Text: Matthias Ogiermann
If one was to imagine a touristic “Africa” experience verifying all (questionable) clichés, a boat trip on the Lobé in Southern Cameroun could be the result. Leading along the shores of the little river dense rainforest, apparently untouched and in an intensive green colour. With some luck it is even possible to spot some little monkeys in the canopies and of course, the sun is constantly burning.
But suddenly, a large shadow falls on the water: A giant bridge, still under construction, crosses the course of the river, porting a street in size of a motorway, apparently coming from nowhere leading to nowhere. From the side, as if it was to inform the occasionally paddling tourists, a big transparent is hanging. Unfortunately, it cannot reveal all the secrets of the ominous monument in the middle of the forest: Half on it is written in Chinese.
Approximately one year after this snapshot, the Kribi Deepsea port is finally inaugurated on the 2nd March 2019. The motorway linking it with the economic capital of the country, Douala, is nearly brought to completion. Both were built largely by the China Harbour Engineering Company, the costs were in both cases split between the Cameroonian state and the Chinese EXIM-Bank. The latter contributed 86 Percent of the total costs of the highway, 381 Million Euro.
The Kribi Deepsea Port in Cameroon is only one of hundreds of examples of China-financed infrastructure projects on the African continent. But the Chinese engagement is by far not restricted infrastructure: China is for an important partner in development projects, Chinese settlers are numerous and Chinese firms are investing in all sectors.
At the same time in nearly every concerned Western academic context, China’s economic and diplomatic interest in Africa is critically analysed, by times with silent admiration for the effort China is doing, often with hardly hidden discomfort. It is thus no wonder, that the rumour mill is working untiringly: Is China a “rogue donor”, a cunning development partner, only heading for natural resources, luring countries in the debt trap and causing more bad than good with its development agenda?
Some facts, myths and realities:
1) The basic principles
During the history of China’s involvement in development cooperation, the two most significant principles were
a) Development Aid should lead to mutual benefit.
b) China does not interfere with the domestic politics of the developing states.
In view of these principles, the fundamental contrast between the Western attitude becomes already clear. Western development cooperation with its large NGO-sector constantly has the semblance of a charity event with “Helping the uncapable poor” as a motto (albeit this is obviously not thoroughly true). China pursuits in many of their projects also own interests, and they do not hide it. China is successfully labelling its aid as South-South-Cooperation from which both sides take profits. From a psychological point of view, this attitude is indeed more likely to produce a partnership on a par – a goal which Western aid pursues but seldom reaches.
The west sees its development cooperation as a political or diplomatic instrument with good governance and structural adjustments as a condition to be fulfilled in exchange for aid. China acts differently, it tries, according to the second principle, to keep “strings-attached” for its aid as small as possible, at least officially.
Additionally, China avoids everything which could evoke comparisons of the modern China with greedy colonial powers of the past, hence China gains advantage from the fact that they have never colonized Africa.
The non-interference policy stands against the assumption that China is, parallel to their aid, introducing their model of authoritarian capitalism by political diktat. There are indeed very few signs that China exports its ideology with illegitimate pressure to Africa, but, on the other hand, China can be sure that it represents an admired role model. Only fifty years ago, China was in similar situation as many countries in Africa today, but developed to one of the leading countries on earth in an amazing pace. Briefly speaking: China does not need to introduce their ideas and concept with force, they will in many cases be copied anyway. Some experts already claim to have observed significant governance style changes in countries like Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania. Allegedly, Ethiopia is already referred to as Africa’s China – a bit alarming in Western ears, in Ethiopia probably considered as a compliment.
2) Myth: China appeared in Africa suddenly and only recently
By the “Belt and Road”-Programme and other publicity, China drew attention to its presence in Africa, which in turn lead to a new focus on the Sino-African-relationship from the west. This resulted in the impression that China had just “found” the African continent. But this is not entirely correct. First steps towards an economic cooperation were already done in the 1960s by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. His “Eight principles on China’s aid to foreign countries”, delivered in a speech at Accra, Ghana, in 1964 are still shaping China’s approach to development aid, the two mentioned above were already included. At that time China was itself still struggling with widespread poverty and economic backlog. But while apparently mainly Russia and the USA courted African countries, also China spent a significant share of its budget on development aid. The motivation in those days was partly of diplomatic nature: China, more concretely the People’s Republic of China, did not have a seat at the UN. The “Chinese” seat was held by the “Republic of China”, commonly called Taiwan. With the help of befriended African countries, China could eventually gain this seat in 1971. But in the following decades, China’s engagement never ceased – except for the case of Swaziland, which has never broken its diplomatic ties to Taiwan.
