Chinese leaders have been able to achieve this feat through smart and pragmatic use of policy instruments, combining a good mix of political rhetoric and hard economic rationale. If in 2000, only three African heads of states attended the first Forum for China Africa Cooperation ministerial meeting, with the third FOCAC ministerial in 2006, 47 African heads of states were in attendance.
Projecting itself as a country pursuing peaceful and mutually beneficial existence in its external relations, China has won over the trust of many African countries by making use of historic capital forged during the Cold War and support for Africa’s quest for independence from European tutelage. Moreover, policy and political rhetoric has been punctuated by a litany of high-level visits by Chinese leaders to Africa, and vice-versa.
In economic terms, China’s diplomacy concretely translated in its outward investments in non-bond transactions over a five-year period (2005-2010) reaching 13,8% of China’s total outward investments. Trade with Africa has as such increased from US$5 billion in the 1990s to US$120 billion in 2011 (largely in favour of China).
In the past two years China has given more loans to African countries than the World Bank, making China a leading banker in many African countries. These tools enabled China to negotiate favourable deals innovatively packaged in the form of aid and at times controversial financing packages for natural resources and infrastructure projects in Africa. In some instances, Chinese donations include infrastructure projects such as the construction of the new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and the official residences of heads of state, including Namibia. Such practices provide China not only with hard domination of the African space, but residences for heads of state and the AU headquarters constructed with Chinese money provides China with untold symbolic and psychological dominance in African affairs. Evidently, China’s presence should be seen within its rise as a global power and it does provide certain benefits to African countries. But Africa is also a unique case because the relationship is asymmetrical, and just like European colonialism, it is largely skewed to the benefit of China. The Bribe Payer’s Index of Transparency International released in November 2011, listed China as a second to Russia when it came to paying bribes globally, ranging from hard bribes such as commissions for tenders, and scholarships to families of those in power, including the daughters and sons of heads of state.
Since many African states exist without solid institutional mechanisms to negotiate complex agreements with China in a transparent manner, certain Chinese practices undermine Africa’s fight against corruption and good governance. These potentially can destabilise already weak states and lead to collapse. Chinese companies, mostly state-owned and with massive resources, including the influx of cheap goods, are not only retarding Africa’s industrialisation, but are also undermining African indigenisation efforts at building sustainable home-grown businesses. This has been notable in the construction and technology sectors where major government contracts have been awarded to Chinese companies. While organised civil society, opposition parties and local populations have started to criticise unfair Chinese labour and business practices, such concerns received scant attention from African policy-makers. In order to avoid the deeper penetration of a two-speed Africa-China relationship, in which national and continental elites who are paid bribes and business deals are ardent China defenders on the one hand, and local businesses and populations on the receiving end on the other, African policy-making should become more proactive. To be proactive implies smart states, able to negotiate in their national interest on the basis of clearly defined national objectives. At present, it appears that African elites are carried away by embellished Chinese rhetoric and treatment and are shooting themselves in the foot. To be proactive also implies African states fearlessly insisting on the respect of national laws and policies by Chinese companies. Where necessary, there must be punishment for violation of national laws. For their part, regional and continental institutions should also reinforce policy-frameworks serving as safeguards against China’s excesses in Africa.
* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a PhD-fellow in political science and researcher at the Centre for Political Research at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. He is currently a guest lecturer in European Studies at Rouen Business School, France.