China returns to Africa:
A Superpower and a Continent Embrace
edited by Christopher Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo de Oliveira
The Sunday Times review by Max Hastings
In the era of Mao Tse-tung, 40 years ago, one of the commoner sights in the African bush was that of a gang of local labourers sweating on a road or railway line under the supervision of Chinese comrades, who scampered hastily into the trees with their Little Red Books whenever a westerner hove into view.
China made a determined ideological thrust into the continent in the 1960s - and was humiliated. Mao's men learnt by painful experience that Africa mocks “isms”.
Beijing's local clients, President Julius Nyere of Tanzania notable among them, contrived the economic wreck of their own societies with their disastrous experiments in socialism. When the social engineers were deposed, the Chinese comrades departed discredited with them.
In the past 15 years, however, a new Chinese invasion of Africa has taken place. This is infinitely more pragmatic than the last one, and driven by a quest for energy and raw materials. It is being conducted with some skill, and backed by China's huge new wealth. Its implications are likely to be much more far-reaching than the past Maoist adventures, and thus they prompt corresponding alarm among western powers.
Anybody interested in the continent, and in the rise of Chinese power, needs to know what is going on. The editors of this hefty volume have assembled essays by 24 academics of a dozen nationalities, who possess exceptional knowledge of China's operations in Africa.
Successive chapters address such diverse subjects as the social influence of the 750,000-strong Chinese diaspora in the continent; Chinese medicine; the history of the disastrous Tanzanian railway; and, most important, the progress of Beijing's drive to buy into oil and mineral resources the length and breadth of the continent. The outcome is scarcely bedside reading, but it presents an impressive and balanced study of one of the most important developments in the modern world.
Beijing fetes African leaders, and in 2006 held a showpiece “Forum on China-Africa Co-operation” to celebrate its new strategic partnership. That year, two-way trade accounted for almost £30 billion.
Some 800 Chinese companies have already invested £6 billion in African countries, and there is more - much more - to come.
The editors of this book say in their introduction: “China's expanding relations with Africa are the most important dynamic in the foreign relations and politics of the continent since the end of the cold war.”
The Chinese offer African countries three things: big money - usually significantly more than western competitors will pay; long-term commitments; and Beijing's cool, ruthless assurance of “non-interference”, which means that local dignitaries will not be troubled by the tiresome needling they get from Europeans and Americans about human rights and corruption.
The tyrannies of Sudan and Zimbabwe have been especially notable beneficiaries. President Robert Mugabe has responded enthusiastically, urging his subjects to “look East”. Likewise, a former Nigerian president told Chinese guests enthusiastically: “When you're leading the world, we want to be very close behind you.”
The book notes that the Chinese media enthuses about Africa's future in a very different key from western reports and prophesies of gloom and doom. Chinese leaders tour the continent assiduously. Chinese traders flourish in Cape Verde and Senegal, Chinese cash funds industrial take-off in Mauritius, and is rebuilding the infrastructure of war-torn Angola.
China is buying feed from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania; cobalt from South Africa and Congo; copper from Zambia and South Africa; ferrous metals from Mauritania, South Africa and Zimbabwe; chemicals from Niger; oil from everywhere it can buy the stuff.
Angola has now overtaken Saudi-Arabia as China's biggest supplier.
The authors are even-handed in assessing the costs and benefits to the continent of Chinese engagement. On the credit side, increased competition for commodities has boosted the prices paid to producers.
Paranoia about “Chinese imperialism” would ill-become the West, since many of the trade practices adopted by Beijing have been commonplace among western companies since the 19th century.
Almost everybody has always been in Africa for what they could get out of it. China's engagement does, however, incur risks and costs of which sophisticated Africans are increasingly aware. Reliance on capital-intensive commodity industries does little to help the poorest people in poor societies, and risks trapping their economies in price-volatile activities.
Much of Beijing's money goes straight into the pockets of Africa's rich elites, and thereafter into Swiss banks.
Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean newspaper publisher living in South Africa, says sardonically: “If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place.”
Western pressure on African leaders about human rights may be ineffectual, but Chinese pressure is nonexistent. It is an ugly spectacle to see China backing Sudan and Zimbabwe in world forums. In 2005, China opposed debate in the UN Security Council about Mugabe's appalling demolition campaign, which left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless.
The book cites a spokesman of the Kenyan government saying approvingly: “You never hear the Chinese saying that they will not finish a project because the government has not done enough to tackle corruption. If they are going to build a road, it will be built.” The Chinese ambassador in Zambia showed his country's claws with unusual directness during the country's last election in 2006. He publicly threatened dire consequences if the “wrong” candidate, from Beijing's perspective, secured the presidency.
Christopher Clapham, the editor of the Journal of Modern African Studies, argues in his contribution: “In the longer term, no external power with long-term interests in Africa can escape the issue of ‘governance', because this is the essential precondition for maintaining stable economic relationships.”
Clapham also suggests, interestingly, that China may suffer from the absence of any spiritual dimension in this “deeply, indeed intensely spiritual continent, in which the rival agendas of Christianity and Islam, along with extensive indigenous systems of belief, are best understood not merely as some new kind of religious cold war, but as an extremely important part of ongoing attempts to make sense of human life under rapidly changing and often deeply troubling circumstances”.
Yet it suits African dictatorships to do business with China, which is content to deal exclusively with state actors, heedless of their brutality or corruption, and ignores political oppositions and employees' lobbies.
Beijing offers them a real alternative to dealing with the West and its heavy moral baggage.
Christopher Alden, a lecturer in international relations at the LSE, writes: “Africans, as agents of their own destiny to an extent not seen before, are increasingly deciding the shape that relations with Asian states will take rather than allowing these to be experienced and understood through western eyes.”
Clapham believes, however, that Chinese cultural penetration of the continent will be limited by lack of inclination on both sides, together with the absence of any shared historical memory.
He notes that many African countries, even in the 21st century, still choose to do business with the nations that colonised them - the Congolese with Belgium; the Senegalese with France; the Eritreans with Italy; the Ghanians, Nigerians and many others with Britain. In other words, China's engagement in Africa, while likely to persist and indeed grow much more important, may remain restricted to the economic sphere.
The West, Clapham believes, still has much to offer the continent that the Chinese cannot or will not match.
He may be right. The authors of this book are surely correct, in refusing to take a high moral line about what the Chinese are doing in Africa. Their economic offensive should be measured coolly against the West's past policies there, which have scarcely been unselfish.
But it would be nice to hope that the optimists are right: that Africans themselves will soon recoil from China's shamelessly cynical cash-and-carry policy, which flaunts its absolute indifference to the interests of indigenous people. Western moralising may sometimes be hypocritical, but it is surely preferable to the absence of any morality at all in dealing with the likes of Mugabe.