The Dragon in Africa
The tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered history,The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.-Nicolas Sarkozy,2007
It[Africa] boasts a time-honoured history, rich natural resources, talented and courageous people and significant contribution to the advancement of human civilization and world development-Jia Qinglin, Inauguaring the African Union HQ.
The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies.I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid.
– Paul Kagame, Rwandan President.
Just a month ago on 28th January, the newly built African Union Headquarters was inaugurated in Addis Abbaba, at a cost of 200 million USD, 20 storeys tall, with a conference center having a seating capacity of 2500. This 100 m high tower now dominates the skyline of the Ethiopian capital, and was built entirely with Chinese support and financial aid. Yes the Chinese pumped in the 200 Million USD needed for the construction, contributed the technical know how, got a Chinese construction firm to build it, employed Chinese worker. And as Jean Ping, the Chairman put it, even the furniture was contributed by Chinese, so that the complex would be functional immediately. Africans describe it as the largest Chinese project after the Tanzam Railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia in 1976. China calls it a donation from their Government, a “symbol of Sino-African friendship”.
Before going deeper, let us look at some very interesting statistics
- In 1950, the amount of trade between China and Africa was only 12.4 million USD, it touched the 1 billion USD mark in 1980. In 2000 it touched a figure of 10 Billion USD, and here it is by 2010 the volume of trade jumped to a whooping 114.81 billion USD, almost a 100% increase. And in 2011, when the Arab Spring, dominated the media headlines, a more unreported fact, was that the trade between Africa and China was now around 120 million USD. In other words from 2008-11 when the economy in the West was actually floundering, the trade between China and Africa was pushing ahead.
- In 2009, when the global economy was disrupted, China-African trade volume dipped from 100 Billion USD in 2008, to around 91 billion USD, but that was more than enough for China to replace US as Africa’s largest trading partner.
- In 2003, China invested 490 Million USD directly in Africa, by 2009 that shot up to 9.33 billion USD, and operating in around 49 countries. China has bilateral agreements with 33 African nations, and agreements with around 11 African nations to avoid double taxation policies.
- China has invested around 250 million USD in infrastructure all over Africa, and has six economic -trade zones in Zambia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia.
To many in the West, Africa is that one place, where you go to disburse aid, to those poor, starving souls, and then feel good about doing your bit for humanity. So you have these rock stars doing the Band Aid and all those Aid concerts, urging guilty souls in the West to contribute . Or on the other hand you have the Angelina Jolies and Madonnas, adopting poor kids from Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia or wherever civil conflicts have broken out, flashing in front of cameras, and columnists preening about how noble these rich celebrities are. But how effective have these Aid Concerts and Ms.Jolie’s kid adoption programs have been. Sometime back, there was a really good article on my blog Rising Africa about Aid in Africa, by one of my friend, James Wilson, where he made some relevant points.
Between 1970 and 1995 aid to Africa increased rapidly and aid dependency (measured as the aid-to-GDP ratio) stood at nearly 20% in the early 1990s. Measured differently, the mean value of aid as a share of government expenditures in African countries was well above 50% between 1975 and 1995. During the same period, GDP per capita growth in Africa decreased and was for many years even measured in negative figures. The unfortunate fact is that most African countries are poorer today then they were at the time of their independence from colonial powers.
To read more about that you can check it out here http://risingafrica.blogspot.in/2011/06/has-decades-of-sending-aid-to-africa.html
Again it is important to recall an old Chinese saying “Give a man a fish, he has food for a day, give him a fishing rod, he has food for a lifetime”. It has been a cornerstone of Chinese economic policy in the post Mao era, as exemplified by Deng Xiapoing’s famous quote “It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it helps to catch mice”. The Chinese actually take that fishing rod concept, a bit further, they don’t mind, if the lake is drained, or blasted , as long as the man gets to have his fish end of the day. The fact remains that Aid and social welfare programs however well intentioned, however noble their aims are, will always have a limited utility. Chinese industrialists and entrepreneurs, don’t get their pictures flashed all around the globe, nor would you see TV channels going gaga over them like Oprah Winfrey or Angelina Jolie. Nor are Chinese very good at communicating either, am yet to see a Chinese manager come up with a book on management techniques. Chinese business culture is somewhat reminiscent of the Wild West and those early American robber barons, a kind of “Anything goes, as long as you achieve the end result” attitude.
