China-Africa relations: horses and riders?

Does China’s engagement with Africa depict the narrative of horses and riders, in which Africa is the horse and China the rider? In this narrative, Africa produces the resources and commodities required to drive China’s aggressive development while Africa is left high and dry, with no provision of jobs, transfer of skills and technology. 

The place of African agency in China-Africa relations formed the bulwark of deliberations at a three-day conference organised by the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in Pretoria. The conference, which deliberated the theme “Re-visiting the Afro-Chinese partnership and its implications, in African perspective”, was declared opened by Professor Rita Maré, Unisa’s vice-principal: academic, teaching and learning, who emphasised the need to address the important issue of south-south co-operation on the impact and influence of China on the African continent.

 “There was a time in African history when we refused to be horses,” said Ng’wanza Kamata, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Dar es Salam, Tanzania. “Africans fought to gain their independence, which shows that we are capable of saving ourselves.” Kamata emphasised that China is benefitting from its engagement with Africa, which is evident in its fast growth. 

“China needs Africa’s resources to sustain its growth and sees Africa as source of resources,” Kamata added. 

Convener of the conference Dr Kwesi Prah, a post-doctoral research fellow at TMALI, said: “Right now, African countries are going to China to seek finance, but we can redefine the value of our commodities.

“Africa can place itself in a position where it can actually define the terms of China-Africa relations and this is why we converged here to see whether we can up with value-defining institutions that can transform the way we seek to redefine ourselves.”

Professor Maitseo Bolaane of the University of Botswana said that China “talks about equality and mutual respect”, but Africa needs to “interrogate that statement to know if we are really equal”.

Professor Lloyd Amoah of Ghana’s Ashesi University said: “The view that the Chinese are here to help us is very dangerous, because China helped itself despite colonialism by Japan.” 

Amoah said he doubts if African countries are tracking the statistics on aid, scholarships and grants given to African countries by China. “China produces statistics, but these can mask a lot of things,” Amoah said.

China-Africa relations have been defined by China, not Africa, he said. “The Chinese have a plan and they put in effort.”


Kamata noted that Africa “is sleeping” but there is need to know “when Africa fell asleep”. 

“The moment we know when we fell asleep, it will help us a lot.” Kamata emphasised that there was a time when “Africa was awake and knew what it wanted”, which was very evident in the struggle for liberation. He said that the most important lesson is that “Africans must think for themselves” and define their vision in their own terms, but questioned why “Africa has always been an appendage to other people’s visions.”

“We can learn from the China experience but we can only take the important lessons which support our dream — the African dream,” he added.

Bolaane said: “China has a very clear strategic plan to engage Africa but the question is whether Africa has its own strategic plan.”

However, Counselor Hu Zhangliang, acting deputy head for the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in South Africa, who was the keynote speaker at the conference, disagreed that China-Africa engagements is akin to horses and riders. He said: “China is a good friend of Africa that represents real growth and opportunities”. 

He said that the visit of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to Africa between December 1963 and January 1964, in which he visited 10 African countries, emboldened China-Africa relations. Zhangliang emphasised that the relationship between China and Africa is “mutual and win-win”. 

“Our expansive relationship is visible in the growing trade between China and Africa,” said Zhangliang.

He said that China-Africa trade reached $220-billion by the end of 2014, with China as Africa’s biggest trading partner for five consecutive years. According to Zhangliang, there are more than 2?500 Chinese companies operating in Africa and more than 1?000 sets of projects have been completed on the continent.

Zhangliang quoted from a Standard & Poor report to buttress his views: “Every 1% of Chinese growth will help increase the GDP of low income African countries by 0.3% and middle income African countries by 0.4%.

“Undermining China-Africa co-operation is undermining Africa’s development.”

The missing link

There was a consensus among participants at the conference that the micro dimension of China-Africa relations is a missing link that needs to be deepened, if the relationship is to impact ordinary people in Africa. The argument is that while the state-led engagements between China and Africa are buoyant, the micro dimension — which involves people-to-people, private investments -— has been uninspiring. A case in point is Kenya, where Chinese individuals and private Chinese businesses have been involved in scandals that dampen the gains of China-Africa relations. For instance, two weeks ago, a Chinese restaurant in the capital city of Nairobi was shut down for discriminating against Africans, who were not allowed entry to the restaurant after 5pm. 

“Do you think you can go to Beijing and go and set up a restaurant and say it is Africa-only?” asked Amoah. 

In November 2014, the Kenyan government arrested 77 Chinese nationals in Nairobi for cybercrime and espionage. Similarly, in August 2012, 13 young Chinese prostitutes were arrested in Ikeja, Lagos in Nigeria, where a Chinese couple operated a prostitution racket dedicated to servicing rich Nigerians.

Zhangliang agreed that there is need to deepen engagements on the multilateral side of China-Africa relations, but he emphasised that it would be difficult to co-ordinate the number of Chinese residents on the continent of Africa to behave in the same manner.

“In a basket of eggs, there might be the bad ones,” said Zhangliang. “There are about one million Chinese living in Africa and the Chinese government cannot have control over how each and every one operates.” Hence, in their article, ‘Upstairs’ and ‘Downstairs’ Dimensions of China and Chinese in South Africa, Yoon Jung Park and Chris Alden argue that the contradiction between state-led bilateral engagement and person-person relations “capture the diversity characteristic of maturing relationships”.

“Dalai Lama a terrorist”

In September 2014, the South Africa government denied the Dalai Lama an entry visa to the country for the third time, based on the opposition of China. For many, this act negates China’s mantra of “peaceful rise”.  Zhangliang said China opposed the Dalai Lama’s visit to South Africa because “he is a terrorist masquerading as a freedom fighter”.

“It impinges on our territorial integrity to grant him a visa. That was why we opposed it,” said Zhangliang.

South Sudan

China’s intervention in South Sudan has raised the suspicion that China may compromise its non-interference policy in Africa, when its economic interest is threatened. This view was buttressed by Professor Deborah Brautigam, head of the China-Africa Research Institute at John Hopkins University in a recent interview with The Diplomat.com, in which she indicates that China’s intervention in South Sudan points to a new trend in China’s policy of non-interference.

“My vote would be that it will be the start of a trend,” Brautigam said.

Zhangliang, however, dismisses the notion, stressing that China did not intervene, but assisted to negotiate peace in South Sudan.

“Our economic interest in South Sudan is peanuts for us; merely about $10- to 15-million,” said Zhangliang.

“South Sudan is a poor country and relies solely on oil and if the warring factions destroy the oilfields there will be no school, no electricity and there will be hunger.”

He said China was only defending South Sudan’s interest by intervening to negotiate peace in the country. “This is a kind of help and not interference. We give them advice and suggestions to stabilise the country,” said Zhangliang.

Emeka Umejei is a PhD student at the University of the Witwatersrand’s China-Africa Reporting Project

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