Many demonize the way the Chinese operate in Africa, focusing on how a resource-hungry China “pillages” Africa’s hydrocarbons, wood and copper to fuel economic growth while supporting dubious regimes, such as that of Omar Al-Bashir’s in Sudan. Is such a view correct?
My initial response reaches back into the past, when the admiral of China’s Imperial Fleet, Zheng He led his sixth expedition as far as Mozambique in 1421-1422. It just so happens that during the same time, the French, British, Portuguese and Spanish were conducting similar expeditions beyond Europe’s shores. The Europeans set up colonies on three other continents, including Africa. The Chinese did not.
More recently, under Mao Zedong, China established diplomatic relations with African countries that claimed to be “socialist”, such as Guinea, Mali and Tanzania. This, even as Portugal fought colonial wars in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau. Once again, China was not the belligerent one.
Today’s China is recognized as an “emerging” country, and a world power. And like all other great powers (the United States foremost among them), China tends to “overflow” its borders politically and economically, in Africa as elsewhere.
In Africa, China’s overflow shapes relations that combine commercial interests, coveted commodities and foreign aid. The name of the game is twofold. First, shared interests, meaning both partners must benefit. Second, no meddling, meaning China doesn’t involve itself in partners’ politics or brandish the demands for democracy and good governance so loved by Western governments. African politicians appreciate China’s stance.
If I had to describe current relations between China and Africa, I would say that they differ little from those of the other great powers. Political aims and economic interests motivate all such relations, each cloaked in a different ideological discourse.
Photo by Harald Kreutzer