China Power

China and Africa: The Great Debate

Recent Features

China Power

China and Africa: The Great Debate

The pros and cons of China’s presence in Africa.

China and Africa: The Great Debate
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Angélica Rivera de Peña

China has been Africa’s most important trading partner since 2009, but in the first half of this year its investment in Africa plunged by as much as 84 percent to $1.2 billion. Then last Friday President Xi Jinping attended the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg where he pledged $60 billion over three years for African development projects.

China’s looming presence on the African continent has engendered debate over whether African countries are benefiting or simply being used.

“I think governments have a right to look for the best deals they can receive anywhere,” Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka once said when asked his thoughts on China’s presence in Africa. “It’s either you believe in the free market or you don’t,” he continued. “All we have to be cautious of, I think, is that we don’t substitute one kind of indentureship to (sic) another.”

But not everyone is on board. President Stephen Hayes of the Corporate Council on Africa, who welcomes Chinese business himself, writes that for some, “the dominance of China in Africa … has the feel of the Borg in Star Trek assimilating all, or Amazonian army ants, conquering everything in their path.”

Peter Hitchens puts it even straighter in his article, “How China has created a new slave empire in Africa,” in which he describes how Africans suffer under Chinese bosses in order to earn enough for “a meager existence in diseased, malarial slums.”

Why do Africans tolerate such conditions? The same reason Chinese tolerate sweatshops: The alternative is measurably worse. In fact, according to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Chinese sweatshop workers are grateful to factories that let them work longer hours and earn more.

Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs has said, “my concern is not that there are too many sweatshops but that there are too few,” while economist Paul Krugman has observed that sweatshops “move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.”

And so it goes with Africa.

Hitchens tells us how some of the African academics he met prefer China’s involvement to the West’s because, they joke, “the only country that ever got rich through donations is the Vatican.”

The benefits, however, are predicated upon the idea that at least Chinese bosses hires Africans. Sometimes, they don’t even do that.

Hitchens also describes Michael Sata, former president of Zambia, complaining, “[T]hey bring Chinese bricklayers, they bring Chinese carpenters, Chinese plumbers … we need to import people with skills we don’t have in Zambia. The Chinese are not going to train our people in how to push wheelbarrows.”

Still, over all, Chinese investment in Africa “has no doubt led to faster growth and poverty reduction” while its demand for resources has generated “better terms of trade and higher export volumes,” according to an August paper by the Brookings Institution.

The paper cites several examples, including the 2008 deal between the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Sicomines, a Chinese consortium, whereby mineral rights in Katanga were exchanged for infrastructure investments. The DRC has among the world’s lowest rates of per capita electrical consumption and rural access to improved drinking water, making infrastructural development an absolute priority.

China’s presence in Africa therefore isn’t a problem, as long as we’re talking about investment. What we need to worry about is Chinese aid.

In an article this month, postdoctoral research fellow Roudabeh Kishi and professor of political geography Clionadh Raleigh note that unlike Western aid, which often requires progress in terms of democracy or human rights, Chinese aid comes “with no strings attached.”

They further point to studies showing that African leaders are three times more likely to spend aid where they have ethnic ties as opposed to where it’s needed and political violence soars in countries where China hands out aid, concluding, “when China sends aid, a country’s government becomes more violent toward its citizens” whereas “Western aid is not followed by any such increase in violence.”

This isn’t because China gives to already violent countries, they say, but because when China gives unconditional aid, it allows leaders — who would otherwise be hamstrung by Western conditions or insufficient funding — to commit crimes.

While Chinese unconditional aid is indeed harmful, we should be careful not to speak too broadly of Chinese efforts in Africa.

“If somebody comes to me with a very good deal,” Soyinka said, “and I check with my lawyers, very carefully, and I know there’s no small print, you know, which could escape my noses (sic), I think I’ll go for the deal — wherever it comes from. I’ll just make sure that I secure the integrity of my business, my environment, and then leave the rest to the gods of markets.”