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China – Africa Relations: A strategic extension of the Chinese empire

By Jones Nhinson Williams

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There has been a good deal of debate on China’s growing influence around the globe spearheaded by its economic and financial influence. This influence is mostly felt in Africa. Chinese investments and contracts in Africa, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, total $299 billion from 2005 to 2018, according to the China Investment Global Tracker, and in 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to invest a further $60 billion into African nations.

China’s investments in African countries have the country well-positioned to profit from continuing economic development in Africa. Many Chinese firms investing in Africa are state-owned and controlled.  The stakes in Africa are high due to the continent’s rich abundance in raw materials.

In Africa, China sees a source for raw materials and energy, desperately needed to support its feverish industrial and economic growth. Success in this quest means high employment and a higher quality of life for Chinese citizens, as well as increasing social stability and political security for Chinese elites.

Chinese workers at a project in Africa

Throughout the African continent, Chinese investment is largely concentrated in transport and energy.  As mentioned, China has largely invested in Nigeria’s railway. The country has or is also involved in building railways in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Zambia, among others. But these investments do not come free and in no way seem to be of long term benefits to Africans than to Chinese businesses.

Global consulting firm McKinsey estimates there are more than 10,000 Chinese businesses operating in Africa, 90 percent of them privately owned.  There is also an unending chain migration of the Chinese workforce entering Africa, where unemployment is exceedingly high.

In almost all African nations where China has and continues to invest, Chinese citizens are also engaged in every sector of those countries’ economies – from petit trading or street selling to wholesale goods distribution.  Besides, African countries are indebted to China, and repayment of those debts could leave most African countries as perpetual Chinese colonies for the next century.   These and many more Chinese involvement in Africa have made many in the West to argue that China is exploiting the African continent.

However, contrary to what the Western believes, most Africans and African leaders do not see themselves as victims of Chinese economic exploitation. African political leaders and their supporters, in particular, subscribe to the notion that China is better for Africa.

Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu talks to Chinese workers in his country

Today, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner since 2009.  While the majority of Africa’s exports to China are comprised of mineral fuels, lubricants, and related materials, the continent also exports iron ore, metals, and other commodities, as well as small amounts of food and agricultural products.

Unlike Western nations like the United States, Canada, and a host of others in Europe, China careless about democracy, human rights, social justice, the rule of law, free and fair elections, equality and freedom of speech, assembly, conscious, or self-determination.  China’s indifference to these values is an attraction to African leaders, most of whom are dictators, tyrants, and corrupt individuals to the core.

 Local vendors in Kampala, the commercial center of Uganda, object to the hundreds of Chinese traders who have moved into stalls near their own, selling much the same merchandise

China is getting a free pass on its exploitation and economic enslavement of Africa for several reasons.  For example, although China’s rapid expansion on the African continent via trade, investment, and migration has been a very visible phenomenon, one that is poorly documented and not fully understood. No-one can tell or knows the true statistics of Chinese settlers across African continent – since the most agreed estimate of about three to five million is thought to be conventional even though the China-Africa relationship is becoming one of the most important dealings of the century as two of the world’s fastest-growing regions interlink their interests at the expense of one – Africa. 

Author Howard W. French who has spent many years in both regions, giving him a deep cultural understanding and perspective after interviewing a broad sample of Chinese entrepreneurs across Africa –successful and less so – as well as officials from Chinese state-owned enterprises and African governments captured the China-Africa quasi relationship in a collection of stories in

China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.”

This collection of captivating stories from Ghana and Liberia to Mozambique and Namibia (11 countries in all), from tiny towns, remote farms and dam projects to street traders and multi-millionaires, these stories offer intense insights into the attraction of Africa for China and Chinese relationships with Africans on the ground.

Without any surprises, Chinese migrants boast about working hard and enduring difficult times in Africa (what they call “eating bitter”) to earn their current success while deriding the local Africans as lazy, uneducated, and impossible to train.

What is more interesting about Chinese disdain for Africans is understanding the deplorable and terrible conditions they have or continue to leave behind, such as the ferocious competition for jobs and space, and the high control exercised by the government.

It is important to note that most Africans value freedom because Africa’s “freedom” is much valued. But what is even more eye-opening (and frustrating) are the narratives of the frequent and unjustifiable refusal of African governments to act against the Chinese in the face of poor quality construction, low wages (far below minimum wage when locals are employed at all), illegal fishing and logging, and blatant corruption involving shadowy government contracts and bartering of natural resources in the interests of Chinese.

These have and continue to result in social tensions and conflict in most African nations, such as the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, protests in dozens of African countries, and the desperate deadly attempts by young Africans seeking asylum and escape in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea where hundreds of them have drowned.

The sad aspect of all this is most African governments are willing to overlook these misdeeds to a greater extent, considering the generous but short-sighted benefits they receive from the Chinese, like cheap infrastructure development and subsidize slavery-type loans.

From the east to the north, south to the west, African leaders (whether democratic or not) are claiming these as progress, bolstering their own hold on unending power.  These tales prove the imbalance of power that favors China in its dealings with African governments.

In the midst of these glaring exploitation and transgenerational enslavement of several African countries, China, meanwhile, is claiming that its rapid expansion and take-over of Africa is a “win-win” for both sides that are purely business-driven, with no alternate motives.

While African leaders lack vision and patriotism, the Chinese are engaging in empire building. 

Chinese mass migration to the African continent is a cheap way to build new trade networks, which also promises an advantageous reception for China’s interests and extended political influence with Western governments in a competition for Africa’s resources.

The Chinese deception and preference for funding huge projects in African countries that serve as constant, highly visible reminders of China’s power, reach and made-up generosity and superficial care when more jobs and wealth are created for Chinese citizens rather than for African unemployed youth and women, the equation is definitely a bad formula that also helps with overcrowding and joblessness at home in more African countries.

At this point, African countries need to pay attention, but amongst them, South Africa needs to pay the most attention. So, why should South Africans care? Well, South Africa is home to the African continent’s largest Chinese immigrant population. China is also South Africa’s largest trading partner, and South Africa maintains a sizeable trade deficit with the Chinese.

Besides, the vast majority of South Africa’s exports to China comprise raw materials, while its imports from China are mainly manufactured goods – a worrying imbalance.

No one opposes China’s growing ties with Africa, especially so when such a relationship is in the interest of both Africans and Chinese in terms of fair trade and is a balance. As things stand, that does not seem to be the case.  Therefore, all African countries, South Africa included, need to manage their relationship and cooperation with China carefully to ensure that the long-term impact of this relationship is not detrimental.

What most African intellectuals oppose is China’s calculated attempt to enslave Africa via unwanted and unnecessary debts for which there is no real long-term impact.

About the Author:

Jones Nhinson Williams

Jones Nhinson Williams, a Catholic educated public philosopher, is a Liberian and U.S. trained international public policy professional with expertise in job creation, industry innovation, institutional governance, workforce development, and strategic management.  His professional experience includes serving in the public, nonprofit and private sectors at senior policy and management levels in the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

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