About four decades ago, the Chinese braved the natural elements to help construct what has come to represent one of the great symbols of Sino-Africa cooperation – the nearly 2,000 kilometer Tazara railway stretching from land-locked Zambia through Tanzania to the coast. Delivered in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, this gift represents China’s agenda to reach out even during turbulent times in its history. This expensive project also exemplified a major step towards enhancing South-South cooperation, which had been initiated in 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia.
Last month, China once again delivered a symbolic structure in the form of a $200 million headquarters to house the African Union. Indeed, this superstructure has transformed the skyline of Addis Ababa, but more importantly, has added a crucial layer to the Sino-African discourse – helping connect Africa’s present to its past.
From stadiums in southern Africa through government offices and cultural buildings in western Africa to hydroelectric projects in the north of the continent, both apologists and critics of China’s engagements in Africa have found pillars for their arguments in these structures. Mostly, these passionate arguments concern issues around the ratio of Chinese to African labor at the sites of these projects, the nature of funding involved in a particular project, the quality of these structures and the motives behind Beijing’s seeming embrace of all things African. These are pertinent discussions to have, but should be well placed in the thicket of poignant messages that these strategically placed contributions (including the AU headquarters) by China send to stakeholders of the African continent. These gestures hold subtle insights and implications for understanding Sino-Africa relations, particularly for the West.
First, the versatility of China’s approach in engaging African countries is partly responsible for its surge as one of the major economic influences on the continent. From its earlier encounters with the continent at the 1955 Bandung Conference to present, China has played different roles in its relationship with African countries. Beijing has emerged from its largely ideologically driven encounters with African countries to become an economically driven pragmatist, which is largely manifested in its resource and market deals as well as its vivid role as “constructor-in-chief.”
In spite of the challenges that lurk in the margins of China’s resource deals and access to markets, which veritably range from language barriers to organized anti-Chinese protests and kidnapping of Chinese workers, Sino-Africa engagements have progressed well along these contours. In September 2011, the world expectantly watched as Zambian oppositionist Michael Sata won that country’s presidential elections riding on the wave of an anti-Chinese campaign. After the political dust settled, it became clear that the Chinese haven’t been spooked by Sata’s pre-election anti-Chinese rhetoric as Beijing’s interest in the copper industry even further deepened with companies such as Jinchuan Group and Non-Ferrous China Africa (NFCA) bolstering their investments in copper in Zambia.
Interestingly, Sata’s harsh anti-Chinese stance has given way to a more cooperative posture as he emphasizes the importance of foreign investments and cautioned all foreign investors (including the Chinese) to adhere to the labor laws, during his inaugural address. There’s certainly growing opposition to China’s increasing presence in Zambia and other African countries, but China and its investors find some solace in the support from the African elites and large portions of the population who are either content to have a committed partner-in-development or intrigued by the dedication of the Chinese in completing projects on schedule.