The Chinese are rapidly developing a successful capitalist economy — it
would be a shame if the commies took over... New visitors to Beijing might be
tempted to utter this paradox, especially at Christmas when the shops and
tourist hotels are decked out in western festive paraphernalia. The most
upmarket shops boast Eu-ropean mannequins, predominantly English signs and
western fashions. Senior communist party officials seem rather embarrassed when
westerners ask about the great revolutionary leaders of the past: Mao is as
long dead as Marx.
I attended a conference in Beijing in late December on Sino-Africa
relations. The senior party cadres and professors politely applauded my lecture
on why China is doing better in Africa than the west. Nevertheless, except
perhaps for SA, no African state is strong enough to deal equally with China.
On a divided, demoralised continent, Beijing can cherry-pick almost at will.
Beijing’s economic, military and diplomatic growth has been so striking that
it has often caused knee-jerk reactions in Europe and the US.
There are two main schools of thought:
The peaceful China. Its new strategic cosmopolitanism is
geared to expanding its national interest — not ideology — primarily to secure
energy sources and to improve its trading patterns with the European Union and
the US. Africa is merely a proving ground; and
The difficult China. China’s outreach is part of an exclusionary
policy, working with illiberal and rogue states. North Korea is a prime
example. It develops trade patterns which ignore all human rights issues.
This undermines western conditionality strategies, which aim to improve
conditions in autocratic states, especially in Africa.
China could manipulate its dollar surpluses to bring down the US economy,
though that would not be in Beijing’s interest, particularly at a time when
it’s stealing western intellectual property worth tens of billions of dollars annually.
Pirated DVDs of the new James Bond film, at less than a dollar, were on sale
even before it reached western cinemas.
Chinese foreign policy is sufficiently nuanced to allow a variety of
interpretations. Washington’s policy towards Beijing contains elements of
mutual economic co-operation but also strategies, especially with Japan, which
could counter perceived Chinese military threats.
China and Africa
The western threat perception is based on economic penetration and a concern
that long-established western principles of conditionality — aid and trade in
exchange for good governance — are being destabilised.
China’s trade with Africa has risen four-fold in the past four years. It is
now said to be $40bn.
China has overtaken the UK to become Africa’s third most important trading
partner, after the US and France. Because its oil needs are expected to double
in 15 years, China has invested in particular in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria. It
is also investing in forestry in Equatorial Guinea, mining in Zambia and
construction in Botswana, for example.
China involved itself in Africa for ideological reasons in the 1960s and
1970s and helped with large-scale projects; the Tan-Zam railway is perhaps the
best example. But this time the motivation is primarily about business, not
Some western experts argue that the Chinese are now “voracious capitalists”,
who are generating a new scramble for Africa.
This is a two-way street. China may be pushing its Africa policy hard, but
African leaders, increasingly scornful of western conditionality, are welcoming
the far less judgmental Chinese way of doing of business.
What the west did wrong
Forget about the western campaigns that speak about “making poverty
history”; instead “make lecturing African leaders history”.
Western aid hasn’t worked, especially when it is accompanied by pious and
ineffective lectures and double-counting (for example, including debt relief as
part of aid budgets). Giving more aid to Africa is like telling an alcoholic he
needs a stiff drink to help kick his addiction. The continent was going
backwards for many years until the 5% growth rate of the past three years.
Chinese trade may well have played a role in this achievement.
Fading rock singers’ alliances with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s messianic
vision may stir the soul of voters in the UK, but they are unlikely to benefit
Africa’s poor. Opening western markets would be a more effective strategy.
What Africa needs is not liberal kindness but investment by business. But at
present only very big western companies — and the Chinese — tend to take the
risk. The oil majors have shown that Africa need not be stable to make a
profit. Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea demonstrate that oil brings in money, but
it rarely benefits the “masses”. Nigerian leaders in 40 years ripped off $400bn
(from oil and aid money) — that’s six times the amount the US Marshall Plan
spent on successfully rebuilding western Europe after the Second World War.
After more than a trillion dollars of western aid, many African citizens are
poorer than ever. Western governments tried to impose good governance by
lending or giving money with strings attached. But donors need to recognise
that they cannot “buy” policies with their own money and expect African
governments to “own” these same policies, which are imposed on them, and which
often don’t work (although they can — sometimes — at the very local,
There is simply no correlation between aid and economic growth. Africans
don’t need to be told that aid merely saps initiative. Africa, like any other
region, wants to finance its rec-overy though its own resources and through
direct foreign investment. But annual capital flight roughly equals aid
inflows; every year Africa’s brightest talents leave, while tens of thousands
of foreign “experts” briefly and often clumsily replace them. This is the
economics of the madhouse.
