Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is in Africa this week, sparking new conversations about China’s presence on that continent. To learn more, The Diplomat spoke with Howard W. French, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times 2003 to 2008. His latest book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, will be released this May. He is currently writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia. See more from Howard French here.
It’s difficult to really make sense of China’s aid and investment in Africa. There are those who laud China as a kind of economic savior, helping contest unemployment and poverty, as well as poor infrastructure, health, and education. And though China has no colonial past, there are those critics who claim that yesterday’s imperialism has moved east. Are these narratives simply fictitious? How are the Chinese changing life on the vast continent?
Seeing China as either savior or demon in Africa, as so many people tend to, are particularly unhelpful ways of trying to understand the encounter between these two parts of the world. China, in an objective sense, is the bearer of a great deal of opportunity for an Africa that is beginning to hit its stride in terms of economic development, and which is also entering into a so-called demographic sweet spot. Having a large and fast-growing country like China that is eager to trade on a vast scale and is willing to invest in big projects will serve to the advantage of relatively well-governed African countries that know how to articulate policies based on the sound calculation of their national interests.
At the same time though, China, which represents a very new kind of partner, could become a liability for others in Africa. China’s economic interests in Africa are heavily oriented toward extractive industries, and new Chinese economic operators typically bring with them with a spotty history of regulatory compliance, respect for the environment, or experience of dealing with independent organized labor. In African countries with weak or venal governments extraction under these circumstances may bring little long-term gain, and potentially even great long-term damage. Thus, it is important to think about the Chinese impact on a country by country basis and to expect sharply divergent outcomes.
Having traveled extensively throughout the region, what are some of the conversations Africans are having about China’s role in their communities?
As my first answer suggests, I am very wary about making all-encompassing generalizations on this topic. China’s role and presence is seen very differently, according to the local details. In small, sparsely populated countries like, say Namibia, the arrival of a few tens of thousands of Chinese, and their perceived takeover of entire industries, such as construction, has created a great deal of anxiety. In big, populous countries, on the other hand, say Nigeria, for example, the Chinese population, though large in absolute terms, compared to many other African countries, is just a drop in the bucket compared to Nigeria’s own population. The result is that Nigerians and indeed Nigeria tends to be rather relaxed about China and about the arrival of Chinese in their midst. Having said this, I would make two general propositions: Africans tend very often to be very skeptical about China’s official rhetoric, which speaks of win-win relationships, and positions China as a fellow “developing country.” Secondly, in countries whose economies are dominated by extractive industries, China tends to be regarded with a greater baseline of suspicion than in non-resource-based economies. This is true of other foreign countries as well. In a heavily resource-based economy, the locals tend to feel that the foreigners have come to exploit them, all too often in cooperation with their own national leaders.
Given China’s burgeoning presence, investment interests, and resource needs, is Beijing’s policy of nonintervention and respect for sovereignty sustainable? Will it be forced to go down a more vociferous route of engagement and delve into domestic politics, intra- and inter-state conflicts for example?
I don’t think China’s non-interference policy was ever absolute to begin with. China has a not-so-distant history of major, even armed intervention in the affairs of other countries. The examples of Indonesia and Burma, where Beijing supported revolutionary movements or ethnic factions, come to mind. China, like any power, has continued to try to influence the so-called internal affairs of other countries in more subtle ways, as well. Zambian elections come to mind, where voters in that country were essentially told a few years ago that if they were to choose a candidate seen as unfriendly by Beijing, China would reduce its economic engagement with the country.
My expectation is that as China’s trade and financial interests grow around the world, and as Chinese immigrant communities become larger, especially in places like large parts of Africa, where there was little prior tradition of Chinese migration, Beijing will begin to operate more and more like a traditional great power, flexing its muscles, both politically and militarily, when the need arises, to protect its people and its perceived interests.
Is the Western aid approach of conditionality related to governance sustainable? How might the West engage China on issues of African development?
Giving aid is not obligatory, so whether one is speaking about the “West,” or about China, each actor will continue to take its own approach. I should also say that while “Western conditionality” is unpopular among many African governments, I have heard lots of African citizens say they support this approach in principle. They want to see financial assistance used to good purpose and not simply squandered by their leaders however they see fit.
As Africa continues to rise and develop better, more transparent forms of governance, will we see an inclination to work more with the advanced industrialized economies?
It must be said that the advanced industrialized economies have far larger and far longer-standing interests in Africa than China does. China, however impressive its recent moves in Africa are, is very much trying to gain a foothold; to catch up, as it were. Governance is improving substantially in many African states. Usually this is accompanied or even driven by the deepening of civil society in the countries. Better educated, larger middle classes are more capable of demanding service delivery and transparency from those who govern them. The lesson for the United States and for Europe is to deepen cooperation with African civil society, which is the best hope for continued improvements in governance.