A Chinese Africa?

Hany Ghoraba
Wednesday 12 Sep 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion pledge to develop Africa at the seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing this month, striking nerves in Western circles

For nearly five centuries the African continent has been plagued by attempts to control it by colonial powers such as the British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish and German empires.

The continent struggled from the results of colonialism and the enslavement of its peoples, and though this situation ought to have changed after independence starting in the 1950s, the colonialists were often simply replaced by autocrats who in some cases committed even more horrific atrocities.

This was the case with the former Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, and Zaire’s (the Democratic Republic of Congo) former dictator Mobuto Sese Seko became a byword for corruption.

During the seventh Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Beijing on 3-4 September, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion Chinese pledge to develop Africa.

It followed massive Chinese investments in Africa amounting to $136 billion over the past 17 years, and the latest investment pledge resembles similar ones made at previous Forums held every three years between Chinese and African leaders.

The latest pledge cements the growing Chinese commitment to Africa, as the years have proven how lucrative and mutually beneficial these investments are.

However, the latest Chinese investment pledge to Africa seem to have struck a nerve in Western political and economic circles, with some analysts labelling it a debt trap for ailing African economies that are already deeply indebted.

The claim seems awkward for a continent on which most countries are attempting to alleviate their living standards such that they can offer basic services to their citizens.

Moreover, it is Western debt, and Western compound interest rates, that keeps the African economies in peril. The Western countries are hardly offering a passage out of it.

There is hypocrisy in the claim that China is aiming to submerge Africa in debt when Western leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Theresa May are also offering investments of several billion dollars.

However, a feeling of helplessness exists in Western circles since they are unable to match the Chinese pledges. Chinese investments are crowding the continent, and they are unable to do anything about it.

For African leaders who are seeking a leeway to development, the Western warnings are farcical since they come from the same countries that have hardly lent a hand to African development and have always tied aid to political demands.

Moreover, the world’s wealthiest continent in terms of natural resources has long been cursed by dictators who have spent four decades in power in some cases.

Many of these dictators were affiliated with either the interests of the former colonisers or were tools of either the Western camp or the Soviet one during the Cold War.

The African nations were set back by their own leaderships, with many of their citizens migrating to other continents seeking better lives than on their own poverty-stricken or war-torn continent.

The Chinese investments have no strings attached to them, as the Chinese leadership is not in the habit of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries unlike its Western counterparts.

This stance was reaffirmed by President Jinping when he said that “China does not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs and does not impose its will on Africa.

” He added that “what we value is the sharing of development experience and the support we can offer to Africa’s national rejuvenation and prosperity.”

Moreover, the Chinese investment pledges are massive in comparison to Western ones, with over $4 billion spent already on a new Ethiopian railway and more invested in a similar railway and waterworks in Kenya.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has also recently signed $18 billion in contracts with his Chinese counterpart, preceded by similar amounts over previous years.

The Chinese government is aware of the turbulent history of Africa and the West, and it is set not to repeat the mistakes of the former colonisers in opening a new chance for the development of the African countries.

Chinese-African cooperation is already yielding healthy profits to the Chinese and benefiting the African economies, and it is not limited to infrastructure projects but also includes high-tech ones.

Chinese investment in the African electronics sector has produced fruitful results, with mobile phones assembled in Africa with Chinese technology becoming best-sellers in the African countries.

According to the consultants McKinsey, there are over 10,000 Chinese-owned companies operating in Africa and 90 per cent of them are privately owned, signifying the involvement of China in African economies.

It is a fact that the Chinese are benefiting from China’s conflict-free history with Africa and the lack of the country’s political meddling in the continent’s internal affairs.

To Africans, the Chinese are offering what the Europeans have failed to do, and African leaders do not feel they have to align their political stances to the Chinese as they have always had to do with the Europeans in order to gain economic benefits.

Africa is a continent that has long been neglected, and it is now becoming the centre of attention of investment, whether caused by the need of the economic superpowers to expand their investments or to sell their products.

As a result, the Europeans are benefiting indirectly from the Chinese investments in Africa, which they acknowledge they cannot match in size.

These investments will open the door for more Africans to have stable jobs, which in turn means less illegal immigration to Europe from Africa.

That is a goal that the Europeans have long aimed at, without making the necessary efforts to attain it. As a result, they should be thankful to the Chinese for solving part of their problems.

It would serve the European and Western nations well to remember the saying “those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Debt-trap warnings aside, the new Chinese wave of investments in Africa, or what some Europeans describe as the Chinese takeover of Africa, may be the first piece of good news the African countries have had in years.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and The Winding Road to Democracy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A Chinese Africa? 

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