My thoughts on China's influence in Africa

Right before the Christmas holiday, I shared my my experience in China on Face2Face Africa. A professor I had previously connected with about some of my other writing sent me an email with questions from he and his colleagues about the evolving nature of China’s relationship with Africa. I had the opportunity to respond to him yesterday and thought to share it on my blog as the topic is of interest to others.

Spark Notes Version

  • The questions in italics are from the professor and his colleges

  • My general sentiment about China-Africa / Sino-Africa relations: We have the responsibility to fix this! Whatever we are afraid of or say is wrong with China in Africa happened on our watch and many times with us as partners. China has its set of issues; how we allow China to treat us on our own soil is ours

  • Young Africans should study China, rather than shun it, if they want to mean meaningfully address its influence on the continent

  • A lot of the issues with China in Africa are national/political in scale, and not personal. Our governments need a cohesive response, ie. a China strategy that makes public the nature and scale of their involvement with the China, and their aspirations, concerns, perspective, approach etc with the global superpower; the AU should also publish a China strategy with a regional focus

The Juice

Question from Professor in Jamaica

Do you feel that you were speaking with Chinese people who were comfortable or have an understanding of Africa rather than the opposite? Better yet, The treatment of black people from the Chinese in the diaspora doesn't match that sentiment of holding Africans in high regards from the average Chinese citizen. If you polled a wider net of Chinese citizens would that answer move towards unfavorable more often than not?

My trip to Shanghai exposed me to a very limited number of Chinese people and a great subset who were quite global-minded. Shanghai, being the financial capital of China, has had much exposure to foreigners, and especially foreigners of a certain air. Moreover, many of the people in Shanghai are also well educated and have often traveled to the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. I believe that lack of familiarity breed contempt and I am almost positive that my experience in other parts of China would have been different (I did visit Changzhou but only say a handful of Chinese people there) outside of the specific circumstances and set of people through whom I went to Shanghai. 

I do agree that the Chinese in the diaspora have a biased perception of Africans/ Black people. Growing up in the South Bronx, I interacted with Chinese people at the Chinese restaurant or the hair shop on the corner but different find them particularly memorable. In fact, while I never had a negative encounter with a Chinese person, I did see some get upset or rude towards Black people, towards Black teenagers. On the reverse, I saw Black teenagers disrespect and antagonize some of the Chinese shop owners. There is something about the Chinese/Black relationship in the diaspora, outside of China, that is perhaps heightened by the national dialogue about Black in, I think Chinese people and Black people especially don't get along in America because the two groups have absorbed the national cool aid that speaks poorly of each other. 

Daniel, Question from Jamaican Professor

This is from a Chinese professor in the UK. Do you feel that Daniel who enjoys the opportunity in China yet doesn't feel accepted while the Chinese can move freely through Ethiopian society without consequence is worrisome? Matter of fact he is constantly harassed by the Police while many Chinese don't receive that treatment anywhere on the continent from Africans. It seems more Big Brother little brother if you ask me. 

I absolutely believe that the dynamic where Daniel feels unaccepted is worrisome. In general, the Chinese government is more restrictive about free movement for everyone, and especially foreigners and I don't think that will change anytime soon. I think Daniel minds less that he has to wear his passport around his neck/ stopped by police in China and more that his daughter is teased in school - is it social element (which is influenced by the political) that is painful. 

That said, I don't think the reverse should be true, either  - that Chinese people should feel un-welcomed or unaccepted in Ethiopia/Africa at large. Having lived the majority of my life as an immigrant in America, I fundamentally believe in the free movement of people everywhere. I'm not a fan of xenophobia however protective it initially appears of national interests. I think it corrodes the moral fabric.

 Question from Chinese Prof in UK

Many Chinese see America as the biggest threat in this century and next century so the idea of building alliances with African countries is a reason why China is aggressively targeting African countries in an effort to produce a NATO like alliance against the Western and European countries.

Question 1.) Do you think that African countries are not being seen as partners more as pieces on a chessboard as both sides vie for their resources?

I think that's what some proponents, especially the narrative from the U.S. etc, want us to believe. But if this were true and with the access to information we now have and the benefit of hindsight that our forefathers didn't have, the onus is on us to demand partnership. No political entity will propose a partnership if you would rather be a puppet. As they say, the sea still doesn't reject rain. But personally, I do believe the Chinese treat African leaders as partners, for the most part. From what I have seen being closer to the African elite in Ghana, our leaders are FULL partners but usually act in their personal gain to the detriment of the people. They then position themselves as helpless victims for the sake of sympathy from the citizens who suffer. 

