While anyone believing that China’s vision for investment in Africa is motivated solely by altruism as pure as the driven snow would be guilty of contemptible naivete, the notion that it’s a sinister, nakedly imperialistic drive purely for control of resources is equally misguided.
A good read on this topic is Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. What she argues in essence is that China has replicating something that really worked to kick-start China’s own development in the 70s and 80s, with Japan playing the role in China that China now hopes to play in much of Africa.
In China, Japan did a great number of resource-for-infrastructure deals, where it built mines, roads, ore processing facilities, rail lines, shipping ports and much more and took in exchange the mineral wealth that that infrastructure produced and helped to transport. China at the time simply couldn’t have paid for the infrastructure, and therefore had no real way to turn its resources—coal, copper, iron ore, even back then oil—into infrastructure or the money to pay for it. Aside from the infrastructure, which Japan simply transferred to China once the in-kind payment in resources had been made, China also got a whole lot of know-how. Technology transfer was always a part of these agreements.
Yes, China is also playing a geostrategic game to win the support of African (and Latin American) states, which it has, for a long time, courted as a check against perceived American and (once upon a time) Soviet hegemony. It plays checkbook diplomacy against the government in Taipei to try to win away those few remaining states that acknowledge Taiwan rather than mainland China as “China.” And it has certainly gotten in bed with rulers who most of the rest of the world rightly regards as kleptocrats and tyrants–Basheer, Mugabe and more. And I think there’s much to the argument that all this largess is enabling the kind of corruption and kleptocracy that still plagues the continent.
But Brautigam points out that Chinese aid and investment in Africa is actually rather evenly spread among countries in Africa that don’t have Zambia’s copper or Angola’s oil. She details investment and aid in a large number of countries that have no obvious mineral or resource wealth that China would want to export. Chalk this up to China’s efforts to gain “soft power,” however clumsy and ham-fisted many of those efforts have been. (They do seem to build a lot of stadiums, which by my lights shouldn’t necessarily be a priority in countries where 90 percent of the people are living on less than a dollar a day!)
There’s a misconception that all Chinese investment in Africa is driven by state-owned enterprises or the Chinese government itself. That isn’t actually the case. China’s overall strategy in Africa, and its actions on that continent on the ground, are not by any means all centrally directed. Private companies, state-owned enterprises, and individual entrepreneurs have their own agendas, sometimes in line with and sometimes at odds with what Beijing is trying to accomplish.
Actually, it’s often just a bunch of scrappy, entrepreneurial types typically from southern Chinese provinces like Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangzhou who set out for Africa initially as small traders, but realize that there are other opportunities where their skills and capacity for hard work can turn into profits. I’ll remember what I can of a similar story told by Lindsey Hilsum in Granta back in 2005 in their Africa issue, where the author argues that the scrappy entrepreneurial guys from Fujian, Anhui, Zhejiang and what have you have done more for Africa than Bob Geldof, Tony Blair, and Bono put together.
A bunch of guys from the same hometown might notice, for instance, that in the particular sub-Saharan African country where they’ve come as workers, the capital is swarming with European and American NGO workers and UN types who come in for meetings (on AIDS, or malaria, or agricultural or water projects or what have you) and they’re all being gouged by the one and only decent hotel in town. “Aha!” think the scrappy southern Chinese guys. “What if we built a cheap-and-chipper three-star type hotel at a third the room rate but with all the amenities? We’d be rich!.” And so they build the thing. Then they need to improve the road, and ensure a steady power supply for the air conditioners, and make sure there’s Internet access and decent phone lines, and that the mobile network covers their place, and that the plumbing works. They mobilize their networks of contacts—road construction teams, guys who sell diesel generators or better yet the people they know who are building the new power plant, their friends at Huawei or ZTE to get the telecoms situation in shape. And before you know it they’ve been responsible for catalyzing a fair bit of infrastructure with very tangible benefits to all living in the vicinity. ).
There’s another book that argues Brautigam’s position perhaps even more forcefully. It’s called Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa by Dambisa Moyo (a Zambian by birth), and though it’s focused mainly, as the title suggests, at the problems of aid it also extols the virtues of the Chinese approach.
~Kaiser Kuo , Director, international communications, Baidu