China Power

Should China Keep Its “Africa Dreams” to Itself?

African states would do well to be cautious in embracing Xi’s African Dream wholeheartedly.

By Ross Anthony for

Since taking over as party chairman Xi Jinping has repeatedly invoked the theme of the “Chinese Dream,” which heralds “the great revival of the Chinese nation.”

The phrase should probably be seen as the conceptual framework for Xi’s presidency. Indeed, coining such a phrase has become something of a formalized tradition in China. Under Hu Jintao, for instance, the concept of the “harmonious society” sought to capture Hu’s aims of building a moderately prosperous and more inclusive society. On the other hand, Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” signaled an opening up of the Party to business and other important societal groups that were empowered through Deng Xiaoping’s own ideological contribution to Party lexicon: “reform and opening up.”

An interesting characteristic of Xi’s term, which will no doubt be studied ad nauseam within CCP circles, has been its instant international exportability. During his first trip abroad, for example, Xi gave a speech in Tanzania laying out his idea of “Africa Dream,” which entailed, among other things, “unity and achieving development through rejuvenation.” In the same speech Xi also spoke of a “world dream” that was aimed at achieving “enduring peace and common prosperity”  

The degree to which such a term might take hold in foreign countries should not be underestimated, especially in Africa, where China has been engaged in a charm offensive for over a decade. Terms such as “win-win” and “harmonious relations” have already been drawn on extensively by African leaders in recent years.

One of the reasons Xi’s concepts of “World Dream” and “Africa Dream” have more appeal in Africa as opposed to countries like Britain or the United States is because they are bound up with the growing economic influence China now exercises over Africa. In short, such terms are not merely hollow slogans but rather embedded within dense capital flows manifested in very tangible things such as roads, railways and refineries. They are also behind more symbolic structures such as the new African Union building in Addis Ababa, which was constructed by the Chinese for US$200 million (it is worth noting that the very auditorium where Xi gave his “Africa Dream” speech was also built using Chinese capital).

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In certain respects, it comes across as misguided to criticize Xi’s “Africa Dream.” Chinese investment over the past decade has coincided with an all-round boom in African economies and the country’s policy of “non-interference” has been welcomed by African leaders long used to the meddlesome policies of the former Western colonial powers. The vision of an African Dream aptly captures the optimistic spirit of a continent on the rise, growing internally while also gaining a modicum of freedom in its relations with the outside world.

However, African states would do well to be cautious in embracing Xi’s African Dream wholeheartedly. As innocuous as “Africa Dream” sounds, it signals a shift in which Beijing is pushing a revised form of its internal ideology on African countries. While the dissemination of such as term might result in policies that produce some domestic growth and rejuvenation in Africa, there is also the danger that it will come to resemble the CCP’s vision of the dream.

To understand the reason why one needn’t look any further than the tri-annual Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a platform often presented as a meeting of equals where talk of peaceful co-existence and harmony abounds. But the asymmetry of power is obvious, essentially highlighting the interface between 54 sovereign and sometimes fractured states and one tightly organized and largely unitary one. The unbalance is sometimes reflected in pure formalities. For example, at last year’s forum in Beijing former President Hu stood tall in the Great Hall of the People while African leaders fawned over him. The ceremony was followed by Hu pledging US$20 billion in credit to African nations.

Again, it can be argued that such assistance has the potential to benefit African countries immensely – and indeed it can – but the nature of the forum highlights how Beijing, the vast economic powerhouse, determines the rules of the engagement. The fact that such conditions are presented as the meeting of equals, merely reflects Beijing’s desire to portray it as such.

The underlying point is that Xi’s notion of an “African Dream” has the potential to spread voluntarily, or through coercive measures, or not at all. What it should not become however, is a blanket term embraced by elites in ways which render resistance or criticism to it as having an anti-Chinese bend. To do so would be to condemn Africa to playing a supporting role in China’s dream on its own continent.

Ross Anthony is a reserach fellow at the Centre for Chiense Studies, Stellenbosch University