A Proper Theory for China’s Romance with Africa

Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, I watched Chinese President, Xi Jinping, give a speech at the just concluded Forum on Africa and China Cooperation (FOCAC) where he announced a total of $60 billion in aid, loans and investment for African countries.

The massive space reverberated with applause, and smiles. It was a powerful speech that referenced China’s longstanding friendship and cooperation with African countries and reiterated the nation’s vision of a shared future and common prosperity with its ‘African friends’.

But not everyone outside the hall agreed that the money was a good thing. I flirted between news sites and social media platforms, both western and Chinese. Everyone was talking, writing about it. Personally, I received multiple requests from Chinese and western journalists who wanted to interview me on what I thought about the money. When I didn’t decline, I ended up giving fuzzy, evasive responses.

China’s romance with Africa1

To appreciate the morality of China’s $60 billion, it is important to understand the major theories that have shaped the modern understanding of China-African relations. As far as I know, there are two prominent theories that fall into this category.

Major Theories of Sino-African Relations

The first one, which is largely a product of western conceptualisation, is what I will call the Chinese Neo-colonial Master-plan theory. This theory presupposes that China’s relationship with Africa is premised upon its ambition to control the continent’s natural resources and market potential to the detriment of Africans. To achieve this objective, the Chinese will burden African countries with cheap loans and when these countries are unable to pay back, will take control of the natural resources which have been used as collateral. The end game of this theory, which is the direct control of Africa’s natural resources, has not been realised. But many experts and commentators believe that the growing presence of Chinese people and projects on the continent is the prelude to such a reality.

The second theory, which has been mostly shaped by Chinese propaganda and foreign policy, is what I’ll describe as the Hand of Friendship theory. It is a direct attack on the first theory, in the sense that it argues that the growing presence of China in Africa is as a result of the generous spirit of the Chinese people in recognition of its historic sunny relationship with the continent. In order words, China is interested in Africa because it wants to help the continent develop, in terms of growing its economy and lifting its people out of poverty.

Both of these theories have huge defects. The first one, for example, practically assumes that debt problems are a prelude to neo-colonialism. But the evidence, as we have seen in Greece and Venezuela, is that debt problems are simply preludes to economic collapse, widespread hunger and dashed dreams. It also assumes that China wants to be a colonialist. While China’s ambition to become an important voice on the global stage is not in doubt, there is little historical evidence that it has the cultural and social dynamism and will to transform itself into a version of 19th century Britain. 

The second theory, on its part, contradicts a realist theory of international relations that states act based on the principle of improving their own power and security, whether economic or otherwise. While friendship and brotherliness are good human relationship qualities, states, in principle, are not warm-blooded. China is not just in Africa because it has a long-standing, amicable relationship with the continent, but also because Africa has raw materials that are useful for Chinese industry and markets for Chinese production. The continent is also a testing ground for the internationalization of Chinese companies in fields such as transportation, renewable energy, and information telecommunications.

Obviously, none of these two theories can adequately help to appreciate the essence of China’s recent $60 billion. I’ll go ahead to describe a third theory based on two things that I’ll briefly explore: my understanding of China’s political system and Africa’s institutional crisis.

One of the most misunderstood countries

China is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. This is, in no small part, a result of the country’s isolationism from the rest of the world, beginning from the 15th century. Ironically, at the beginning of the century, the Chinese had built some of the biggest ships in the world and embarked on several voyages across the Indian Ocean. Eunuch admiral Zheng He commandeered the first of these voyages in 1405 with a fleet consisting of 317 vessels carried by 28,000 men. But, unlike the European voyages, these trips, which were expensive, both in human and material resources, were not commercial in nature but designed to showcase Chinese prestige and power. In the 1430s, a new emperor came into power and decided that the cost of the voyages had strained the empire’s finances and weakened its authority over a population heavily burdened by taxes and levies. Besides, the Chinese reasoned, ‘what do we want that we do not have? Nothing.’ Isolationism then became China, the economic historian, David Landes has written. “Round, complete, apparently serene, ineffably harmonious, the Celestial Empire purred along for hundreds of years more, impervious and imperturbable.” At some point during this period of closed doors, China was so shut off from the rest of the world that it was a crime, punishable even by death, to teach a foreigner Mandarin on Chinese soil.

The world, of course, passed China by during this period of isolation and the successive humiliating defeats in wars against Britain, France and Japan, prompted a critical, internal assessment of the Chinese state by its scholars and political elites. A bloody revolution eventually saw the Chinese Communist Party enthroned as the country’s sole administrator and, in 1978, China decided to open its doors, at least economically, to the world. Still, a lot of China is impenetrable to foreigners, partly because of the language (which is notorious for its avalanche of special characters) and partly because of low level of democratic transparency in its political system.

