Why China Succeeds in Africa
Image Credit: Maria Dyveke Styve

Why China Succeeds in Africa


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.

October 22, 2012 at 06:33

The Chinese would do best by gleaning first in its own backyard. Were Chinese workers used for this expensive project or did they hire Africans? Trade wars do not equal a peaceful rise.

February 23, 2012 at 05:08

It is true that Indians are morally superior to Westerners. We don’t need to do anything. They will do it for us free of charge. If we want a good life, the Westerners will give it to us. What we have are all come from the West. We just need to practice the philosophy of “Do Nothing”, and then everything will be done for us.

February 22, 2012 at 23:07

@John Chan: I guess your moral line is that you can just associated any issue you have with the West. That’s why you’re using the internet, English, and the chinese are all wearing Western clothing …. these all come from the West.

February 21, 2012 at 06:34

There is no doubt the dance of Africa and China is just that a very nuanced, political and critical dance. What bodes well for Africa is that unlike the West, the dance is multifaceted and responsive vs. one size fits all. To be clear there are things about China that are concerning. However, while there are things within China that could do with some changes, China’s reticence to not preach to other countries has spared it the baggage of hypocrisy and double standards that the West is currently viewed with. It is also good that China doesn’t place preconditions as in my opinion this is one of the most offensive policies of the West. If you are buying a resource then do that, I’ve never seen supposed trade where you purchase the access and dictate what the seller is able to do with the profits.

The African countries have a responsibility to safeguard the futures of their people and their potential and that can only be done by first having the desire to do so and then careful planning and diligence. I’m from the States and would love to see my country actively engaged in Africa in ways that are mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, my country has some very bad habits and views regarding people like myself, a distant child of Africa, that after 400 plus years don’t seem to be changing anytime soon. I can’t speak to the motives or sincerity of China, but quite clearly from my contacts there, there doesn’t seem to be the blatant ugliness of the colonial views and practices of the West.

John Chan
February 20, 2012 at 12:37

Professor Deborah Brautigam’s book “The Diagram Gift” tells the real story of China in Africa. The book examines Chinese aid and state-sponsored economic engagement in Africa, and Chinas distinct attitudes towards foreign aid, which result in aid implementation that often differs from western models.

China’s aid in Africa is based on mutual benefit and goes far beyond a popular western misconception of a simple effort to extract oil and other strategic natural resources, regardless of other considerations. China views Africa as an evolving landscape presenting many opportunities. Through diverse infrastructure projects, bilateral trade partnerships and investment, China demonstrates that helping African countries also develops local business and commerce.

The link Deborah gave a brief description of her findings about China’s aid in Africa

John Chan
February 20, 2012 at 10:35

@Don’t Panic Over China,
Maintenance is a function of financial management, greedy people cut maintenance to boast bottom line, it happens all over the world, the most dangerous field that cut maintenance cost is transportation, such air lines, rail roads, subways, etc. Probably the Chinese have learnt too much from the capitalism by cutting maintenance to line their pockets.

Evil Thoughts
February 19, 2012 at 19:36

Hold and desist, marisa. Africans can determine their own future and destiny. Your evil and manipulative thoughts does no one any good. Why do you smear the Chinese unnecessary by creating alarmist situations when there are none? The Chinese are not there to colonize Africa. You probably speak for yourself. Shame on you.

Don't Panic Over China
February 19, 2012 at 10:50

Anyone who has lived in Chine knows that the Chinese are fantastic at building, but absolutely dismal on maintenance or even the concept of maintenance. The Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium started to show rust damage only a year after the 2008 Olympics.

First Advisor
February 19, 2012 at 06:10

Western nations, particularly the US, could do well to copy China’s methods for relations with India, both in the pragmatic indifference to corruption, and in the building of infrastructure. When a Western company looks at basics like roads and refrigerated warehouses in India, it’s fairly obvious the Indians will never build their own. Thus building the infrastructure for them makes a lot of sense as a very good deal with mutual benefits. Using a Western labor force rather than an Indian one is also a good idea, probably saving millions in the construction of each warehouse or mile of road.

Clearly, Westerners must essentially give the Indians a state and national infrastructure for free, if the Westerners want to use one in India. It’s past time Western executives simply accepted the practical realities of the Indian culture, and just invested the money and did the work to make a return someday down the road.

February 18, 2012 at 22:58

Let’s be clear about this. China is in the process of colonizing Africa. It is that simple. We will see the Chinese population of Chinese increase in Africa over time, and while it currently stands at over one million presently, it will definitely increase to 100 million in less than 20 years. This will begin to tilt the politics of Africa towards China. Before long, China will have military bases in Africa, and then China will militarily control all of Africa. This is the reality of what China really wants for the long term. For the short term, China is feeding off the natural resources of Africa, but in the long term, China hope to overtake Africa and subjugate the Africans as modern day slaves.

February 18, 2012 at 11:57

The African nations will still have to make sure that they implement a program to train people to maintain and run the infrastructure after its been built.

Its no good having the infrastructure if no one knows how to properly maintain it. I would also be interested in learning more about how its going to be paid for. Whether its Loans, resource trades, trade agreements, votes at international organizations, etc.

I am also hesitant as its hard to say what the long term impact will be when you look at it from a future historical perspective, what will people say about the issue in the future.

Though, Good luck if it does benefit the people of Africa. They do need to build up thier economies and make Africa a place that is equal with any other region of the world.

February 18, 2012 at 11:55

well said sir,

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