The triennial Forum on China–Africa Cooperation series of meetings between Chinese and African heads of state, who together decide the course of engagement and plan specific projects, began in the year 2000, marking a new historical chapter for both continents. Let us take a brief look at the kinds of projects which have taken place since:
“From a total of 1673 projects implemented by Chinese companies in African countries, 757 were in manufacturing and related sectors, 215 in social sectors, 192 in healthcare, 161 in education, 115 in transport and infrastructure, 106 in agricultural sector, 83 in energy, and only 44 in mining.” (As of 2015, africa-me.com)
“There are an estimated 800 Chinese corporations doing business in Africa, most of which are private companies investing in the infrastructure, energy and banking sectors. Unconditional and low-rate credit lines (rates at 1.5% over 15 years to 20 years) have taken the place of the more restricted and conditional Western loans. Since 2000, more than $10bn in debt owed by African nations to the People’s Republic of China has been canceled.” (wikipedia)
“Education and the transfer of technological know-how are increasingly part of China’s soft power efforts in Africa. There are more than 20 Chinese-run agricultural training centers and over 40 Chinese language schools, Confucius centers, across the continent. China’s minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi said last week his government would offer 10,000 scholarships to African officials to study in China over the next decade. China is already the top destination for African students from English-speaking countries, ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States.” (qz.com)
Chinese projects are not concentrated in resource rich countries, but distributed all over the continent. In Angola, the 14.5 billion which have been invested are spread out over the entire country toward reconstruction, while Angolan oil is offshore. In the Congo, the many roads built connect to surrounding countries, and do not lead to the coast. Railways, such as the one in Kenya, do not only carry materials out like those built by the British, but boost local economies and facilitate trade between African regions and nations. There are 25 Chinese companies building infrastructure in Ethiopia, a country which has nearly nothing in terms of resources. (Deborah Brautigam)
The 7th FOCAC took place earlier this year, attended by 53 (all but 1) African national leaders, in which a new development plan involving 60 billion in investment deals for Africa was announced. This will include “$15 billion in grants and interest-free loans; $20 billion in credit lines; a $10 billion fund for development financing; $5 billion to finance imports from Africa; and waving the debt of the poorest African nations diplomatically linked to China” (Asia Times). A further breakdown is here; and for an even larger comprehensive overview of Chinese projects in Africa, see this report from The Institute of Developing Economies based in Japan.
When ever there is power asymmetry and parties are operating on uneven economic ground, the danger for injustice arises. Even though representatives from the Chinese Communist Party oversees the operation of each and every major private enterprise, and the corporations are answerable to the democratic people’s government, with so many projects undertaken on such large scale, the occurring of a myriad of conflicts and problems is unavoidable. From unfair deals to corrupt business practices, from labor issues to culture clash and racism, these issues must be acknowledged and taken seriously, and we should prioritise the perspective of structurally disadvantaged parties.
But when confronting these complications, mistakes, and crimes, it is important to hold a balanced perspective, and keep a few things in mind: The mistakes and abuses of individual companies do not reflect state policy. Disputes and complications on a local level should be evaluated on a case by case basis, and in proportional relation to the scale and scope of larger developmental plans. Unfair practices must not be swept under rugs, but they should not be used to judge the sum total of Chinese activity. And there have indeed been new policy reforms which further restricts Laissez-fair business practices in order to solve these problems. For example, even though in most African countries Chinese projects have always hired a high proportion of local vs. foreign workers (Deborah Brautigam), in recent years, big companies have been shifting toward significantly even more local labour, even if, for a variety of reasons, it often means less cost-effectiveness in the short term.
From all evidence, the modus operandi of the People’s Republic breaks from the US/European model of pure extraction, is characterised by mutual benefit, and crucially, a dedication to African independent economic development. The rewards China reaps from this relationship will be from increased economic opportunities with high-growth economies, instead of from plunder.
US global power is in decline, and US politicians have explicitly named China as its “biggest threat”, for now and in the coming years. But there are even bigger dynamics with deeper historical roots at play: Western powers have always sought the return of their property, ever since they “lost” China to the communist revolution in 1949. And contrary to popular rumours, the ideological “Cold-War” waged by the bourgeois empires against communismnever ended after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Besides the continuing of classic destabilisation campaigns against the PRC, exactly the same as those we have recently seen in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine, with funding Islamic extremism in Xinjiang and “pro-democracy” elements, the US global media empire is stepping up Anti-China and Sino-phobic propaganda. In addition to the constant and fraudulent fear-mongering claims of “totalitarianism” and blatant lies without any evidence such as “1 million Uyghurs detained”, the internet is over run with articles about Chinese “colonialism” and “imperialism” in Africa, talking of “debt traps” and “financial-domination”, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Propaganda vs. Reality
To assess the use of “colonialism” and “imperialism” to describe this new relationship between China and Africa, like some have been doing, we must be precise about what these words mean.
