look East’ to balance the West who have sought to dictate to it, and come out with its natural endowment intact? Rather the externals should stop wishing Africa were what it is not, like them.

  2. #2 Geoffrey 02 Sep 13

    Africa has been an unfortunate partner in its development at a point of political and economic weakness; being unable to challenge foreign investors. It has lacked clout in influencing its economic policy but has relied on foreigners to offer a safety net for its economic woes. Foreigners have always dictated Africa's economic prospects and failed to offer the necessary technologies that they enjoyed and Africa is later priced out of obtaining advancements in terms of skills. China has a large underclass like Africa and its ready to leave out its citizens to look after Africa's dispossessed. China needs to sort out its mess before it can pick on Africa. Africa needs genuine partners who offer meaningful economic leverage over its competitors and China is creating a dumping ground for China's financial detritus. African needs to dettermine its future in economic growth without assistance from foreign investors. Africa needs to muster the economic tools for its own development. Africa has always been a lone bystander and a witness to its economic development with foreigner advisers determining its fate. Africa needs both political and economic independence that will uplift its citizens from the abyss otherwise it will remain undeveloped and depending on handouts.

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This article was originally published in issue 456

New Internationalist Magazine issue 456
Issue 456

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