China isn’t selling human flesh to Africans, Beijing’s envoy to Zambia said this month after a Ghanaian woman posted images on Facebook of skinned corpses, claiming China is shipping human corned beef to Africa. Her post went viral, Western media circulated the story, and South Africa’s Daily Post speculated this was China’s solution to overpopulation. The images were actually from a 2012 London art installation promoting the zombie video game Resident Evil 6. An amusing twist, if only this misreading wasn’t of a piece with our discursive landscape regarding China in Africa.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay, “How to Write about Africa,” includes this advice: treat Africa as one country, show that Africans have music in their souls, describe naked breasts and mutilated genitals, depict animals (but never humans) as complex characters, quote Nelson Mandela, and: “When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders.”
There’s a narrative that demonizes China’s presence in Africa, that says China is suddenly doubling down on the continent, making predatory investments in its extractive industries, launching infrastructure projects that only use Chinese workers, and propping up warlords so Chinese companies can have their way with the land, let the people be damned. But is China kickstarting its own “scramble for Africa,” or is this a new form of Yellow Peril rhetoric? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the murky middle?
It doesn’t excuse harmful practices, but the African continent is the poorest, most corrupt, least free region in the world with more fragile or failed states and political instability than anywhere else. That makes it a no-win scenario in foreign policy—immoral to ignore, but impossible to help without eventually making big mistakes. Also, not only are Africa and China each incredibly complicated, but different parts of them are complicated in different ways, making it possible to build a story about their relationship from individual facts, yet end up with something that isn’t wholly true.
So for instance, when Jane Goodall says China is pillaging Africa or Peter Hitchens claims Beijing has created a slave empire there, these statements can be empirical without being compendious. This is also true of the narrative elements mentioned above: China is suddenly all about Africa, only after its resources, only hiring Chinese, and propping up dictators. Let’s look at each of these.
As China’s economy has grown, it’s true that its presence in Africa has expanded, to the point that China has been Africa’s most important trading partner since 2009. But this isn’t a sudden move, and it’s involvement isn’t limited to mining resources. Consider two examples: Algeria and South Africa.
In Algeria, Africa’s largest country, China has been a friend from the start. When the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic sought international support against Charles de Gaulle in 1958, it was China and a handful of African and Middle Eastern nations that recognized it. When the philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in his essay “This Africa to Come” about his efforts in the summer of 1960 to coordinate a gunrunning trade between Mali authorities and the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale, China was already supplying the FLN with arms and would come to supply Mali with arms by way of a major trade deal the following year. And when Ferhat Abbas, the FLN’s unofficial ambassador and later the nation’s provisional president, criticized the United Kingdom and the United States for arming France, it was China to whom he turned, saying, “We prefer to defend ourselves with Chinese arms than to allow ourselves to be killed by the arms of the West.”
We often associate China with censorship and a lack of freedom, while publications like Charlie Hebdo remind us that in France, freedom of expression is cherished. But while Beijing was fighting for Algeria’s liberté, égalité, fraternité, Paris was silencing voices. La Battaglia di Algeri, considered one of the greatest films of all time, was censored. Henri Alleg’s book La Question and Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Petit Soldat, which both depicted the French torture of detainees, were also banned. And when Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about Alleg’s book in L’Express, the magazine was seized from bookstores.
South Africa, the continent’s third-largest economy (after Nigeria and Egypt)*, is another example where the West, the supposed champion of freedom, found itself on the wrong side of an important fight, looking across the aisle at China. The first piece of apartheid legislation to be published after the 1948 election came the following year, prohibiting mixed marriages. It wasn’t until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 that the United Nations and the United States did an about-face on the issue, and even then Britain was reluctant to cut ties. Meanwhile, China had been supporting the anti-apartheid African National Congress as early as 1950, mere months after apartheid officially began. And in Oslo in 1991, Nelson Mandela said that while the West had ignored him until his victory was assured, China had backed him from day one.
Another angle of attack argues that China is in Africa merely to pilfer resources. In Senegal in 2012, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about a “partnership that adds value rather than extracts it,” a subtle jab at China. And in Jamaica in April 2015, President Barack Obama said developing nations, whether in the Caribbean or Africa, should beware investments made “solely to build a road to a mine to extract raw materials.”
The examples noted above of Algeria and South Africa illustrate that China’s involvement isn’t always about oil or minerals, but let’s look at several recent cases where China is adding value, and where that value isn’t simply infrastructure to help Chinese companies access local resources.
China Railway Construction won a $12 billion deal in 2014 to build railways in Nigeria. Also that year, China Communications Construction Company announced a $3.8 billion deal to connect Nairobi to Mombasa, the biggest port in eastern Africa. Kenyan firms complained that China wasn’t relying on them for concrete, but the ultimate impact will be enormously positive for Kenya. Also, Shanghai Zendai unveiled a $6.4 billion deal last year to build a city outside Johannesburg, Dangote Cement signed $4.34 billion worth of contracts last year to build much-needed cement plants in eight countries across Africa, and there are at least half a dozen other billion-dollar deals like these, designed to improve African infrastructure.
Then there’s the idea that Chinese companies only hire Chinese workers. What, for instance, was Obama’s advice to African leaders on working with China in an August 2014 interview? “Number one,” he said, “[make sure] that they’re hiring African workers.”
But according to a report by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, “locals are more than four-fifths of employees at 400 Chinese enterprises and projects in 40-plus African countries.”
The report also noted that out of 75 Chinese companies surveyed in Kenya in 2014, 78 percent of their employees were locals; out of China National Petroleum’s 25,400 total employees in Africa, also surveyed in 2014, 82 percent were locals; and out of the Li Group’s 20,000 total employees in Nigeria, surveyed from 2011 to 2013, 97 percent were locals.
One is reminded here of Rev. László Ladány’s 10th commandment for China watchers: “Above all, read the small print!”
Not only has China built a favorable history with many African nations, one the West should envy, it’s also helping establish needed infrastructure, and hiring locals to create it. For these efforts, China should be celebrated. But this brings us to the final narrative element: is China propping up authoritarian regimes in Africa? That’s perhaps the most complex question of all, so I’ll address it separately, in part two.