Analysis / African perspectives on China-Africa: Gauging popular perceptions and their economic and political determinants
African perspectives on China–Africa
Gauging popular perceptions and their economic and political determinants
What do Africans think of the bourgeoning Chinese presence in their respective countries? To what extent do Africans believe China can aid their countries, especially as compared to Western and other African actors? Are African perceptions as negative as often portrayed in Western media, or is the outlook in fact more favorable?
The debate over the implications of China’s engagement with Africa has been waged for decades among scholars and policymakers alike, intensifying in the last few years with the augmenting scale and scope of China’s African activities. Especially since the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in Beijing in November in 2006, China has been heavily engaged in trade with and investment in the African continent. Trade between China and Africa reached an all-time high of US$106.8 billion in early 2009; Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) outflows to Africa rose to US$17.8 billion in 2006, and are expected to reach $72 billion by 2011. In October 2009, too, China overtook the United States to become South Africa’s biggest export destination in the first half of 2009, reinforcing the Asian country’s push to build trade links with Africa.
Such overt expressions of China’s augmenting economic and diplomatic presence are being met with a diversity of reactions, ranging from “excitement to panic, disappointment and uncertainty, and not just from Africans but from the whole international community.” China is, for instance, regarded as a welcomed competitor, positioned to provide Africa with leverage towards traditional donors and address the structural imbalances of the international economic system within which many African states are facing marginalization. At the same time, China is also seen as exploiting African economies, with little genuine concern for their sustainable economic or political development. Rival voices in the literature point especially to the damaging effects brought with the influx of cheap Chinese commodities into African markets; the substandard working conditions maintained by many Chinese firms; and the detrimental ramifications of China’s disregard for human rights standards and Beijing’s persistent courtship of the continent’s rogue regimes.
One essential missing component in the debate over the place and implications of China’s contemporary engagement with Africa, however, is the lack of systematic empirical evidence gauging not only African popular perceptions of China’s influence, but indeed the very determinants of these perceptions. Few studies have yet to explicate African attitudes towards China; when accounted for, such views are articulated through anecdotal reporting, with little genuine attention paid to their underlying motivations. Findings emerging from the limited number of systematic studies on African views of China suggest that the largely negative rhetoric emanating from much of the literature may indeed be exaggerated. In making such claims, however, these studies fail to account for why this is the case, leading senior academics and policymakers to question “how much we really know about African publics’ perception of China.”
Drawing on survey data collected in Round 4 (2008) of the Afrobarometer, we address the question of what Africans think about the Chinese presence in their respective countries and why, in so doing disentangling the factors informing the expressed views. We operationalize ‘presence’ in terms of two key economic macro-variables - trade and FDI - examining the effects of both on African attitudes. In keeping with the primary cleavages informing the China-Africa discourse, concomitantly with economic factors we consider also political ones, namely human rights and democracy. The importance Africans attach to both issues arguably directly influences their views of the place and implications of China’s involvement in their respective countries. Finally, we investigate if and how African perceptions of China’s African engagement diverge from attitudes towards that of other international actors: the West (the United States, as well as Britain, Portugal and France - i.e. the former colonial powers included in the study) and other African states, Nigeria and South Africa in particular. The answers to all of these questions bear important consequences for our understanding of not only how Africans perceive outsider - and especially Chinese - activities in the continent, but also the particular policy issues they identify as most salient vis-à-vis such external influences.