3) It is all about resources and their exploitation?
It is not possible to disavow that China or Chinese companies are engaged in several projects for the exploitation of resources. And of course, infrastructure projects can (among obvious benefits) be seen as a sleeky way to facilitate the transport of resources from the mines over the seaports directly to China. But that would not be entirely fair. If one dares to look back to the 1970s – the years after the Cultural Revolution when China started to open bit by bit – we see surprisingly many industrially developed states with growing interest in the rich resources China has. Japan was the first one. Tokyo offered modern technology and material to allow efficient mining, China in exchange payed back in crude oil and coal. China was, despite being an economically weak country at that time, smart and persistent enough to prevent being short-changed by Japan and other Western investors. They paid attention, that they themselves would profit enough from the technology and infrastructure brought in and that they get a fair share of the resources mined and the wealth created. Those arrangements, transfer of technology and knowledge in exchange for resources are called “Barter Arrangements” or “Compensatory Trade”, and we can observe these kinds of agreements in Chinas development cooperation with African countries today.
The described arrangements offer in fact a variety of chances for African countries: Poor in foreign exchange, repayment in raw resources can be an alternative way to bring in technology and expertise which would
otherwise be inaccessible. If African countries use their huge work power and their stocks of foreign resources to negotiate advantageous terms, they could profit from China’s interest in resources and finally use the yields to get more and more independent from natural resources.
On the other side, China did in fact gradually evolve from a resource-backed developing state to a highly industrialised country, but it paid for the rapid change with environmental disasters like the Beijing Smog Cloud. Compensatory Trade gives development countries an important tool to develop and it can lift, like in China, millions of people out of poverty, but it also confronts environmental concerns with economic interests – a taboo in modern approaches to sustainable development. And, if the trade is not well administered, African countries can find themselves in dependencies to China that would affect their ability to rule about the natural resources freely.
4) The future of China-Africa-Relations
If Western NGOs want to picture their work in Africa, they often use photos of young children happily rushing into a new primary school. In contrast, university lecture halls can seldom be found in glossy leaflets about the NGO’s activities. Certainly, primary school students are cuter than bored university students, but on a wider and more general scale, Western donors in fact do not show as much interest in promoting higher education in African countries as they maybe should.
China does, and that again silently but efficiently. Several agreements between universities on the African continent and China have been negotiated, and China also supports very concretely: the new library of the University of Dar es Salaam is wholly funded by China and is thought to be the largest one in Africa. Moreover, in 2018 the China-Africa Institute was founded, an organisation promoting joint research and academic exchange.
Apropos academic exchange: China has become the second-most popular destinations for African Students going abroad, surpassing the UK and the US. No surprise, as education for example in the US gets more expensive year by year, China can be an affordable alternative: Even more important is China’s welcoming attitude towards foreign students from Africa. While European states make it discouragingly difficult for Africans to get a visa, China is already offering far more than 30.000 scholarships to African students and eases its immigration policy for academic purposes. The emerging network between the future leaders of both destinations will surely also boost the economic cooperation and the trading relations. China is already at present for many African countries the most important trading partner and there is considering the argument above no reason to think why this should change with the next generation.
What can then be the conclusion about China in Africa? This should be answered from the only perspective which really counts: the African one. “The China approach” to Foreign Aid is fundamentally different from the Western one and can thus be a valuable alternative for African countries looking for international partners to incite economic progress. The disadvantages and risks linked to Chinese Development aid are not to disavow, but the chances for benefit are equally high. Smart and foresighted African countries, governments and entrepreneurs can take advantage of the competition of the two models. Taking the best from both without relying too much one either the West or China can in fact constitute a promising way to develop and to gain eventually independency from both.
The narrative part in the beginning of this article follows personal experience of the author. However: For the claims and arguments the author uses as basis the books “The dragon’s gift” by Deborah Brautigam, “China and Africa – A century of engagement” by David. H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenmann and the “The Complete Beginner’s Guide to China-Africa Relations” by Lina Ayenew. He does not intend to compile his own scientific argumentation, but he brings journalistically together facts used and arguments mentioned in the debate about China-Africa Relations.