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Demonizing China: Pundits Get its Role in Africa Wrong

China’s growing trade with, and investment in, Africa have been much decried of late. It exploits African resources, critics have charged, makes shady deals with despots and warlords, and leaves the population no better, perhaps worse, than the Europeans before. But according to professors Sautman and Yan, China’s role in Africa has been much maligned. Though China mainly imports oil and other resources from the continent, the country has helped to finance infrastructure projects based on loans with lower interest rates than most Europeans are willing to make. Such projects are less likely to fuel corruption too, as they are built by Chinese firms backed by Beijing. Moreover, the low cost Chinese goods that many argue are displacing locally manufactured products are actually shutting out developed country goods. But China also has its fair share of black spots: Chinese-controlled mines have conditions no better than European ones, for instance. China may be the newest scapegoat for Africa’s development problems, but in the end, the debate on China’s involvement in Africa misses the point – that of improving the lot of the poorest continent in the world. – YaleGlobal

Demonizing China: Pundits Get its Role in Africa Wrong

Its faults are the same as those of the neo-liberal world
Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong
YaleGlobal, 10 February 2010

A model for Africa? Liberian children with portrait of China’s President Hu Jintao

HONG KONG: International media have reported up a storm on the recent surge in China-Africa links. They invoke a theme familiar from the past two centuries of colonialism and Cold War: Africa is beset by poverty and ignorance, caused by ruthless and corrupt rulers. Westerners are trying to bring them to book and instill order on the continent, but other forces, in this case Chinese interlopers, are making that difficult. The facts on the ground show China’s engagement in Africa has been more positive than this discourse claims. The Chinese are getting bad press in the West because they are from a country that is neither liberal democratic nor white, yet are effectively competing with those who are – to the point that some Africans see Chinese development activities as providing a model.

The Chinese, it is said, are in Africa only for natural resources, to feed China’s industry and huge population. To exploit the continent, they provide loans and aid to rogue regimes. They worsen the plight of Africans by dumping cheap, shoddy products in their markets and ruin local industry. Chinese investors pay Africans a pittance, in contrast to more ethical Western firms. Given all that, China can only be an obstacle to Africa’s development.      

The Chinese, it is said, are in Africa only for natural resources, to feed China’s industry and huge population.

It’s an exciting tale but, alas, the media have gotten it all wrong. It’s not mainly China that impairs Africa’s development, but a world system of neo-liberal capitalism, based on privatization, trade liberalization, and reduced social spending, into which China is now partly integrated. As part of the same world system, China and the West have many activities in common in Africa, but there are also some distinctly Chinese trade and investment practices and these are often more appealing to Africans. 

China-Africa trade was US$3 billion in 1995, but $107 billion in 2008. That’s still only four percent of China’s world trade. Yet, it makes China Africa’s second largest trading partner and trade is balanced in Africa’s favor. On imports from Africa, the China-in-Africa media discourse focuses overwhelmingly on oil. It’s often alleged that Chinese demand for it perpetuates Africa’s reliance on petroleum exports, preventing growth of more labor intensive industries, such as agro-business and manufacturing.

Most of what China buys from Africa is indeed oil (62 percent) and ores and metals (17 percent), but in 2008 oil was 88 percent of US imports from Africa and minerals made up most of the rest. China’s investment in oil production in Africa equals only eight percent of that of Western multi-nationals and three percent of all investment in African oil. China received nine percent of Africa’s oil exports, but Europe and the US each took 33 percent.

China also couples oil acquisition with low or no interest loans to build the infrastructure Africa needs, at a much lower cost than the West is willing to do.

China also couples oil acquisition with low or no interest loans to build the infrastructure Africa needs, at a much lower cost than the West is willing to do. For 2006-2013, China lent or will lend $28 billion to Africa for infrastructure and as trade credit. There is also less scope for corruption with China’s loans for infrastructure projects – often built by Chinese firms paid directly by China’s government – than with the all-purpose aid Western sources provide African governments, such as the money for primary education in Uganda in the 1990s, four-fifths of which never reached the designated schools .

The focus of the China-in-Africa discourse on China’s exports is almost wholly on basic consumer items and their alleged negative consequences. Chinese goods are held responsible for the decline in Africa’s textile and clothing (T&C) industry. But when Chinese goods first came in mass around 2000, Africa’s T&C was already decimated by the international financial institutions’ forced trade liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s, which opened the market to second-hand and new clothing from developed countries. The fact is that Chinese goods are much cheaper than imports from other countries, as well as locally-made goods that are made costly by poor infrastructure, pricy utilities, and corruption. A British government study found that Chinese exports to Africa mainly displace developed country exports.   

A British government study found that Chinese exports to Africa mainly displace developed country exports.

China’s stock of investments in Africa rose from $49 million in 1990 to $7.8 billion in 2008. The total stock of FDI in Africa in 2007 was $36 billion, with most of it from the EU, US and South Africa. There are about a thousand significant Chinese enterprises in Africa, but the media discourse focuses only on investment in extractive industries, particularly on one investment, the Non-Ferrous Metals Corporation Africa (NFCA) Chambishi copper mine in Zambia.

