Can China Transform Africa?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Jeremy Goldkorn:

The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the “China shops”—small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware—that have become ubiquitous in Southern Africa, to oil, infrastructure and mining projects across the continent, China’s government, private and state companies, and individual Chinese immigrants are changing the continent that the west gave up on sometime in the 1990s.

There are both very positive and negative aspects to the Chinese presence in Africa. I think arguments that China’s involvement in Africa is a form of neo-colonialism are both simplistic and prejudiced, but there also plenty of people looking at Chinese economic and political ties to Africa through rose-tinted glasses. It is certainly refreshing for African countries to deal with an enthusiastic new global player with deep pockets and little interest in pushing and ideology. It is up to African political and business leaders to make sure that their own countries do not get a raw deal.


Jeremy, I agree that China is already transforming Africa in hundreds of ways and that the Western response has verged on the hysterical at times. But there are also well documented instances of exploitation, illegal resources extraction and bad business practice, as well as any number of white elephant infrastructure projects that have fuelled a negative response to the Chinese presence in many countries in Africa.  

It may come badly from former colonial powers, but the fact is that China’s operations in Africa in many cases are uncomfortably reminiscent of 19th and early 20th century colonial operations. In China's Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing's Image, two Spanish journalists, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo  do a fairly heroic job of reporting on the Chinese presence around the world, asking repeatedly who benefits from China’s activities. They interview Chinese traders and entrepreneurs at every level, as well as local employees of major Chinese corporations. What they observe is that Chinese companies, especially SOEs, reproduce the same patterns of exploitation that are common  in China. Whilst the Chinese executive class is decently rewarded and lives comfortably, Chinese workers often suffer from familiar abuses, including exploitation and non-payment of wages; local workers complain of fourteen hour days, rotten food and wage rates far below local minimum standards, conditions that go some way to explain the persistent troubles that Chinese companies have experienced in, for instance Zambia.

Other negative impacts—deforestation, over fishing etc, as compounded by local corruption that threatens to log out supplies of hardwood in Mozambique and many other countries. China may not be responsible for local corruption, but too often Chinese operators benefit from and encourage it.

Jeremy makes a strong case that China is already transforming Africa, and I’ll take his word for it that Africa with China is a lot different from Africa without China. A more pointed question might be, Will China’s activities spur self-sustaining African development? That’s harder to answer. Nobody has yet figured out the magic formula for development, but we know a lot of things that don’t necessarily work: pouring money into a country, or having lots of people with an entrepreneurial spirit. Whether China’s economic involvement will have different results from the economic involvement of other countries before it is still unknown.

I’m not too sure that deep-pocketed players with little interest in pushing an ideology are a good thing. Of course nobody likes those who “push an ideology” if it’s put in those terms, but while it may be refreshing for African leaders to deal with a country that doesn’t ask questions about corruption, human rights, or whether the money is just going to pay for more guns for the army and police, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that’s good for the country (i.e., everyone else there).

Unfortunately for this debate, I have not drunk enough of the Africa-China Co-Prosperity Sphere KoolAid to provide a strong rebuttal to the points made by Isabel and Don. They both point to real risks to African countries from China’s growing presence.

I would, however, like to recommend a thoroughly researched, intelligent book that makes a strong case that China’s presence in Africa is a net good for the continent: The Dragon’s Gift—The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam. You can also find similar, well-argued persuasions in some of the writings and interviews with Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo.

There is one aspect of the debate that can raise my hackles, and I believe many other people who identify as being from the “global South” feel the same. It’s this:

As Africa slipped off the global agenda after the end of the Cold War, China has been the only prominent nation-player in Africa trying new ways of doing business and building infrastructure, investing money, getting stuff done. This has, at the very worst, brought much-needed hope that African countries might fund a different way of dealing with the world and leave behind colonialism and charity. 

You can date the colonization of my own country, South Africa, back to the settling of Cape Town in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company man Jan Van Riebeeck. Europeans have had almost four hundred years of jerking Africa around. The Chinese have had about a decade.  So to hear cries of “Chinese neocolonialism!” emanating from London, Washington, D.C., Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam can sound like the most vile hypocrisy when heard through African, South American or Asian ears.