An international discourse of China-in-Africa has emerged … China in Africa has more in common with the West than is usually acknowledged; … there are nevertheless notable differences between Western and Chinese presences in Africa

Map of Chinese investment in Africa 2005 (click to enlarge)

African exports to China (click to enlarge)

In December Asia Pacific Journal published:

Trade, Investment, Power and the China-in-Africa Discourse by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong

They make a number of interesting points about the nature of China’s involvement in Africa.

An international discourse of China-in-Africa has emerged, particularly in Western countries with dense links to Africa: the US, UK and France.

The essence of the discourse then is to cast PRC policies in Africa as promoting human rights violations or “colonialism,” while implicitly comparing them invidiously with high minded US and Western practices. Some PRC activities in Africa do violate the human rights of Africans — not in ways that Western elites claim, but in much the same manner that Western policies do, through disadvantageous terms of trade, the extraction of natural resources, oppressive labor regimes, and support for authoritarian rulers, all common features of the modern world system. These are practices that China’s elites used to denounce, but now come close to extolling as dynamic capitalism. … the path taken by China is “consistent with the logic of market capitalism-liberal trade” and makes China not a colonialist, but “a successful capitalist in Africa.”

The discourse should not be inverted by arguing that China’s presence in Africa is positive and the West’s negative or that problematic Chinese activities in Africa are justified because abuses are shared with the West. The analysis of China-Africa should invoke neither a “win-win” nor dystopic representations; rather, the trees of China’s behavior should be seen as part of a world system forest and the discourse examined using comparative analysis. Our arguments are threefold: 1) given the world system, it is difficult to assess the pluses and minuses of China-in-Africa as a single phenomenon; 2) as a player in the world system, China in Africa has more in common with the West than is usually acknowledged; 3) there are nevertheless notable differences between Western and Chinese presences in Africa; many derive from China’s experience as a semi-colony, its socialist legacy, and its developing country status, features which together make PRC policies presumptively less injurious to African sensibilities about rights than those of Western states.

The US Treasury termed China a “rogue creditor.” Africa remains, however, in a Western-created “debt trap,” owing more than $300b and paying significant interest. Yet, as US Africanist Deborah Brautigam has noted, China “regularly cancel[s] the loans of African countries, loans that were usually granted at zero interest [and] without the long dance of negotiations and questionable conditions required by the World Bank and IMF.” …

OECD researchers have concluded moreover that increased PRC activities in Africa have not deepened corruption among African governments. China’s leaders know corrupt officials will siphon off part of their infrastructure loans, but its packaged loans are less likely than Western aid to being drained by corruption. As a Hong Kong journalist has noted, because China’s loans and aid are tied to infrastructure projects, that is, a large portion of the funds are allocated directly to contractors, “corrupt rulers cannot somehow use it to buy Mercedes Benzes.” A close US observer of PRC activities in Africa has argued that China’s aid is more effective than Western aid because much is used for “hydroelectric power dams, railroads, roads and fiber-optic cables, which have the potential to benefit ordinary people, no matter how corrupt the regime under which they live.”

Despite promoting a rhetoric of transparency regarding African oil-producers, Western states have not bound their citizens and corporations. Bids for oil blocks in Africa typically feature “signature bonuses,” paid to governments, which often run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Foreign oil firms know host governments skim off large shares of what the companies pay. In a rare instance of disclosure, Western oil firms told the IMF that they paid $400m in 2001 for an Angolan oil tract, but the Angolan government claimed it received only $285m. Presumably the difference went into the pockets of government officials.

Most multinationals refuse to publish what they pay to secure oil rights. Western governments do not compel oil firms that are their own citizens to make disclosures, but “ask the tiger for its skin” (yu hou mo pi), as the Chinese say, by demanding corrupt governments publicize their own corruption.

Western policy interventions have not actually diminished the resource curse.

… oil is capital intensive, creates few jobs, is environmentally damaging and corrupts producing states. People in oil-rich regions, such as southern Sudan and Nigeria’s Niger Delta, receive so few benefits from their patrimony that violent conflict has ensued.

The China-in-Africa discourse will likely continue to focus overwhelmingly on oil in discussing PRC imports from the continent. American analysts particularly see the US as strategically competing with China for African oil. … The US government estimates African oil production will grow 91% in 2002-2025, while global production will grow 53%. Armed forces in a newly established US Africa Command will have as a main task protecting US access to oil.

US prominence in taking African oil is accompanied by its backing authoritarian rulers in almost all oil producing states.

Sautman and Hairong’s article discusses Chinese activities in Africa regarding the textiles and clothing (T&C) industries and also mining, particularly in Zambia. They provide detailed information of T&C in Africa and how it works in different countries.

