China’s Investment in Africa: Genuine Aid or Concealed Imperialism?

By Palden Lhamo

Africa’s relationship with the international community in terms of the dynamics of dependency and aid is not subject to frequent media attention. However, it is imperative that it should be highlighted upon. In this essay, the two referenced Economist articles discuss the growing surge of interest in diplomatic and trading relationships as well as military ties with the historically underrepresented continent. Although China’s goal of eventually overpowering over Africa is menacing, it is nonetheless attractive for African states devoid of foreign aid. It is indisputable that Africa has grown exceptionally over this recent time period due to aforementioned foreign interest and investment. However, I believe that such economic growth is only temporary, and is insidious, as African people fall dependent upon external aid guised as politically unintrusive, ultimately threatening their abilities to practice democratic freedoms and truth. For this purpose, I will be specifically focusing on China, an authoritarian Communist regime with a superpower economy that is keen to strengthen their presence in Africa. 

The first Economist article “New Scramble for Africa” argues that there is a new surge of “diplomatic, strategic, and commercial” (1, Leaders) interest in Africa, which, if properly managed, would allow the continent to triumph to unprecedented growth. The international community has recently conveyed interest in deepening ties with Africa through diplomacy, military, or commercial ventures. Although historically marginalized and neglected by the bureaucratic international community, Africa holds diplomatic power with “three of the 15 non permanent seats on the Security Council” (19, Djibouti), and 54 of its nations are a “quarter of the UN General Assembly.” (19, Djibouti) Chinese officials have made “79 visits to Africa in the decade up to 2018” (19, Djibouti), conveying the recent yet fervent sensation of Africa’s diplomatic relationships. 320 embassies have opened in Africa, making it “the biggest embassy building boom anywhere” (9, Leaders) with the powerful nation of Turkey opening 26 of them. This rapid increase in African based embassies suggests that countries are taking desperate and ostentatious measures to forge stronger political relationships with the second most populous continent. China is no exception.  

Militarily, China has become “the biggest arms seller to sub-Saharan Africa” (9, Economist) with “defence-technology ties with 45 countries.” (9, Leaders) Since 2014, Russia has “signed 19 military deals with African states.” (9, Leaders). It is thus apparent, countries are utilizing their immense military power by supplying weapons and defense support to build stronger relationships with Africa. In the case of China, it hopes to maintain power and feels a sense of responsibility to protect trade along with “more than 1m Chinese living in Africa.” (19, Djibouti) Countries have also increased their business engagement with Africa in hopes of solidifying ties, aiming for a financial relationship that will shed a favorable light on their promise as a reliable and steady partner. The increase in African trade is markedly considerable; Turkey and Indonesia have “more than trebled” (9, Leaders) their trade with Africa, and Russia has “quadrupled” (9, Leaders) its African trade — further proof that Africa has become a coveted trading partner internationally. 

“New Scramble for Africa” argues that these foreign contributions have been largely beneficial for Africa’s growth. Ports are built, mobile phones are introduced, and foreigners purchase “textiles to holidays and digital services” (9, Leaders), essentially boasting modernization. The outpour of foreign investment proves its merit as countries’ GDPs exponentially increase: “GDP per head south of the Sahara is two-fifths higher than it was in 2000″ (9, Leaders), and are predicted to increase: “one third of sub-Saharan countries can expect GDP growth of more than 5%.” (20, Djibouti) However, the article argues that these benefits are not equally shared amongst Africans of all levels of the socio-economic spectrum. Loans from China to “dangerously indebted African governments are secret” (9, Leaders). The lack of transparency results in a voter base who are unable to distinguish these quid pro quos, so inevitably aid the “big men” (9, Leaders), or the heads of state. Thus, the pervasiveness of clandestine agreements between the two governments ultimately comes at a cost to the African citizen.

