Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

The new scramble for Africa

In well-to-do circles in the West, it has become de rigueur to criticise China for its role in Africa. The Economist, the bible of the business class, has labelled the Chinese “new colonialists.” Concerned liberals in Hollywood accuse China of facilitating genocide in Darfur. More recently, the American and British governments have expressed disappointment that China, instead of throwing its weight behind sanctions against Zimbabwe, is giving the thumbs-up to talks between Mugabe and the MDC.

There is nothing radical in these attacks on “Chinese colonialism”. On the contrary, the assaults on China are motivated by a desperate desire to preserve Western influence in African affairs. The reason why American and European observers are so panicked by Chinese wheeling and dealing in Africa is because they fear it will undermine their own ability to boss African states around. In essence, they want Africa to remain the White Man’s Burden rather than becoming the “Yellow Man’s Burden”.

Many liberal-leaning NGOs and celebrity activists are using the opportunity of the Beijing Games to heap pressure on China over its “colonialism” in Darfur. Western commentators write furiously about China’s “complicity” in the Sudanese regime’s genocide. Yet, as one journalist has pointed out, the conflict over Darfur is extremely complicated and extremely messy, “and to put the blame on only one party (ie. China) makes no moral or political sense”. Western observers continue to rage against China, however, because they fear that the Chinese relationship with Khartoum is weakening their own imperialist clout in Sudan.

Throughout the commentary on China’s links with Khartoum, one can almost smell the fury of Western observers concerned that their plans to oversee a deal and effectively reshape Sudan have been threatened by Chinese meddling. One American columnist fulminated: “Sudan’s government feels it can ignore Western revulsion at genocide because [thanks to China] it has no need of Western money… China, along with Sudan’s other Arab and Asian partners, feels free to trample on basic standards of decency.”

Here, as in so much of the commentary on China and Darfur, the key concern is the standing of “Western revulsion” in international affairs — that is, the power of “Western revulsion” to force an African state to alter its ways and fall into line. Chinese investment is seen as undercutting the impact of “Western money”, too: it weakens the power of Western states to exert financial pressure in African states. The West is depicted as representing “basic standards of decency”, which apparently are being “trampled” underfoot by the immoral, avaricious Chinese. Such criticism is dressed up as “anti-colonialism”, yet its aim is effectively to defend one kind of colonialism — “decent”, anti-rogue Western colonialism — over another.

In relation to aid and trade, too, Western observers are concerned that Chinese investment in African economies and infrastructure is weakening the political power of Western funding. As China has increased its trade with Africa — rising from $12-billion per year in 2002 to $40-billion in 2006 — a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch argued: “China’s growing foreign aid programme creates new options for [African] dictators who were previously dependent on those who insisted on human rights progress.” In other words, Chinese trade is a problem because it means Western elements can no longer financially blackmail African leaders.

In recent weeks, China has been accused of interfering in Zimbabwe by continuing to deal with, and even provide arms to, Mugabe’s regime. Yet as we saw yesterday, when Western powers tried to drum up support for economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, the main concern, yet again, is to boost Western interference over Chinese interference. The concern is that Chinese dealing with Mugabe, and China’s insistence that the way to stabilise Zimbabwe is by “promoting dialogue, not continuing with sanctions”, is contradictory to America and Britain’s desire for a more heavy-handed, old-style colonial form of external pressure on Zimbabwe.

Of course, China’s motives in Africa are from pure: it is driven by a hunger for resources at any economic and political price. But don’t be fooled by the “anti-colonial” criticisms of China coming from the West. They are underpinned by an interventionist, imperialist ethos which is only disguised as “anti-colonialism”. Under the guise of attacking China’s meddling in Africa, Western observers are really jealously guarding their own power and influence on the continent. They are not calling for “hands off Africa”, in order that Africans might determine their own political destinies, but rather for “yellow hands off Africa”. Their message is clear: fundamentally, Africa still belongs to the white man.