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China and Europe in Africa: Like a Jaguar racing a Ford Fiesta

Submitted by on 27 Nov 2013 – 11:14

By Stephen Chan, Professor of International Relations, SOAS

There is still far more trade between Europe and Africa, and far greater aid flows from Europe to Africa, than anything involving the Chinese at this moment in time. Yet the Chinese profile in Africa has seriously disturbed European sensibilities. For African governments, the advent of the Chinese in their modern guise – in terms of government-to-government agreements and transactions at least – is a huge blessing. It gives these governments options, and it gives them leverage in their economic relations with Western partners.

Europe has not been accustomed to leverage being used against it. In a way, it has not been used to its former colonies exercising choice and agency – but, in a postcolonial world, choice and agency has in fact been slow in coming.

There are three things to say at the outset. Firstly, the Chinese have been in Africa for almost all of the continent’s independent history. However, the Chinese presence was seen very much in terms of the Cold War and its rivalries; but Chinese aid to liberation movements has been huge, and China has always made a priority, in its showpiece developmental projects, of infrastructural construction.

What has changed since the Cold War has been China’s economic boom and its accompanying industrialisation – so that Chinese largesse to Africa is now closely related to resource-expropriation, and these are resources the West will itself need in the future. How this took the West by surprise is an indictment of lazy Western intelligence, a treatment of African states as having little policy capacity, and an assumption of extended hegemonic relationships with former colonies.

The second thing, however, is that the Chinese presence in Africa is a double-whammy. Quite apart from official relationships and largesse, the spreading flood of Chinese migrants to Africa – with business interests often in competition with African traders and producers; and often with gross racism – has meant a public relations nightmare for the Chinese Government. The Chinese have learnt to deal with adverse public relations, e.g. in the case of celebrity-endorsed Western campaigns over Darfur, by pressurising dictators like Sudanese President Bashir to lighten their heavy hands; but they seem to have no control over their own citizens who have gone to seek fresh pastures in Africa. It should be added that older Chinese migrant communities can look as askance as their African neighbours at the poor behaviour of the newcomers. And the Chinese have been living in Africa for some time. The previous Chair of the African Union, Gabon’s Jean Ping, was half Chinese. At the 1955 Freedom Charter Congress in Kliptown, Soweto, that inaugurated the fightback against Apartheid in South Africa, the thousands of protesters were fed by Chinese grocers.

The third thing is that there are 54 African countries, all with different ways of dealing with the Chinese. Angola is probably the most advanced country in terms of refined negotiating capacity, and the ability to ‘push back’ against Chinese demands.

But this capacity is being looked at very seriously by other African governments, so that the present relationship between the many African countries and China is likely to be dynamic, perhaps sometimes volatile, and certainly changing in the years to come.

Having said that, the ‘standard’ Chinese template of front-loaded benefactions, against resource benefits in future years, can simply be implemented faster and better than European methodologies of aid-for-trade.

The intimate linkages between the Chinese Government and Party, and Chinese multinational corporations, can allow co-ordinated action without policy delays. The front-loading can be treated almost deliberately as a short-term loss-leader for the sake of the long term – so that the Chinese can simply plan for an extended future that European budgetary procedures and justifications cannot allow.

But the Chinese have also learnt more quickly than Europe what should go into front-loading. The minute the Chinese proposed – in addition to roads, railways, clinics and schools along the transport routes – the building of universities, as they did in a controversial aid-for-trade proposal in Democratic Republic of Congo, was the minute Africa understood that the Chinese in turn understood African aspirations. Here, in Europe, we are still stuck in the basic education/primary education paradigm – as if Africa needed nothing more and parents aspired to nothing more for their children.

The huge cell-phone penetration of Africa was led in its first incarnation by China – with pirate and other Chinese-produced handsets. The second and current phase of cell-phone penetration sees some of the Chinese lead being taken over by Western producers (although none of them is European). The third phase, which has not yet begun, will see a competition to be the providers of choice of tablets and solar-charging stations. This will have huge benefits for education at all levels, make the delivery of books-as-aid a thing of the past as an entire library can be loaded on one tablet, and will be perhaps the greatest empowering tool to have reached Africa in the 21st century.

In Nigeria, India and China, a tablet can be built for less than £20. The Chinese will be in this battle to supply tablets. We have lost this battle before it even begins. We don’t even think this will be a battle – our imagination of Africa being so static and pastoral and old.

So that the Chinese, for all their faults and problems, have moved and will move in Africa in a way that is simply speedier and smoother than anything Europe can imitate. It’s like watching a Jaguar seeing off a bunch of Ford Fiestas at the traffic lights. And that means it sometimes seems like watching something embarrassing. Perhaps we don’t like the Chinese presence in Africa because, intuitively, we know that our paradigm in Africa is stale and we have thought of nothing new.