For the African worker, there is one thing worse than being exploited by
western capitalism (or Chinese neocapitalism) and that is not being exploited —
ie no work. Foreign business investment in Africa is nakedly self-interested,
but it should be extended beyond extractive and agricultural industries. Yes,
debt relief will help (though it also makes African governments less
creditworthy) but more important is the curtailment of European and American
domestic protectionism — even though the West preaches free trade to Africa.
Direct western military intervention, like the billions of aid dollars, is
equally counterproductive. The first priority is to keep out the guns and aid
gurus, and let more businesses in (and African governments could start by
dumping all the red tape, which deters economic development).
Western governments can help by encouraging the African diaspora to return;
Western banks should also play a role in repatriating more of the billions that
corrupt dictators have stolen from their people.
My friend Lindsey Hilsum, the bureau chief in Beijing for Britain’s Channel
4 TV, has produced a number of powerful reports on China and Africa. The
essence of her critique, during the visit of 40 African heads of state to
Beijing in November, was this: African leaders “are just thrilled that China
wants to talk about trade, investment and brotherhood rather than pesky subjects
western leaders like to bring up such as human rights, good governance,
corruption, genocide and all that”.
Yes, China’s support for Sudan over Darfur and for Robert Mugabe’s regime
has been criticised in the western media. And China has supplied large arms
shipments to Sudan and Zimbabwe, including fighter aircraft — though it still
lags the western arms deals on the continent.
China has also been criticised for dumping cheap goods on Africa. This is
particularly true of textiles and clothing. In a replay of trade structures
imposed by European imperialism, SA exports raw materials to China while
importing Chinese products which compete with, and undercut, local industries.
South African trade unions have called for restrictions of Chinese imports.
Following its experience in Latin America, China has responded to these
concerns and has agreed to limit exports of some garments and textiles to SA.
China has also been criticised for bringing its own workers and displacing
African employment on major construction projects. Chinese purchase of retail
outlets has also caused resentment in Botswana and in Zambia, for example.
What China has done right
African leaders are generally much happier to deal with the Chinese (despite
the complaints from trade unions). Even President Festus Mogae of Botswana
admitted: “I find that the Chinese treat us as equals. The west treats us as
Because the Chinese are not imposing any ideology, it’s willing buyer,
willing seller. Above all, the phenomenal growth rates in China and the fact
that hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty is an attractive
model for Africans, and not just the elderly leadership. Young, intelligent,
well-educated Africans are attracted to the Chinese model, even though Beijing
is not trying to spread democracy (unlike the disastrous American policy in
China is effectively building on its soft-power model (again compared with
the awe and shock tactics of the US army). More than 900 Chinese doctors work
in Africa. Educational support is also extensively provided. Instead of aid
that is often diverted into elite pockets, China has made a habit of providing
iconic infrastructure projects, from new parliaments to football stadiums.
Nor does China import an army of fat-cat “expats” with their families.
Chinese workers usually live in austere accommodation and work hard for long
hours and at salaries much lower than European or UN personnel. The Chinese are
sometimes condemned for importing strict labour regimes but their work ethic
would be a useful inspiration in many African states.
China’s one-party system necessarily precludes its proselytising for
democracy. It stands by its economic record, an undoubtedly alluring model for
many Africans. China’s experience suggests that the removal of poverty must
precede the introduction of democracy.
Instead of considering a triangular zero-sum relationship of the west and
China contending for African goodwill (and oil), there are many ways of
co-operating, via the New Partnership for African Development and an array of
other organisations. But first the west needs to escape from the instinctive
notion that its polices are progressive in Africa, while Chinese actions are
negative and harmful.
Africa needs trade, not aid. And China, for all its immediate selfinterest,
is providing just that. China wants oil now but it is also playing a long-term
Its skilled diplomats know that they require some stability and effective
governance in its trading partners — even in Zimbabwe.
There are more Chinese living in Nigeria now than Britons during the height
of the empire. And in 2005, Angola’s energy minister said that as many as
3-million Chinese could move to his country in the next five years. That figure
seems highly improbable but even if it were quarter true, it would smack of a
Unfashionably, some western experts have called for a new United Nations
trusteeship for failed states in Africa, and former colonies such as Mozambique
are bending over backwards to get old and new white colonialists back. But
Africa is not attractive to European settlers any more.
shortage and population surplus can help rebuild a largely derelict continent,
should be applauded, not castigated. While the European Union views Africa as a
sees a market.
The so-called African renaissance can come only when African leaders invest
by preference in private capital growth in their own countries, not Swiss
China pulled itself up
by its own bootstraps by relying largely on internal investment as well as
smart foreign trade; Africa must not rely on external investment from
selling its oil.
Despite the dangers of a new imperialism,
might still provide an opportunity for Africa which Europe and the
US have simply
failed to deliver.
This article was first published in "Business Day".
Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis,
The Website of the CFPA is www.cffpa.com
(c) 2007 Dr Paul Moorcraft