China deliberately frames its relationship with Africa as a “no strings attached” one, promising growth and assistance, bereft of obligations. In fact, Grant Harris, Obama’s White House director for Africa, even compares China’s loans to drug addiction: “highly addictive, readily available, and with long-term negative effects that far outweigh any temporary high.” (2, Searcey) 

Additionally, China’s deceptive portrayal of its relationship with Africa as one of comradery-based rather than colonially-oriented, seeks to be a stark contrast to publicized Western strategy. Its staunch assertion of support has resulted in Sino-Optimism — the belief in China’s potential for aiding the transformation of Africa’s economic possibilities — and so winning approval from key leaders like Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Zenawi who echo appreciation of China’s help in independence. 

“Africa will never forget the historical role played by China in the struggle against colonialism.” (12, Adem) Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN states “terms of engagement have been amazingly generous.” (8, Adem). 

To dismiss the dangerous potential of China’s colonization efforts on the basis of no prior involvement is illogical. The extent to which both countries remain independent of each other is overestimated, leaving Africans susceptible to exploitation. 

Thus, it seems clear that Africa relies on China’s aid out of desperation and not pure logic; Africans have a lack of faith in major international organizations like the IMF and World Bank, which make China their last resort for hope. Feelings of restriction and marginalization among ordinary citizens as a result of World Bank micro management are not uncommon. When a country borrows from the World Bank, its government automatically agrees to adjust economic policies to overcome problems that led it to seek financial aid from the international community in the first place, thus perpetuating an outdated and imbalanced economic system. The effects of China’s policies are restricted to those Africans in positions of political power. “World Bank database reports the GDP statistics according to the old numbers… reports economies to be poorer than their own statistics indicate” (42, Sen), proving that formal international organizations still violate African self-development and structurally act to downplay its growth. Africa has nowhere to turn, but to China’s claims that its loans will directly benefit them and not other developed nations. 

China’s loans “to finance airports, highways, railways, dams” (1, Searcey) have already resulted in crippling effects for Africans. The International Monetary Fund reveals that “forty percent of countries in the region are close to falling into debt crisis” (1, Searcey), suggesting China’s loans are setting Africans up for failure rather than success, with aid helping temporarily, accumulating in helplessness and financial indebtedness. Kenya, who is dependent on Chinese manufacturing imports with their trade growing eightfold, has complained that “the trade was skewed in favor of China” (2, Searcey), proving the true intention of China in its economic assistance is not to aid, but to preserve Africa’s reliance, forming an imbalanced dynamic. 

If “democracy and transparency are the antidotes to corruption” (3, Djibouti) and Africans want to hold their own political leaders accountable for corruption, they cannot excuse the dishonest behavior of Chinese leaders. Both democratic rule and economic growth “rely on open information, freedom of choice, and decentralized decision making.” (96, Lewis) 

Much of Chinese success in winning contracts for African projects “is tied to bribing officials.” (2, Landler) Rather than Western and Japanese counterparts, China’s infrastructure projects do not have any acceptable publications of aid — essentially classifying aid information as a state secret. China has also not addressed human rights issues such as poor working conditions and fatal incidents with its companies in Zambia. When 52 Zambian workers died at Beijing General Research Institute, a factory near a mine, due to lack of safety regulation, it was disclosed that most of the workers did not have medical or pension benefits while earning “as little as K291 per month.” (91, Leslie) Only adding to the list of transgressions is the shooting of eleven Zambian workers who had been peacefully protesting for their rights, revealing the Chinese government’s punitive and oppressive reactions to democratic movements towards free speech. Is this repressive regime what Africans want as a solution to economic progress? It certainly does not meet the standards of  transparency or accountability that many people expressed as a priority while voting. Although China is an external power, unprincipled foreign influence can creep its way into an already corrupt domestic government, exacerbating social equality for Africans. 