I am particularly interested in China’s democratic transparency, because it has both been a blessing and a curse; the former because it is a powerful tool for political stability, a phenomenon that has evaded China for centuries and the foundation for China’s economic miracles;the latter because it can also be fodder for western critics who demand for values such as universal human rights.

In a discussion of human rights abuses in China, many Chinese officials and citizens I have spoken to are quick to point out to me that internal, political stability trumps the disgruntlement of a minor section of the population. “We can’t afford to lose the peace we currently enjoy now,” a Chinese friend once told me over a cup of coffee. Besides, how best to protect human rights if not by ensuring people have food on their tables and a roof over their heads, a Chinese professor asked me during an interview last August.

On the other hand, a fundamental problem that can be spotted across most African countries today is the lack of institutional personality. It is risky to discuss Africa as a whole, but the continent’s history of subjugation by European powers starting from the 1880s and its product – what I prefer to call ‘institutional schizophrenia’ – is quite similar. Institutional schizophrenia, in this context, refers to a loss of identity, values, narrative and the crazed search for what had been lost, for what is not there.

Africa, before the violent European scramble for its territories, was a complex web of interconnected societies, each of which had developed its own particular set of institutions that had passed the test of time, from the ancient civilisations of Egypt and Nubia to the Asante, the Yoruba, the Ndebele, the Ethiopians. But colonialism decimated the strength and authority of these institutions by disgracing its principal custodians (kings and priests) in war and re-drawing the continent’s geography, and in effect, its destiny.

Like the Chinese, African societies fought viciously to reclaim their dignity throughout most of the 20th century, but while the former found unity and strength in diversity and tradition, the latter could not. Africa is not a country and has never been one, but a diverse collection of deeply connected societies from south to north, east to west, so the reconstruction of an identity in a world that had been defined by foreigners was practically impossible. How, for example, were the Fulani to suddenly reinvent themselves as citizens of Nigeria (a creation of the British), together with radically different civilisations such as the Yoruba, the Igbo?

Although some still do, there is no point in seeking a return to the past. A solution to Africa’s must be worked out based on its present realities. But, the point is, it is a continent with a damaged dignity, still reeling from the imperialist’s hard punches, still dizzy, still indecisive of its place in human affairs.

Now, to construct a proper theory for China’s romance with Africa, one must first acknowledge the current status of the parties involved in the relationship, which is not equal. China is richer, more militarily powerful, more technologically advanced and even more populous than the entire continent. China is the big brother and Africa is the little brother, admiring his sibling’s beard and coterie of lovers. This is the first step.

The second step, building on the first one, is to factor in China’s increasing engagement abroad(peaceful, as usual) and Africa’s willingness to evolve, to redefine itself. The third step, like I have done above, will be to underline the lack of China’s democratic transparency and Africa’s problem of poor leadership and inconsistent policies, a symptom of its institutional schizophrenia. A combination of these factors describes the nature of China’s relationship with Africa and the criticism it has attracted. It also forms the ‘Symbiotic Development’ theory, the third and what I believe best describes this burgeoning romance.

An apparent hole in this theory will be the argument that China is currently ‘raping’ Africa of its resources. But there is no hard, measurable evidence to support this position. The Chinese engage with the continent mainly through the provision of loans, which are usually tied to infrastructure projects executed by Chinese companies. Natural-resources-for-cash deals are also made and a number of humanitarian aid (President Xi announced $146.5 million of food aid to the continent during FOCAC). Critics are quick to point out that these are all beneficial to Chinese interests, but are they not to African interests, too? In Nigeria, for example, China is helping to revamp the country’s rail network, an infrastructure node that corresponds to the government’s economic recovery growth plan.

Forum on China-African Cooperation

There is also the fear about the increasing number of Chinese people in Africa. But rather than see this as an unwarranted invasion of the continent, it should be regarded as a sign of progress, because people don’t move to places that do not offer promise of a better life. And, as the world grows more connected, the numbers are only going to increase. The phenomenon reminds me of a story Howard French retold in his book ‘China’s Second Continent’: “One day it was raining heavily (in Accra, Ghana) and people were crowding into a bus for shelter. A Chinese couple approached and began to nudge their way into the crowd seeking cover. The Ghanaians began to grumble among themselves. ‘Who are these people? Why are they bothering us?’ they said. At that point, the Chinese man spoke up in Twi (Ghana’s near universal lingua franca). ‘Ade?’ (Why?) ‘Aren’t we people, too?’”

Of course they are people too, just as Africans are, a fact that is also not recognised in parts of China. Recently, people wielding passports of African countries were not allowed to check into hotels in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei area in southern China.  The population of Africans in Guangzhou, which is a major port city, has also reportedly declined due to the Chinese government crackdown on illegal migration in the city. Illegal migration, no doubt, should be curbed, but legal African citizens have also said they’ve been treated like criminals just because of the colour of their skin.

In the end, the future of China and Africa’s relationship might hinge, not on the macroeconomics of loans, but on how well people from both sides, understand one another.