That said, the other side of this is to consider the fact that China needs Africa to continue to grow into a global powerhouse. As American and European growth slows, China needs a large export market to sell its goods to, to continue to grow its economy, hire, and raise wages. In this sense, the African middle class is especially important to the Chinese. Hence, their investment is more economic than it is political.

The reality is probably a confluence of both of these factors and others that are not either benevolent or malevolent.  

Question 2.) With America’s reengagement in Africa do you see potential conflicts on the horizon as the Chinese further integrate and entrench themselves in African countries while Western powers try to reengage with African gov’ts?

Definitely. There has been a lot of recent conversation around a pseudo war on terrorism being fought in Africa by the West, especially as America silently builds military bases and satellites across the continent. I'm sure some part of this has to do with strong arming the Chinese. 

Question from Research Prof George Mason U

Statistics show that the vast population in China for their survival they have to unload their population to areas on the planet where the geological data of people is very light. China's borders cannot contain the population anymore due to its limited resources. Many African countries now are seeing huge swaths of Chinese citizens who are becoming citizens and purchasing land. What we see are the unloading of cheap Chinese goods which destabilize many local African and Caribbean economies. What are your thoughts on how African countries are handling this sudden phenomena? Will this be disastrous for local African economies or beneficial?

I have not seen any strategic document around the land/China population issue from African leaders but I am sure they are aware of these realities and are choosing not to deal with it. That's an entirely political issue for our governments as they control land rights, for the most part. 

As for Chinese goods: China itself is swamped with inferior goods for its own people. A lot of the Chinese people I met spoke poorly of their own products/food and they/their government, especially young Chinese people, want to tackle this issue. I don't think its a make inferior goods for Africa kind of thing. They make inferior goods and take it where there is demand, and most of the time, our businessmen and political elite are the ones who invite them in. In short, I think 1. China will begin to make better quality goods for the world in the next decade and Africa will be a beneficiary of that; 2. China's goods in Africa will only be beneficial or disastrous depending on the politics of the land. Africa has a small processing/manufacturing base. A growing population/economy needs refined goods/processes. If it's not China, it will be someone else. The demand has to be met if the home countries can't meet them.

Question from myself

Piggy Backing off the last question. Recently the country of Sri Lanka who has took out loans from China and hasn’t had the ability to pay back the debt has given China one of its main ports. This allows the Chinese to flood Sri Lankan markets with Chinese goods. The Kenyan government has brought in loans in excess of 2 Billion dollars for China to build a rail line connecting all of Kenya. The project has been deemed a failure with limited ridership, which has caused severe stress upon the Kenyan gov’t. There have been talks of opening one of Kenya’s ports so the Chinese can fully operate that port which can cause destabilization in their local economy. Question could this be considered 21st century colonialism? Better yet these tactics are similar to how the Americans gained control of African resources during the independence era of many African countries? How is this not considered colonialism?

I think many in the Sino-Africa space would consider the Chinese debt-financing strategy in Africa neo-colonialism. I am hesitant to use the term because I think there is more African agency with the Sino-Africa relationship than the terms connote. My questions about the Kenya railway thing, for example, is - I get the sense the Kenyan government asked for this. Should China have just built the railway for free? China is not the UN. It is not a charity organization. I respect that the country demands payment either in cash, equity or collateral. African governments should seek better terms, understand project realities, and take responsibility when they fail. No one is coming to save us. Everything that happens to us, at this point, especially vis a vis China, is largely, our responsibility

Observation from myself.

The vast majority of African/Black Americans haven’t been on the continent I have numerous times. Some of the items I’ve seen from the Chinese mimic European exploitation. Case in point, China is an atheist nation Confucianism , Buddhism and Shintoism are the main spiritual powers in that country. I’ve been to China as well, but why is there government funding these Christian missionary programs? That to me is the most troubling of this relationship, we saw how European exploitation came in the form of the Bible which gave them the opportunity to further exploit. I just don’t want to see it again and some of these tactics are eerily similar, they seem to do it with a smile “ Win Win “ which I’m cautious about.

Do send me the read on the Chinese funded Christian missionary programs. My bias is that private interest groups in China are funding these and not the you can't blame the state of China for it. I do know that China is doing a soft power push into the continent as well through its Confucius camps/ programs. I don't blame that. If 'Africa' were where China is, we would do the same. It's just the principles of national development - protect yourself, grow big, go outside and grow bigger. 

The End.

If you are interested in China-Africa relations, ie. Sino-Africa relations, do follow our initiative, Africans on China on IG and Twitter. We have monthly events slated this year, starting with an interesting Twitter chat topic. Stay tuned.