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Africa’s China dream hangs in the balance

Voices coming out of Africa and China’s state departments describe relations between the two as based on mutual interest, cooperation, equality and respect. Two-way high volumes of trade, investments, development aid, infrastructure and resource deals are cited as evidence of this win-win relationship. But Afro-Sino engagement has many narratives and deep introspection reveals power, cultural and economic differentials between the two which forces us to pause and re-think these relations nominally expressed in win-win rhetoric.

A recent research trip to China involving interviews and conversations with Africans in China revealed various imbalances in favour of China. Factors that account for these oddities include power differentials, self-interest and Africa’s lack of initiative among others. China’s rise, its past history of aiding liberation struggles as well as its policy on non-intervention in domestic politics in Africa have resulted in its red carpet reception from Cape to Cairo. China has shown gratitude to Africa by paying and building the African Union’s $200 million new headquarters in the Ethiopian capital. Be that as it may, there is a Bwa proverb from Mali and Burkina Faso that goes: “If you know something can swallow you, don’t let it lick you.”

In his book China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, Howard French speaks of how a million Chinese migrants have relocated to Africa establishing Chinatowns and creating what he calls “China’s second continent”. Portraits of Chinese entrepreneurs form the heart of this “second continent” leaving little doubt that Africa has acquired an El Dorado status in China.

Even though China has become the world’s fastest growing large economy, 10 of the 20 fastest growing economies between 2013 and 2017 are projected to be in Africa. The point being the Chinese presence is not an accident but design; they know what they are doing. In contrast, the African presence in China is low. Africans are mainly concentrated in Guangzhou, a major manufacturing hub with as many as 200 000 Africans by some estimates.

African migrants are also spatially concentrated in cities like Yiwu and dispersed across Beijing and Shanghai. Most are the so-called “suitcase traders” involved in small-scale import/export trade. Mid-level African entrepreneurs mainly in the services industry also have a presence as well as a few big enterprises (mainly South African) such as Standard Bank, Exxaro and Naspers/MIH. Yet in the big scheme of things, this presence is small according to a South African businessman in Beijing. As he put it: “I don’t have for a moment any doubt of the size, scale and the extent of the opportunity here, but if you are sitting in Johannesburg it is a world removed. If you sit in Chicago, or London or Frankfurt it is easier because you are more in a global village … Johannesburg is the tip of Africa so everyone is thinking Africa.”

Linked to this view is the perspective that African businesses and entrepreneurs are squeamish about China: “When you say China then people say well, you know, what about this, what about that? Intellectual property rights … can I trust them? And they don’t respect the contract! Yes, these are all challenges but it is still the world’s biggest … fastest growing market. So if you are looking for growth this is where you are going to find it.”

In contrast, the Chinese in Africa speak of Chi ku or “eat bitter”; the ability to endure hardship. As one view expressed it: “They are unafraid of loneliness, boredom, power blackouts and other inconveniences as they try to make their fortunes-with an encouraging push from the Chinese government, which is happy to help with financing.”

In awkward contrast, China does not welcome African migrants in the manner the Chinese have been welcomed on the continent, as partners and economic stimulants. In 2013, China enacted the Exit-Entry Law which requires only Africans “to go back to Africa to renew” visas at Chinese consulates in their home countries. Yet westerners and other Asians can easily renew their visas either within China or in nearby Hong Kong or Macau. African migrants in China also speak of police harassment, police raids, as well as near impossible processes to register businesses. Chinese rhetoric and actual policy are not matching here. China continues to pursue a policy of publicly welcoming African migrants while its legislation makes it logistically arduous for them to work or start a new life.

Worse, the Chinese are dangerously inching towards a “kind of casual primary racism”, according to Howard French. Some African students from Somalia and Burundi who studied in the Wanjiang district spoke of experiences of being questioned “why are you so black?” “So I was already used to that question — I am black because I was born black and that’s my nature! They say no, no, no, they try to give me the reasons why I am black, they say maybe the reason why I am black is because the sun is too hot in Africa … it’s too hot, and you got burnt!”

An obvious imbalance exists in Africa-China relations as illustrated in these narratives from the ground. But what are we to attribute these imbalances to? In Mozambique, Howard French met a Chinese agricultural entrepreneur with some unsavoury opinions: “I didn’t think they were so clever, not so intelligent, and I was looking for an opportunity based on my own capabilities. Can you imagine if I had gone to America or Germany first? The people in those … places are too smart.” He went on, “So we had to find backward countries, poor countries that we can lead, places where we can do business, where we can manage things successfully.”

Africa is not an odd fancy, “realpolitik” is at play here. Self-interest first and if Africa is timid and glib in its approach then so be it! Beneath the “all weather friends” rhetoric, the two are not equally strong. Africa seems unable to resist “unfairness” or “inequality” for lack of an alternative. But Africa has a lot of “soft power” it can leverage given China’s vast interests and presence on the continent. Such “soft power” ought to be leveraged to press for fairness in how China engages with the African presence in China.

African states also need to look beyond finite resources for once and unashamedly exploit this “special relationship” to promote African interests, entrepreneurs and brand equity within the world’s biggest market. The window of opportunity will not last forever. We have to snap out of our sluggishness, we already “eat bitter”, we need to eat better! The more these imbalances stay the same, the more those who see China as an imperialist power find their voice.