China’s policy with African nations is driven primarily by the Beijing Consensus , pretty straightforward ” We need raw materials, you have that resources, we do business with you, how good your Governance or human rights record is none of our concern”. The Chinese really do not care about whether you are a dictatorship or a quasi dictatorship or a monarchy or republican form, that is something the countries have to deal with. Nor does it matter, if your human rights record is one of the worst in the world, that is for Amnesty International to fret over, not our problem. Now that may lead to China propping up rogue regimes like those in Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe with their appaling human rights records and bad governance. Alternatively it could also mean that unlike their Western counterparts, the Chinese do not believe in spreading democracy or civilizing the heathens, and we have quite often seen that such noble aims have been fiascos in recent times. Yes as of now it is early days, and even the East India Company, came here primarily as traders, but will it lead to a Chinese form of colonialism in the future, I have no answer, only time will tell.
For sure, the Sino-African love story is driven primarily by self interest than any altruism or noble ideas, notwithstanding all those flowery speeches. China needs raw materials on a large scale to sustain it’s high rate of economic growth, it needs the coal, oil, copper, iron ore, Africa has them, untapped, raw, and most important it is a region where the competition is not so fierce. In order to exploit those resources, China has the technical know how, the people, the machinery. And it goes ahead and builds roads, railways, ports, factories in the African continent to exploit those resources. To the cash strapped African nations, Chinese investments mean money, and the investment in manufacturing and infrastructure mean jobs for the locals. Ordinary Africans have their own issues with the Chinese, their firms would do Stalin’s labor camps proud, exploitation is rife, and many see the Chinese as exploiters of natural wealth. But for long many Africans too have been tired of being seen by the West as those poor people, who have to be sympathized with and showered with bounteous aid. More than aid, they needed something more concrete, they needed jobs, they needed roads, schools, transport. China provided them with that, and they were willing to put up with them for that. To the ordinary unskilled African worker, slaving away for 12-14 hours under horrible working conditions might not be the best way, but much better than starving and having to be at the mercy of aid donors. That underpaid, overworking job, enables him to buy his first TV set or refrigerator, and maybe even dream of providing a better education for his children. Mind you corruption is still rife in Africa, and one does not see that problem vanish so soon. But as one of my African friends recently put it “Earlier we had corruption, but there was no development, and we had to live on handouts from the West, now we are as corrupt as ever, but at least we have chances to move up, we have the jobs”.
In Congo, a resource rich nation, that has been wracked by years of civil war, China entered into a 6 Billion USD deal. Congo has huge reserves of copper and cobalt, two minerals which China badly needs in large numbers. China agrees to building 6 Billion worth infrastructure projects to build roads, railways, schools, hospitals and what do the Chinese get 10 million metric tons of copper, 600,00 tons of cobalt. The Congo Govt of course puts in a stipulation that 12% of the work be subcontracted to Congolese firms, and around 80% of the workers must be locals. In short a win win situation for both, China gets the raw materials it needs, Congo gets the infrastructure, the roads and more important the jobs for the local. Add to it Congo has negotiated a 32% share in a joint mining venture, ensuring it has rights over the resources. Contrary to what is projected, it is not a case of Chinese exploiting gullible Africans, there has been some hard headed negotiations on both sides. Or consider the case of oil rich Angola, where China has been funding infrastructure projects worth 6 billion USD, and in return it gets the oil it needs so much at a much lower price than ever. Exploitation, yes, but for Angola, those infrastructure projects mean a lot in a nation devastated by civil war. Or consider this, China has picked up a stake of 20% for 5.46 billion USD of the South African based Standard Bank, the continent’s largest bank, and that gets it’s access to the banking. Yes with operations in 17 nations and assets of 172 billion USD, Standard Bank is the largest player, and it would also play a major role in facilitating China’s promise of low interest loans amounting to 10 billion USD to some of Africa’s poorest nations.