It is not fair to entirely blame Africa for its optimism towards China’s promises. The international community has historically and systematically failed the continent through its skewed organizational structure, underestimating its potential for development. However, Africa needs to think about how its decision will impact the next chapter for future generations. “Development is ultimately not about bricks and budgets, but about social change” (5, Moss & Resnick); in order for Africa to completely revolutionize its stance in the global climate, it must not only consider alluring propositions from China for improved infrastructure and investment, but also consider the greater picture of whether a reformed Africa will bring democratic liberties for all. China’s uncontrolled investment and influence is proof that, however implicit and furtive, history repeats itself. It is no surprise that China has already begun implementing mandatory Mandarin lessons in African schools — a potential foreshadowing of colonial traces. If China truly wishes to avoid interference out of respect for Africa’s natural sovereignty, it should make active efforts to prevent  the economic dependency as well as the linguistic dependency that is resulting through the Chinese funded subversion of African national languages. 

China’s promise of developmental benefits is further emphasized in the introduction of technology such as mobile phones and should therefore not be overstated. While economic activity increases as Africa rapidly seeks to modernize itself, social progress is compromised. Business networks are strengthened with the efficient and increased communication that mobile phones bring, along with the ability to “enable them to extend their networks into new markets.” (250, Porter) This does not necessarily mean that all networks are improved. Mobile phones can “weaken local networks if individuals move to access credit and services from new sources.” (250, Porter) The nature of development is complex as “potential impact patterns of mobile phones are often difficult to interpret and measure.” (253, Porter) However, it is clear that this innovation hinders social relationships and the fabric of trust needed for successful business in Africa. In addition, gender disparity and violence are heightened as “phone access is limited by male control” (253, Porter). Phones are used as a way for men to lure women for sexual favors, fueling gender discrimination limiting the positive employment and entrepreneurial benefits of phones to men. Thus, the spread of globalization to Africa creates new dangers as the continent aims to excel in its development through foreign relationships and technology. Therefore, the underlying question remains: Will Africa be able to maintain its social fabric and traditions as unprecedented modernization occurs and whether such growth is truly growth for Africans or external powers benefitting from their need for support.

Ultimately, as China seeks to modernize Africa, they are deliberately expanding their cultural monopoly and capitalizing on the continent’s trust. Although media coverage of Africa and China’s relationship does exist, it is evident that there is not enough attention on the increasingly rampant decolonization. However, this does not come as a surprise; censorship is certainly not foreign in China with its harsh government policies. In fact, according to one writer who submitted a column in a South African newspaper on the inhumane oppression of Uighur Muslims in China and how African leaders in Beijing failed to acknowledge such suffering, “no more than a few hours after the piece was published” (Essa), he was told that the column could not be published. The author does not believe this is a coincidence as Chinese firms hold a 20 percent stake in the online publication, Independent Media, failing “to ask basic questions on Chinese motives in Africa.” (Essa) Clearly, to conceal its restriction on basic human rights, China is controlling African media and spreading propaganda of a false image that will only aid in prosperity for the continent. The recent surge of China’s interest in Africa is not only an economic concern, but more importantly, a political one that suggests the extent to which the international community, in the future, will prioritize human rights and sovereignty over power and corruption.      

 

Works Cited

Djibouti. “Choices on the Continent.” The Economist, 19 Mar. 2019. 

Essa, Azad. “China Is Buying African Media’s Silence.” Foreign Policy, 14 Sept. 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/14/china-is-buying-african-medias-silence/

Leaders. “The New Scramble for Africa.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 7 Mar. 2019, https://www.economist.com/printedition/covers/2019-03-07/ap-e-eu-la-me-na-uk

Lewis, Peter. “Growth Without Prosperity in Africa.” Journal of Democracy, Oct. 2008. 

Leslie, Agnes Ngoma. “Zambia and China: Workers’ Protest, Civil Society and the Role of Opposition Politics in Elevating State Engagement.” African Studies Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 3-4, Dec. 2016, http://asq.africa.ufl.edu/files/v16a7.Leslie.AL-HD.pdf.

Moss, Todd J., and Danielle Resnick. African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2018.

Searcey, Dionne, and Jaime Yaya Barry. “One African Nation Put the Brakes on Chinese Debt. But Not for Long.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Nov. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/world/africa/one-african-nation-put-the-brakes-on-chinese-debt-but-not-for-long.html

 

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