Africa: Is China the new African Savior?

Reading time 7 min.

After many years of enduring the rigors, manipulation and exploitation of Western colonial powers, Africans are hoping that patronage, peace and progress may come at last from the East, aligned by China. After centuries of slavery, wars and poverty, China has stepped forward to offer what appears to be a trustable hand of friendship to a lagging continent.

While China has the capacity to assist Africa to its feet, critical observers remain skeptical about China’s role in Africa, and correctly so, they have asked : Is China going to be different from the western nations in their relations with Africa? Is China in Africa to help, or to plot a subsequent dominion over the continent and its people? Is China the answer to Africa’s problems or will Africa suffer a sequel to the colonial, realist relationship it had with Europe and America? Former South African President Thabo Mbeki had cautioned that China may replicate in Africa a colonial relationship of the kind that existed under white rule.

China does not plan to spread international communism but they seek global power (economic and political); and like Europe and America prior to the Berlin Conference, China sees Africa as a strategic area of interest, and thus has taken international trade, commerce, and political influence to a continent whose 53 nations are represented in more than one-quarter of the United Nations General Assembly- Africa.

A 19th century prediction

On June 5, 1873, Sir Francis Galton, English anthropologist, statistician and polymathematician, wrote a letter to the Editor of The Times, forecasting China’s acquisition of Africa. A century after China is in command of a huge portion of Africa.

Like the western imperial push in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Chinese authorities foresee Africa as a proxy state, and a solution to China’s problems of over-population and shortage of natural resources. In 2006, China hosted a major summit with African leaders, which was attended by 50 African heads of state, where promises of generous financial, commercial, and military assistance were made, and about $1 billion in African debts were cancelled. Africa is now home to about 750,000 Chinese, and about 300 million more are expected to migrate to the continent to solve China’s over-population and pollution.

Why Africa?

Africa has vast lands, abundant resources and potentials, incompetent governments, desperate citizens and weak systems. China is hungry for land, food, energy and power. The Chinese economy heavily requires an enormous influx of natural resources; especially oil and gas. As one-fifth of the world’s population, China consumes about 70 per cent of the world’s oil, steel, copper, aluminum, and food supplies.

As a result of the country’s increasing demand, the Chinese government has invested billions in resource development and infrastructure, written off billions in debt, and built friendly relationships with energy-rich African countries. China is especially investing and providing assistance in infrastructure, industry, and agriculture — areas long neglected by the West. These investments are however done with a strict policy of non interference in internal affairs, much to the pleasure of African governments. According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), China offers African nations a financing alternative to Western donors, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, providing choices these countries might not otherwise have.

Currently, Africa provides China with 30 percent of its energy imports, meeting 5 percent of China’s energy needs and rivaling the Middle East as a source of Chinese energy. Economic reports claim that China has about $3 billion invested in Nigeria’s oil, $3 billion invested in the Sudanese energy sector, and $3 billion credit line for Angola’s offshore oil fields. Trade between China and Africa has brought critical revenue to several poor African nations; there are new roads, railroads, bridges, airports, more oil deals, more credit, and more Chinese labor.

The other side of the relationship so far

Despite the exciting prospects this China-Africa relationship reveals on the surface, the theory of realism and the practicality of power maximization from economic boom shed darker light on the affair, and at most screams for caution and wisdom on the part of African leaders.

The red flag of China is flying; from the Cape of Good Hope to the sand dunes of the Sahara, lucrative deals are being struck, and over 800 Chinese companies are operating without scrutiny, across Africa. Cheap Chinese goods like textiles, electronics, and toys have flooded African markets, crippling local developing markets, causing unemployment, and closing down local factories across the continent. Chinese contractors are also reported to be importing cheaper Chinese labor: For example, the two-hundred local textile factories that thrived in Kenya, in 2004, have been cut to ten, as Chinese companies continue to knock them out of business with cheaper goods and labor. China’s turnover in trade with Africa as a whole has risen from about £5million to £6billion in the last ten years, studies have shown, but the same measure of growth cannot be said of Africa.

China promotes its development model in Africa, based on a limited market economy controlled by an authoritarian Chinese government. According to economic experts, China’s lending practices may result in the rapid reestablishment of an unsustainable level of debt in Africa as a result of the unconditional loans offered by Chinese banks. China’s lending practices are reported to be undermining international debt-relief strategies that have dramatically reduced the debt burden in Africa. However many African regimes, desperate to revitalize their weak economies while grabbing onto political power, are seemingly finding China’s modernization model better than the free-market and democratic reforms advocated by the U.S. and the European Union.

China’s politics of realism in Africa

Support for Repressive governments: China is pursuing its own contracted self-interests in Africa. Like the West this interest has been pursued by supporting repressive regimes, resource conflicts and weak systems, ignoring public opinion and needs. China’s activities and it’s political, economic, and energy interests in Africa undermine long-standing international and domestic efforts to pro­mote regional peace, prosperity, and democracy in Africa.

Darfur epitomizes China’s policy in Africa were the push for exclusive access to natural resources is actualized by allying with notorious regimes. Even though the U.S. and the European Union were not any different, they have spoken against the Arab-led Sudan government’s role in the atrocities in Darfur. But China has vetoed every U.N. sanctions imposed on the Sudanese regime for the death of about 450,000 and 2.5 million displaced Darfurians.

Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition for rifles and heavy machine guns continue to flow into Darfur, where atrocities have been described by the United Nations as the worst human rights crisis in the 21st century, except, perhaps, Palestine. With Chinese assistance, the Sudanese government has built three weapons factories, ahead of a 2011 referendum to divide Sudan into North and South, complicating international arms embargo’s against Sudan’s government.

China and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

President Robert Mugabe’s political and human rights abuses led the U.S. and the European Union to impose punitive sanctions against his regime. Conversely, China responded by selling Zimbabwe over $200 million worth of fighter aircraft and military vehicles, and provided equipment for jamming anti-government media broadcasts from inside and outside the country and gave electronic surveillance equipment to Harare’s security services to monitor political opponents.

China faces accusations of facilitating humanitarian crisis through its supplies of arms and support of repressive regimes like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who publicly hung his predecessor from a cage, suspended in a theater before having him shot.

China claims to be approaching Africa’s resources differently from how the west has, but reports have revealed otherwise. The communist country has facilitated conflicts over the materials the Chinese are desperate to buy. Trucks are headed to seaports, carrying billions of tons of illegally-logged timber, diamonds and gold, destined for Beijing after unloading cargoes of cheap goods, made in China.

There is no doubt that China as a superpower wants unimpeded and exclusive access to Africa’s abundant natural resources, especially sources of energy, so as to expand Beijing’s political influence to match Washington, London, Rome and Munich. China also seeks to increase its international commercial markets through non-interventionist but self-serving diplomatic, economic, and military assistance. While some have praised China’s involvement in Africa, others have called it neo-colonialism. But whether China’s engagement in Africa will prove to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ will depend on how much lessons African leaders and governments have learned from European and American engagements in Africa: Once bitten, twice shy, it is said, but to what extent?

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