Conditions at the Chambishi mine, with its 2,200 employees, have indeed been deplorable. Chambishi, however, is not the only Zambian mine where conditions are highly oppressive, as the many strikes at Western and white South African mines show. Zambians regard all the mines as much worse now than they were before privatization, at World Bank insistence, in the late 1990s. In any case, Chambishi mine is not the largest Chinese-owned enterprise in Africa. In Nigeria, a Chinese conglomerate employs 20,000, including many local managers, yet the media dwells on Chambishi.

A comparison of Chinese and Western firms in Africa would find that many on both sides have oppressive conditions, but Western firms garner much higher profits. In contrast to Western investments, many Chinese enterprises are equity joint ventures, sharing profits with Africans. Most produce for the local market and focus more on infrastructure and manufacturing than do Western companies.

The China-in-Africa discourse lacks a comparative approach and reflects Western elites’ perception of their national interests and moral superiority.

China is presented in the discourse as “indifferent to Africa’s authoritarian despots, as it courts the continent for energy and minerals,” as a leading British journalist put it. But the US and France support most despots in Africa, providing them with military assistance and legitimacy. The West is also implicated in the trade in money and trade in people. Some 40 percent of Africa’s private wealth has been sent overseas (Martin Meredith, “The Fate of Africa: a Survey of Fifty Years of Independence,” Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2006), much of it to banks that trade interest and secrecy for these funds. London and Zurich, not Beijing, receive these fruits of capital flight and tax evasion. Western states trade their citizenship for the skills of hundreds of thousands of African professionals, especially doctors and nurses who have trained in, but are now lost to Africa. China has trained tens of thousands of Africans to be doctors, engineers, agricultural specialists, etc. and they generally return to Africa (“China has Education Cooperation with 50 Countries,” Business Daily Update, Nov. 28, 2005).

The China-in-Africa discourse lacks a comparative approach and reflects Western elites’ perception of their national interests and moral superiority. Its proponents fail to question Western government rhetoric about “aiding African development” and “promoting African democracy.” At the same time, they seize on any example of supposed exploitation by Chinese in Africa.

Many Africans – and some Westerners – question the binary view of a new Western “civilizing mission” versus the actions of “amoral” Chinese who don’t fully practice neo-liberalism by, for example, conditioning loans to African states on reduced spending on social services. They are increasingly rejecting a discourse that draws attention away from Africa’s systemic problems of exploitation and human rights and toward blaming Chinese, not for what they actually do in Africa, but for being the newly-perceived strategic competitor of the West.

Barry Sautman is a political scientist and lawyer at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology who works on ethnic politics in China and China/Africa relations. Yan Hairong is an anthropologist at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the author of New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development and Women Workers in China (Duke University Press, 2008).
For the full article on the China-in-Africa discourse please click here.

Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

26 February 2010
i think its really hard to find a new friend in africa. so i tried and write about in my blog
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-rob , germany
26 February 2010
its a basic issue...
-nadia , germany
24 February 2010
Look who is talking? British raped its colonies. French raped its colonies. Dutch raped its colonies. Portuguese raped its colonies. American raped its colonies! I was born and raised in one of these colonies!
Worst still to balance payments the British introduced a drug - opium - to get the whole of China drugged while it burned its treasures (e.g. the Summer Palace), looted it, took all the stuff to the British Museum and now call them their own! They did the same to Egypt! Burma! Malaya! and on and on!
The West is simply damn afraid of the power of the Chinese who have NEVER colonized any country, never conquered any country!
Stan
-Stan Loh , Vancouver
24 February 2010
[quote]than with the all-purpose aid Western sources provide African governments, such as the money for primary education in Uganda in the 1990s, four-fifths of which never reached the designated schools .[/quote]
do you know why? a lot of resources from the west is mandated that it must be funneled through ngos. though no everyone of those members of those NGOs are paid staff but at least half of them are paid by salaries. it is not secret that NGOs fight among themselves for the funding... with the cost of staffing, the cost of living (they usually don't live with africans, they live in nice, westernized quarters ), the cost of transportation, it would be lucky that half of the money would ever get to the final targets.
-ipfreak , usa
24 February 2010
[quote]It’s an exciting tale but, alas, the media have gotten it all wrong.[/quote]
or the media just deliberately took it wrong way? i think it is the latter. sounds like a conspiracy theory? well, please prove me it is not...
when i was in africa, i saw chinese workers were building roads, water pipes, water reservoirs... mainly construction projects. those chinese workers worked in two shifts, 6 days a week. practically, the sites of construction are non-stop. they lived in nearby, mobile houses with ac built in. they have own cooking facilities and cooking own meals. in some areas, they even did some sort of farming to grow their own vegetables. the constriction sites will be totally silent during the chinese new year period, usually around 3 or 4 weeks.
zambia for instance, almost 90% of its minerals exported to europe and the states, china has less than 8%. yet all you can read is that how bad those chinese are...
tell me, what's wrong with this picture? just because they are not a part of .... you tell me..
-ipfreak , usa
22 February 2010
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-Anonymous , America
20 February 2010
The Chinese are quite barbaric in their persona. Do they care for the environment? No, get your hands on the best possible trade and let the dollars keep pouring in.
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19 February 2010
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-Steve , France
18 February 2010
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18 February 2010
China is nearly overtaking the Japan and USA market.
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