Book / Africa and China: How Africans and Their Governments are Shaping Relations with China
africa and China:
How Africans and Their Governments are Shaping Relations with China
Since Africa and China was first published in 2015, bilateral relations between Africa and China have come more squarely into the limelight.
At the latest China-Africa summit in South Africa in December 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion of support for African development – a big, sweeping commitment covering many areas and inextricably embedding China in Africa’s long-term future. Between 2000and 2014 Chinese trade with Africa grew from $10 billionto $220 billion. China’s foreign direct investment stocks rose from two percent of U.S. levels to fifty-five percent over the same period; China now contributes around one-sixth of all lending to the continent. Beijing has diplomatic missions in fifty-two of Africa’s fifty-four states; its first permanent overseas military base opened in Djibouti in August 2017, a reflection of China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy stance and Africa’s role in it. Theseadvanceshave started to turn heads. In a recent report McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, found that China is among Africa’s top four partners in terms of trade, investment stock, investment growth, infrastructure financing, and aid. “No other country matches this depth and breadth of engagement,” it enthused. The technology media outletTechCrunch similarly extolled Africa’s ties with China as a “macro megatrend set to impact everything.”
Africa’s ties with China are more multilayered than is often recognized. What in the early 2000s began as Beijing’s push for commodities and Africa’s demand for infrastructure and financing has evolved to encompass peacekeeping missions, business and technology ventures, educational initiatives, and ideological jockeying. Each year some 10,000 African government officials are trained in Chinese approaches to a variety of issues ranging from agro-industry to economic policy, cadre management to media strategy. Africa’s ties with China have also become more bottom-up than initially perceived, with Chinese provinces and African regions frequently playing the role of international actors. Certain Chinese provinces will often specialize in aspects of Beijing’s Africa policy. The Gaza-Hubei Friendship Farm, for example, was created when grain-producing Hubei province signed an agreement with Mozambique’s Gaza province, leading to several agricultural projects. The Ogun-Guangdong Free Trade Zone in Igbesa, Nigeria, began as a partnership between Guangdong province and Nigeria’s Ogun state government. To a degree, China uses Africa almost as a testing ground for its international ambitions: Africa is Beijing’s workroomof ideas.
These developments unfold against a backdrop of an ever-evolving continent. Inasmuch as Africa is for China a workroom it is not a blank canvas, and the realities of Africa’s relations with China reflect Africa’s own political, economic, security, and social conditions. Traditionally averse to intervening abroad, Beijing has had to learn this the hard way. When in 2014 Chinese workers were kidnapped in Cameroon and in 2016 Chinese peacekeepers killed in Mali and South Sudan, Beijing responded with shock and condemnation, vowing to “resolutely fight violent terrorist activities that hurt innocent lives.” Though this was not the first time that Beijing encountered overseas risks,the attacks underscored the at times labyrinthine and opaque African environment and the sometimes unexpected outcomes that it can yield. As this book argues, Africa is not an entity that is acted on,but rather one with its own structures and agency – an agency, too, that is not singly concentrated but distributed across multiple state and non-state actors throughout the continent’s fifty-four countries.
Since Africa and China’s initial release, Africa has seen an explosive uptake of mobile and other disruptive technologies, as well as the steady emergence of a credible consumer class – challenges of falling commodity prices, rising youth unemployment, and environmental and governance difficulties notwithstanding. By 2019 there will be an estimated one billion phones in Africa – almost one per person – of which some eight hundred million will be smartphones. Mobile phones are transforming Africa and emboldening previously marginalized non-state actors. Farmers use them to check market prices before selling to middlemen; consumers use them to compare product prices; those who until recently lacked access to financial institutions use them to perform traditional banking services, pay bills, send money, and save. Mobile phones are spurring access to healthcare and education, new forms journalism and, where possible, means of engendering government accountability. Local protests in 2014 in Kenya in opposition to the construction of China’s East African Railway, for example, were almost entirely organized on social media and through text messages sent over mobile phones. This surge in mobile technology is giving Africans greater control over their circumstances and, in facilitating access to information and opportunity, is forging new and multiple centers of African non-state agency.
Many ‘China-Africa’ narratives still tend to overlook these everyday Africans as critical actors in Africa’s ties with China. They focus instead on the activities of governments and large corporations. Governments and corporations are, of course, central players in the relations. Yet it is the bottom-up, grassroots interactions between ordinary Africans and Chinese that are likely to be most significant over the long-term – especially as more and more Africans are brought into the political and economic fold through advancements in technology. While Beijing’s influence is undeniable, it is not unfettered and will certainly not go unchallenged. Part of what this book sets out to do is to drive home this point. To appreciate China’s long-term engagement in Africa, it is important to first appreciate how Africa is evolving and changing, and how these changes spillover into wider domestic and international contexts.
Aleksandra Gadzala Magpie Advisory CEO