By Zukiswa Mqolomba
China’s Africa interface has received much public spotlight over the years. Public debate has been critical of whether China’s engagement translates into win-win benefits for Africa. South Africa’s left movement has gone as far as cautioning against “a new form of colonialism or imperialism”.
As the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of African independence, the most pertinent question remains: In what way will China-Africa relations ensure mutual benefit and ensure that Africa enjoys the benefits of her natural endowments?
The good news
Africa-China relations have since taken new steam the past decade. China has engaged in a revitalised and protracted process of organised, focused and strategy-orientated engagement. This signalled by the increasing number of high-level political visits between nation states, including high business delegations with ministerial and even head of state level involving the Chinese and African governments. China has since increased cooperative relations, particularly in regards to reducing Africa’s debt burden, promoting investment and assisting in the development of human resources in Africa.
Chinese investment has been useful in expanding infrastructure and investment in African resources and job creation. Foreign direct investment, trade, aid, as well as military assistance has constituted four of a number of channels critical in China’s Africa policy interface.
China’s engagement has not only increased continuous demand for African suppliers and expanded her infrastructure but has raised Africa’s bargaining position by expanding her sourcing options. In essence, according to Marcus Power and Giles Mohan, “China is opening up new choices and altering the playing field for African development for the first time since the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s”.
A closer look reveals a startling nature about our emergent trade relations. Firstly, China’s investment and trade relations do, and significantly so, mirror those of colonial extraction. China’s relationship with Africa is largely extractive in nature. Scholars note with concern that Chinese state-owned enterprises for instance are typically invested in high-end extractive and infrastructure investment activities. The biggest proportion of Chinese imports being heavily concentrated in the energy and minerals industries.
China’s most important imports are said to include raw materials (ie iron and platinum, timber, oil and cotton). Seemingly, at least in part, Afro-Silo trade relations are not dissimilar to trade relations between Africa and industrialised countries wherein raw commodities travel from Africa to China and finished goods from China to Africa.
Secondly, it is not always clear to what extent trade relations are always to Africa’s advantage. The trade relationship tends to weigh in favour of China’s manufacturing exports. Cheap Chinese imports are held responsible for the decline of local industries. Chinese factory floors have also left much to be desired. There is growing resentment in countries such as Zambia, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, for instance, over China’s poor record in maintaining labour standards (ie health and safety, decent wages, skills and technological transfer etc). In essence, it is Africa’s elite who seem to be the biggest benefactors, having “sold” labour and civic society to the highest bidders, paying them minimum social value, while pocketing the economic dividends.
Thirdly, there is also no denying the existence of a definite tension between China’s support for countries embroiled in internal conflict or civil war and/or have a bad human-rights record and its support for the initiatives to create a stable continent. Sudan, Iran and Syria, as well as Congo-Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Gabon and Zambia provide compelling case studies.
These asymmetries cannot be wished away. African leaders must take greater responsibility and play a more deliberate and distinctive role in ensuring that these asymmetries are addressed as a matter of priority.
Social vs economic value
In line with Africa’s aspirations, China needs to enhance social value in Africa, not just economic value. African economies, particularly prominent ones, must play a crucial role in ensuring symmetry in our power relations. Decent work, skills and technological transfer, and environmental preservation need to remain at the centre of bilateral engagement as a way of smoothing out evident unevenness.
At this stage, also, China currently lacks an important aspect of soft power: that is, a normative consensus on the desirability of its rise, particularly without agreement on the major steps and milestones for such a rise to be accomplished. It is certainly disconcerting that in this regard the Washington Consensus does not (yet) have a Chinese counterpart, notwithstanding efforts to construct a Beijing Consensus.
Zukiswa Mqolomba is a senior researcher, senior policy analyst and scholar activist who currently works for government. She is a pan-Africanist in terms of her ideological inclination. She believes in the African Renaissance and believes that her generation of peers can make meaningful strides towards achieving it. She writes in her personal capacity.