Common Sense About China’s Ties with Africa
April 20, 2008
In assessing Sino-African relations, three realities must be borne in mind.
First, China is not a unitary actor. This truth might seem elemental, but judging from much of the past literature on Chinese relations with Africa, it seems to have been overlooked. One manifestation is in the huge proliferation of small-scale traders of Chinese origin operating businesses in Africa, very often at an individual or family level and private in nature. For the Chinese state to manage or direct this phenomenon is all but impossible. In China itself, the weak rule of law, endemic corruption, and the highly politicized nature of state organizations at every level of government mean that the central leadership is in a perpetual struggle to keep up with an economy surging beyond their control, whether domestically or when this is projected overseas. Thus, demands that "China" should do x, y or z in "Africa," as if there is one lever to pull and all will come right, miss the subtleties and realities of contemporary Chinese foreign policy. Chinese trade with Africa has become, in many ways, "normalized:" i.e. diverse and involving multiple actors and individuals, rather than being – as previously – more state-directed and under the direct control of central organs of the government. The concept of a "China Inc.," complete with master plan, either at home or abroad, is intrinsically flawed.
Second, there has been a fair degree of scapegoating of China and its alleged negative impacts upon Africa. This criticism is directed at a variety of Chinese activities in Africa, but upon close inspection is either much less salient or accurate and in fact is often balanced out by other positive aspects of the engagement. Sometimes, the problem cited is not actually the fault of the Chinese. For instance, in construction and infrastructure development it is alleged that Chinese companies only use imported Chinese workers – even unskilled ones – and so do not generate much local employment or engage in skills transfers. Yet research suggests that local people accounted for the vast majority of the total workforce of most of the Chinese construction companies in Africa. While many Chinese are employed as unskilled casual laborers, there are also many counter examples of local Africans being employed in management and administration positions. Given the low skills-base in much of Africa, it is in fact unreasonable to expect a high proportion of the skilled jobs to be held by Africans anyway. Western corporations in Africa still make great use of expensive expatriates at the management level, even after many years of activities in-country. Africa benefits from the willingness of skilled Chinese laborers and managers to work in places like Sierra Leone at relatively low salaries and in conditions that western expatriates would not dream of enduring.
Another allegation about Chinese activities in Africa is that manufactured goods are "flooding" African countries and wiping out small and medium producers as well as ousting local traders. Yet consumers in Africa are more than happy with the availability of Chinese products and are benefiting, particularly those on limited incomes. In any event, much of Africa's manufacturing industry collapsed long ago, well before Chinese imports appeared on the scene. Of course, it is not only African producers who have had to adjust to globalization – even China itself loses jobs to countries where labor is cheaper, such as Vietnam. Chinese exports may possibly block avenues for diversification away from traditional exports for African economies. This is a problem, because if Africa is to escape its dependent relationship on the global economy and move on from being simply an exporter of primary commodities, it needs to start manufacturing. But domestic African issues and problems are more significant in making African manufacturers uncompetitive, and were undermining the continent’s productive base long before China came on the scene in a big way. It is also worth noting that talented African entrepreneurs are profiting from the China trade, since they themselves import a large proportion of the Chinese-made products entering Africa.
Where there are shoddy or counterfeit products involved, it is up to African states to regulate and control these imports, and not simply shift the blame to China. It is true that health and safety standards, as well as workers' rights and environmental issues, appear to be low down on some Chinese companies’ priorities, both in China itself as well as in their African operations. This is unfortunate and indefensible. But it reflects what is happening back home in China as Beijing's leadership resolutely pursues the capitalist road to development. This is certainly not to give Chinese employers a free pass on such matters, merely to contextualize. In view of the economic realities within China, it is all the more urgent that African governments step up to their responsibilities and make sure Chinese goods entering Africa are safe and that Chinese-owned mines and factories do not damage the environment or deny African workers their labor rights. Unfortunately, elites in much of post-independence Africa have shown scant regard for their citizen's constitutional rights or the environment in general, and it is doubtful that they will suddenly spring into action now, when Chinese investment is concerned.
Where the Chinese leadership is arguably culpable is on the issue of "non-interference," if and when this negatively impacts upon the human rights of Africans. But Chinese policy in this area is evolving. It is apparent that the Chinese see their approach to Africa as benign but are now beginning to feel exposed by the intricacies of Africa's politics. Kidnappings in Nigeria, the targeting and murder of Chinese workers in Ethiopia, anti-Chinese riots in Zambia, a high-profile campaign targeting the Beijing Olympics over Darfur (including the February 2008 resignation of Steven Spielberg as an adviser to the Olympics), and a threat by Darfurian rebels to target Chinese citizens – all these have provided a steep learning curve. Until relatively recently, there was a distinct complacency within Beijing about its policies in Africa. The attitude seemed to be that third party criticism, or even condemnations coming from within Africa, were motivated by "China bashing" and could be safely disregarded. Whoever gave the go-ahead last year to the arms shipment to Zimbabwe, which arrived off the coast of South Africa recently, was almost certainly acting under this premise. However, a flurry of extremely negative articles in the international media about Sino-African ties, as well as incidents on the ground in Africa, have stimulated a rethink in Beijing. This is shown in the apparent decision by Chinese authorities to have the Zimbabwe arms shipment returned to China. Formerly, Chinese authorities would almost certainly have insisted that the transfer go ahead, irrespective of wider opinion.
Third, it is up to African leaders to manage their relations with China to benefit their own economies and citizens. It is not China's responsibility to "look out" for Africa’s interests. However, while China has an Africa policy, Africa does not have a China policy. Informants within the African Union (AU) assert that there is in fact no official AU view on Sino-African ties, either with regard to their benefits or their possible downsides. As a collective unit, Africa has little real actual negotiating power with regard to China. China prefers bilateral dealings in its relations with Africa, and countries benefiting from such dealings have little interest in AU involvement. Beijing has warm relations with Morocco, which is not an AU member, while four states that recognize Taiwan – Burkina Faso, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland – are. These factors complicate Africa’s ability to fashion a concerted China policy.
Nonetheless, China’s need and desire for good economic relations with Africa actually affords the region considerable space in its connection with China – but only if this maneuverability is used wisely by Africa's elites. In some countries, this should not be a problem because capable and sensible governments are more than able to manage the relationship to mutual benefit. In others, however, there is a worry that predatory elites at the apex of neo-patrimonial regimes and not bothered by the impulse to promote development will make a mess of the chance to benefit from China’s interest in Africa. Ordinary Africans can possibly play a crucial role in facilitating a true "win-win" situation by holding their leaders to account and critically examining the deals done with Beijing in their name.
In short, Chinese involvement in Africa offers up a welter of opportunities for the continent, but only if utilized sensibly and if both sides are prudent about what can be gained from the connections.
Ian Taylor is Professor of International Relations, University of St Andrews, Scotland, and at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. He has conducted research on Sino-African ties since 1995, and is the author of numerous articles and chapters on Chinese ties with Africa as well as the book, China and Africa: Engagement and Compromise (London: Routledge, 2006). Taylor has recently completed a second book on the topic, based on fieldwork in fourteen African countries, as well as in China and elsewhere, to be published later this year.
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