Are China-Africa relations becoming more equal?

Just over a month ago, the world witnessed a rare and significant event: the admission, by a senior Chinese politician, of China’s difficulties in its economic relationship with Africa. Speaking at the signing of a $2bn deal with the African Development Bank, Chinese Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan admitted that some of China’s economic dealings with Africa had been “not so good, not so satisfactory”.

China Central Bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan. Credit: IMF

China Central Bank Governor, Mr Zhou Xiaochuan. Credit: IMF

Both the unprecedented nature of Mr Zhou’s remarks, and his announcement of a more level playing field for non-Chinese contractors through the creation of the new $2bn African Development Fund, have led some commentators to ask whether China has become more receptive to criticism of its activities in Africa. Does China’s humbler stance combined with the economic rise and increased assertiveness of African governments mean that Sino-African relations are finally becoming more equal?

If we are to believe Beijing’s official rhetoric, the relationship between China and Africa has always been equal. Time and time again, Chinese diplomats have referred back to the fifteenth century voyages of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty admiral who made several visits to East Africa, always for the purpose of discovery and trade, and never to establish colonies or to take slaves. Beijing diplomats also refer back to the early years of the Communist period, when China promised to stand “side by side” with African countries under the banner of “South-South solidarity”. During that period, China and Africa stood together to push back the colonial oppressors and forged a new era of Third World partnership.

This partnership was cemented between 1963 and 1964, when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited 10 African countries and set out the well-known “Eight Principles of Foreign Economic and Technological Assistance,” foremost amongst which is the assertion that “China always bases itself on the principle of equality and mutual benefit in providing aid to other nations”. During the construction of the TAZARA Railway – a major Chinese-funded railway link between the Copperbelt province in Zambia and the Tanzanian port of Dar el Salam – Chinese workers referred to their Zambian counterparts as ‘friends’ and to themselves as ‘experts’. Subsequently, in its dealings with African countries, China has nearly always described its actions in terms of “cooperation for mutual benefit”, intended to produce “win-win” outcomes. Unlike Western partners, China has not described itself as a “donor” and avoids the use of the word “aid” to describe its economic assistance to Africa.

However, while China’s rhetoric of equality might have rung true in 1979, when China’s GDP per capita was the same as that of Malawi; in today’s world, with China emerging as Africa’s largest trading partner and as a global economic powerhouse, can it really be said that China and Africa are on “equal footing”?

Foremost among the evidence to suggest that the relationship between China and Africa is not a relationship of equals, is the fact that China’s foreign policy places Africa at the bottom of its priority list of global partners. Indeed, it could even be said that while China may be crucially important for Africa, relationships in Africa are far from crucial for China. Africa only accounts for 3% of China’s foreign investment and 5% of its trade. As Yun Sun has pointed out, African countries are only required to play a “supporting role” in helping China achieve its wider international ambitions.  Indeed, Africa is so far down the list of foreign policy priorities for China that it does not even merit a long-term strategy. As MFA Special Representative for Africa Zhong Jianhua recently admitted at a China-Africa conference in Oxford: “We Chinese have everything in Africa … except a strategy”.

China Special Representative for Africa, Mr Zhong Jianhua

China Special Representative for Africa, Mr Zhong Jianhua. Credit: WEF

Beijing’s lack of an Africa Strategy not only indicates that China does not see its African partners as geopolitical equals; but also allows Beijing to deviate from its self-affirmed belief in non-interference when convenient to do so. As early as 1990, China asserted itself as a “policing power” by actively engaging in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa. Since then, China has participated in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia since 2008, sent peacekeeping troops to Mali in 2013, and taken a leading role in seeking a solution to recent unrest in South Sudan. Indeed, Mr Zhong Jianhua indicated that Sudan was China’s first real departure from its policy of non-interference, and promised that “China will do more on peace and security in future”.

While in the political sphere, China appears to be experimenting with a more interventionist and less fraternal approach towards African countries; in the economic sphere, equality with Africa already seems a distant prospect. China’s role as an investor in Africa has created complex proprietor-tenant/employer-employee relationships across the continent. Chinese bosses are frequently noted for their draconian and occasionally abusive management of African staff. Reports abound of Chinese employers using racial slurs when addressing African workers, or of failing to provide safe and equitable working conditions for their employees. While this does not differ significantly from the record of Western investors in Africa, it does stand at odds with the assertion that Africans are on equal footing with their Chinese counterparts.

However, just as some Chinese arrivals in Africa are calling into question the notion of Sino-African equality, others are demonstrating the opposite through their unassuming demeanor and frugal lifestyles compared to Western expatriates. Ordinary Africans are surprised by the willingness of Chinese migrants to work and live alongside poor locals in communities throughout the continent. Whichever way you look at it, it is the 1-2 million settled Chinese in Africa who will undoubtedly shape African perceptions of China and its relative loftiness or humility.

Meanwhile at the official level, the increasingly vociferous chorus of African criticism of some of China’s actions on the continent has caused China to rethink its approach in certain areas. Despite not treating Africa as a top geopolitical priority, China has always been quietly cautious of alienating African governments. Before taking up posts in Africa, Chinese diplomats are reminded that it was African governments who helped China to regain its position in the UN. High level African criticism of Beijing is always taken seriously. According to Mr Zhong, China’s Ambassador to Nigeria was “deeply worried” by former Nigeria Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi’s comments that “China is no longer a fellow under-developed economy – it is the world’s second-biggest, capable of the same forms of exploitation as the west. It is a significant contributor to Africa’s deindustrialisation and underdevelopment”. Indeed, many analysts have speculated that the recent admission of fault by China’s Central Bank Governor was a direct response to Mr Sanusi’s accusations.

Nigeria Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi. Credit: WEF

Nigeria Central Bank Governor, Mr Lamido Sanusi. Credit: WEF

Thus, it appears that in some respects, China is adhering to its rhetoric of equality and humility towards African partners, while in other respects it is entering into increasingly paternalistic relationships on the continent. Either way, these relationships are increasing the bargaining power of Africans in their discussions with other partners. Western negotiators frequently complain of the “Chinese ghost” that now haunts their discussions with African counterparts. Thanks not only to China – but also to Brazil, Russia, India, South Korea and Japan – Africans now have alternative choices to conditional handouts from the West. Whether on equal footing or not, as Cambridge’s Dr Emma Mawdsley points out: “the next decade of China-Africa relations is going to take place in an increasingly multipolar and pluralised world”.

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –

COVER IMAGE: Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma. Credit: Government ZA


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