The ugliest problem with regard to China’s role in Africa isn’t reconciling the good with the bad but reconciling perspectives on what’s considered good or bad. China colonizes Africa, rapes it of resources, empowers dictators—or it invests in Africa, builds infrastructure, pursues diplomatic engagement. Splitting the difference between these views is a big ask, even for seasoned insiders, and the media rarely helps.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in February that when it comes to food, his nation needs to be self-reliant. Beijing then offered a $6 billion loan for agricultural development and said it would increase scholarships for Nigerian students seven-fold. One British news site ran the headline, “China adds Nigeria to its African Empire.”
By comparison, South Korean President Park Geun-hye completed a tour last month of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to help communities become agriculturally self-reliant. Instead of pledging billions, she promoted a project providing food and medical services to rural communities, which also promoted so-called K-culture. The project consisted of just 10 vehicles, yet one headline read: “S. Korea: A giant Africa can learn from.”
One reason the media gives China’s efforts short shrift is that we recall Beijing’s aggression toward Taiwan and Hong Kong’s bids for freedom, its brutality at Tiananmen and in Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as its abuse of Falun Gong practitioners, Christians, reporters, activists, artists, and lawyers. And we’re reminded, as recently as this month, that Beijing is arrogantly unrepentant about its human rights record.
But while we so attentively place China’s role in Africa in the context of its prior sins back home, we come at the West without even considering its prior actions in Africa, braving a path with a that-was-then but this-is-now attitude that screams colonial privilege. Paraphrasing the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”
Start the story of foreigners in Africa with the independence of African nations, and not with the colonial tyranny preluding it, and the West looks gallant while China comes off like an opportunist. It all comes down to how you frame the narrative. We’ve all heard about people like Yang Fengqian, the “Ivory Queen,” thanks to whom African elephants will soon be extinct, but how many of us are familiar with the Chinese conservation heroes in Africa?
These redacted narratives are often not even clipped in a consistent way. When Mexican gangs terrorize Los Angeles we almost never look to Mexico City, and when Syrian refugees flood Europe, we direct our anger at the refugees as much as at the emirate in Raqqa, yet when we hear about Chinese managers abusing workers in Zimbabwe, we fold this into whatever colonial designs we imagine Beijing has on Africa. But not all Chinese in Africa represent Beijing. As Howard French notes, many Chinese go to Africa for the same reason Mexicans go to the United States—opportunity.
And yet much of the ill will for China’s presence in Africa stems from the idea that Beijing doesn’t meddle. It feels no counterpart to white man’s burden. Like the many Chinese who move there, Beijing wants to fish in troubled waters. Critics say it ought to do more, but foreign aid doesn’t really help and foreign meddling in Africa already has a nasty past. Besides, as we’ve seen, Beijing does meddle.
In fact, a better criticism is that Beijing is dishonest because it tries to sell itself as a non-interventionist even though it has impacted a number of independence struggles, including South Sudan’s, which wasn’t in opposition to a European colonial power. Despite the atrocities caused by the new South Sudanese government, and despite promises to the contrary, China’s largest weapons manufacturer, which is state-owned, has been repeatedly caught arming this regime.
China’s military support of brutal governments, especially if motivated by a desire to secure resources within the region, warrants censure. So too does its ruthless harvest of natural resources, such as its destruction of forests worldwide, particularly when these activities are illegal, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a situation made worse by Beijing’s refusal to regulate these crimes.
But what’s easily lost is the nuance of each case, which blurs the distinction between Beijing supporting an oppressive regime, illegally extracting resources, or making win-win economic investments, not to mention the dirty dealings of private Chinese companies like the Queensway Group or individual Chinese managers abusing their workers. All these get swept under the clumsy umbrella theme of “China in Africa,” and so to the extent that we do resign ourselves to that term, we can never arrive at a one- or two-word verdict on the matter.
More to the point, we have to ask ourselves whether the kind of meddling we think China ought to be doing in Africa, nudging nations toward democracy, for instance, is really what’s best. Is it possible that Western democracy might be bad for Africa? And if we do support democracy there, it necessarily follows that we value what Africans themselves want, so we may want to consider that, according to Pew Research Center data, China is viewed favorably by many African nations, indeed more so than the United States. As a report by the Brookings Institution puts it, “nowhere is public opinion more positive about China than in Africa.”
Regardless of any external factors, but especially given the West’s own history of enslavement and colonialism there, we need to acknowledge Africa’s right to chart its own path, which isn’t to justify any harm wrought by Chinese businesses or state enterprises.
Fareed Zakaria has pointed out that while Africa is growing economically, on Freedom House’s survey of civil liberties and political rights, it’s home to more countries classed as “not free” than any other region. This disparity prompts him to ask why Africa lags when it comes to good governance, and he zeroes in on one reason—China. Western governments and NGOs provide aid on the condition that African nations make progress toward better governance and improved human rights while China “has upended the system” because Beijing signs deals “with no strings attached.”
“But Africa’s dictators should beware,” he says. “All they need to do is look north, to the Arab world, and they will see what happens when leaders suppress freedom and stick around too long. Meanwhile, Africa’s young population, and it is huge, is getting smarter, more connected, and perhaps more likely, eventually, to rebel against repression.”
Maybe so, but all they need to do is look east, to China, and they’ll see what happens when other leaders suppress freedom while the young population, also huge, well-educated and connected, seems less likely, eventually, to rebel because they’ve settled for economic rather than democratic gains. And whether Chinese ever change their minds, or Africans make the same choice, is theirs to decide.