If the affordability of PRC imports benefits grassroots African consumers, there are in any case only seven countries that receive a significant share (5-14%) of their imports from China. Basic consumer goods do not predominate among PRC exports, but rather “machinery, electronic equipment and high- and new-tech products.” A UK government study found that in only one African country, Uganda, are basic consumer goods more than a fifth of the value of all goods imported from China and that PRC imports into Africa mainly displace imports from elsewhere and have little effect on local production. The PRC government recognizes that some exports are of poor quality. Many Chinese goods are brought to Africa by private Chinese or African entrepreneurs whom the PRC government does not control. It nevertheless has “in place stringent measures to ensure that its goods meet all the minimum quality standards for exports [and] a ministry to ensure low quality goods are not exported.”

WB/IMF-mandated structural adjustment programs (SAPs) were the actual gravediggers of African T&C production. The influx of second-hand clothing from developed countries particularly reduced domestic markets for African T&C producers.

A balance of positive and negative impacts for China’s exports to Africa is not easily drawn. Yet, as to the T&C industry, the balance is less negative than the discourse makes out. Its fixation on Africa’s T&C industry is non-comparative and lacks historical context, as China did not contribute to the steep decline in African T&C through SAPs [structural adjustment programs], while Western states have yet to restrict their used and new clothing exports to Africa.

Most foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows to Africa come from Europe, along with South Africa and the US. These countries together account for more than half of Africa’s FDI inflows. China had only $49 million in FDI in Africa in 1990 and $600m in 2003. Its FDI stock in 2005 was $1.6b, of $57b in global PRC FDI. In 1979-2000, the most recent years for which figures are available, 46% of PRC FDI in Africa went to manufacturing (15% to textiles alone), 28% to resource extraction, 18% to services (mostly construction) and 7% to agriculture. The PRC has said it will encourage investment in Africa’s industrial processing, infrastructure, agriculture, and natural resources.

Investments thus also figure in the China-in-Africa discourse.84 Even more than with trade, the discourse is narrowly focused; its primary focus has been on only one investment by one Chinese SOE, among the more than 800 major PRC enterprises in Africa, 100 of them large SOEs. Western media have devoted hugely disproportionate attention to the Non-Ferrous Company-Africa (NFCA) Chambishi copper mine. The upshot of these reports is that “the Chinese” are Africa’s super-exploiters.

Sautman and Hairong discuss the low wages, no job security, lack of health care and unsafe working conditions for miners in Zambia. Zambian miners had previously enjoyed some health benefits and better wages. The authors point out that the lowered wages, reduced safety, and lack of health care date to the privatization of the mining sector mandated by the World Bank.

In drawing their conclusions they write:

The China-in-Africa discourse in the West for the most part insists that Chinese have particularly positioned themselves to exploit Africa and Africans; for example, by supporting authoritarian rulers in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe. Several Western states, however, directly support despots by providing military assistance and legitimacy. In fact, US assistance to African rulers for purchases of US arms and the training of African states’ military forces has increased significantly under the Obama Administration. China is thus not likely to fare worse than the West in an evaluation of how foreign investments impinge on development and human rights in Africa.

The modalities of trade examined for development implications commonly involve the import and export of goods. There is also trade in money and people however. Western, but not PRC, banks have traded secrecy and interest to the exporters of 40% of Africa’s private wealth. Western states trade citizenship for the skills of professionals, especially doctors and nurses, trained in, but now largely lost to Africa. These forms of trade likely impinge as much as commodity exchange on Africans’ right to development.

The main problem with the China-in-Africa discourse is not empirical inaccuracies about Chinese activities in Africa, but the de-contextualization of criticisms for ideological reasons. Some analyses positively cast Western actions in Africa compared to China’s activities; others lack comparative perspective in discussing negative aspects of China’s presence, so that discourse consumers see a few trees, but not the forest. Such analysis reflects Western elite perception of national interests or moral superiority as these impinge on “strategic competition” with China. Many analysts scarcely question Western rhetoric of “aiding African development” and “promoting African democracy,” yet are quick to seize on examples of exploitation or oppression by Chinese interests.

To comprehensively interrogate Chinese and Western activities in Africa is to question a global system that has in many respects de-developed Africa and into which China is increasingly integrated. Failing that, one is left with little more than a binary between a Western-promoted new “civilizing mission” on behalf of Africans and activities of the “amoral” Chinese, who refuse to fully endorse that mission by not adopting trade and investment practices wholly compliant with neo-liberalism. China, after all, can and does throw this binary back in the face of its proponents by portraying the West as seeking a new tutelage for Africans and China as eschewing the role of intermeddler, while promoting “win-win” trade and investment. So too do many Africans. The popularity of features of China’s presence in Africa, compared with that of the main Western states, goes well beyond elites. The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Survey asked Africans in ten countries to compare the influences of China and the US in their own countries. In nine of the ten countries, by margins of 61-91%, African respondents said Chinese influence was good. These percentages substantially exceeded those for the US. One important implication of the Chinese presence in Africa then is that Western states and firms may need to engage in greater self-reflection about their own presence in the continent.

There is much more, I can hardly do justice to this meticulously well sourced article and recommend you read it for yourself: Trade, Investment, Power and the China-in-Africa Discourse.