The West for a major time avoided investing in Africa, considering it as a hell hole, a dark pit. Problem is the West saw the African continent as one big place where civil wars took place, nasty dictators ruled, true to a large extent, but there were more peaceful nations too like Ghana or Botswana. The fact is that the West used Africa as a battleground for a long time, as a chessboard for it’s strategic objectives, the native Africans just being mere pawns. What China has done by investing big time in Africa, is that it has motivated other nations like India, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea to come in too. Unlike in the good old days, many nations now consider Africa as a place to invest and do business too. This in a way has evened up the competition too, so while China is still the largest investor in Angola, of late the Brazilians have been making significant progress in that nation too. Honestly though never understand why the Western media has major issue with Oil for Infrastructure policy of China in Africa, they have been doing the same in the Middle East for decades. Fact remains that most Africans take the warning from the Western media and people about dangers of Chinese colonialism in a matter of fact manner, having experienced the worst of Western colonialism, they feel that nothing can be worse than that.
Sadly the West seems to have not yet learned, as can be seen from Sarkozy’s statement that was stupidity at it’s best. Funny that in a culture, that thrives on being tolerant to the extent of being “Politically Correct”, Sarky should have just dismissed the entire history of Africa as not being too significant. Fact is people of any nation, however dirt poor it is, would always take pride in their history. And Africa has had it’s own history, it had it’s own kingdoms, it had it’s own dynasties, it had it’s own civilizations too. Yes maybe we may not know much about that, but then considering most of the history we get to read is from a Western perspective, we rarely have the chance to know about the non West. Sarky still seemed to have the same “You Africans are so poor, miserable peoples, we are here to save you from damnation”, the standard “White Man’s Burden” that characterized their colonialism. It did not endear him to the African people in any way. Now if we take Qinglin’s quote, it might not have been really sincere, and who knows most Africans would have taken it with a pinch of salt, but they would take it any day over Sarky’s condescending tone. Ironically in this case, the Chinese not known for their verbal jugglery, actually beat the West hands down at their own PR game.
The concerns about China in Africa,continue to be genuine. Chinese companies are notorious for their human rights abuses, workers in Zambia had to go on a strike for better safety measures at a copper mine, the incident of a Chinese manager shooting protesting workers with a shotgun killing two was a major embarrassment. But then it is not just African workers, even Chinese workers themselves suffer from the labor camp style working conditions in their native land. Add to it China dumping cheap products destroying local African industry, is again reminiscent of the British Raj era. It happened in Nigeria, where cheap Chinese textiles flooding the market, virtually destroyed the local textile industry, who simply could not compete with that. Add to it, their penchant to bribe, cajole officials, a non transparent way of operation, hobnobbing with corrupt officials and directors, means China has a lot to be answering for.
Chinese involvement in Africa has not been a blessing altogether. There has been corruption, there has been large scale exploitation of the environment, there has been a callous disregard for human rights. But did China enter Africa, promising to spread “Democracy, Human Rights, fair business practices”? No. From the beginning China was up front about it’s objectives, it was here to do business, it looked at Africa as a resource supplier, notwithstanding all those pious platitudes. And on that count it has been doing quite well. But would the corruption, exploitation lead to a Chinese colonialism in Africa, would it lead to a sort of Chinese Raj? Honestly speaking I just have no answer for this one, though I am sceptical about a Chinese Raj being formed, only time can answer this. The fact remains that China is the major player in Africa right now, how beneficial will it be, how well the African nations cope with the challenges, well all I can say is wait and see.