Colonialism involves the drawing of artificial borders, imposition of foreign laws, forced religious conversions, the banning of indigenous languages, enslavement of local populations, violently suppressing uprisings, and crucially, the establishment of colonies. China has done exactly none of this.
Imperialism suppresses the independent economic development of host countries. It creates and sustains artificial poverty through the removal of democratically elected leaders and the installation of puppet dictators. It destabilises the host country with the funding of extremist groups, and the masterminding of conflicts and wars, in order to keep prices low for foreign markets, perpetuating chaos and discord for economic exploitation. Imperialism maintains political domination, focuses on industries of extraction, and invests only in sectors with high rates of profit.
The People’s Republic is not only doing none of the above, but exactly the opposite. China is assisting in African development without meddling in politics under the guise of ”political restructuring”, and without militarist intimidation masked as ”security aid”. The mutually beneficial relationships are empirically evidenced, in which resources are traded for development in needed areas. China contributes technology and funds infrastructure while getting resources in return, the opposite of Western deals where cash is given to African political elites for resources.
In roughly the first decade of Chinese involvement, manufacturing on the entire continent of Africa has been increasing at a pace of about 5 to 10% a year. In Angola, where $14.5 billion of Chinese funds were invested as of 2011, rate of absolute poverty has dropped from 68% to 36%. Chinese loans have “comparatively low interest rates and long repayment periods”, are often extended, and sometimes completely forgiven. (Deborah Brautigam)
Aiding in the sovereign economic advancement of host countries completely contradicts and undermines the very basis of imperialism. According to OECD, with every 1% of Chinese economic growth, 7.7 million outside of the country are lifted out of poverty, making China the most powerful poverty reduction engine in the 21st Century — this is the difference between socialism and capitalism.
In the Congo, possibly the single most resource rich place on Earth, thus the most cursed under capitalism, there were 5.4 million official casualties of war between 1998 and 2008, in what the UN has called “the worst humanitarian disaster since WW2”. These continuing conflicts, often conducted with child soldiers, are over the control of mines to supply Western corporations with crucial minerals. Pandemic chaos and violence keeps prices low, these conditions were created through the installation of West-friendly corrupt dictators, after US and French forces assassinated the democratically elected post-independence socialist leader Patrice Lumumba.
Let us be very clear: If China had been in a position to engage with the Congo since 1961, rather than struggling to develop its own nation after suffering more than a century of colonial domination, instead of the US and allies, none of the severe and colossal tragedies touched on above would have unfolded, and life in this most wonderful place with the most beautiful people and amazing culture would be exponentially better today. To call Chinese involvement in Africa today “colonialism” or ”imperialism” is not only to cheapen the word to the point of total meaninglessness, but an insult to the millions of victims of real colonialism and actual imperialism.
A New Accord
The status quo for Africa shaped by the past 70 years of post-colonial Western imperialism is horrific, as the US and Europe continues to meddle with and bleed the continent dry. The only thing that can break this cycle of exploitation and domination is the strengthening of African nations through independent development, beginning with the building of infrastructure on which large enterprises can arise and strong economies can grow. China’s Belt and Road Initiative integrates with Africa’s own Agenda 2063, a “strategic framework for the socio-economic transformation of the continent over the next 50 years”, combating unemployment, poverty, and inequality.
While we must stay vigilant and hold Chinese companies to a high standard, lets not fall prey to capitalist propaganda, and keep the bigger picture in mind. Even with overwhelming anti-Chinese bias in West-dominated global media, many studies from nonpartisan groups reflect positive attitudes, such as this one from the pan-African research network Afrobarometer:
“Findings from… 2014/2015 surveys in 36 African countries… suggest that the public holds generally favourable views of economic and assistance activities by China. …the note found that public perceptions not only confirm China’s important economic and political role in Africa but also generally portray its influence as beneficial.”
This new accord with the continent of Africa can be seen as part of a long term plan China is in the early stages of implementing, which involves using capitalist methods (unavoidable in a global market currently dominated by capitalism) to build alliances based on strength with other formerly colonised nations. Through win-win relationships and a policy of non-interference, cooperation between former marginalised and oppressed will displace capitalist hegemony, counter imperialism, end militarism, remove the obstacles to global socialisation, and peacefully shift the world toward communisation.