It’s time to move beyond sterile arguments and accept China’s role in Africa. But it’s also time for China to enhance that role.
The debate over China’s role in Africa continues to rage. One side contends that China is a rapacious neocolonial oppressor, while the other sees it as a miraculous alternative to decades of failed Western aid. To a large extent, however, facts on the ground have rendered this debate academic: China already has become an indisputably significant force in Africa’s development, with substantially increased commitments and engagements just in the past few years. Pragmatism argues for moving the discussion ahead, to how China’s involvement can reap the greatest benefit for both Africans and Chinese.
African and Chinese leaders—along with interested outside parties, such as multilaterals, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs
)—should focus on three opportunities. The first is strengthening Africa’s economic-development strategies and capabilities at the national and regional levels. Second, China’s willingness to undertake additional strategic-development projects in Africa, including the recent emphasis on sustainable and results-driven models, should be supported. Finally, collaboration between Chinese institutions working in Africa and other donors or partners ought to be developed and encouraged.
China’s role in Africa is dynamic, with deep historical roots and a wide range of ever-changing engagements and models that don’t lend themselves to black-and-white categorization. By pursuing these three opportunities, Africa and China can uncover new ways to promote economic development and the reduction of poverty on the continent.
China’s historical role
The People’s Republic of China started engaging with African countries not long after it was founded. Since the Bandung Conference, in 1955, its activities in Africa have been rooted in their common experience as developing regions. From then onward, China has committed aid and support to various African leaders
and countries, despite its own economic and political challenges and upheavals. With inventive packages of aid, loans, and investments, the People’s Republic, in return, secured votes to take China’s seat at the United Nations (held by Taiwan’s government until 1971), opened up channels for much-needed oil and mineral resources, mitigated its food-security concerns, and gained a strategic foothold on the continent.
Even in 1978, when China was just emerging from the devastating effects of its Cultural Revolution and was itself one of the world’s poorest countries, it provided foreign aid to 74 countries—and to more in Africa than the United States did. By 1984, China was the eighth-largest bilateral donor to sub-Saharan Africa, ranking higher than many members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). From 2002 to 2007, China offered over $33 billion worth of government-sponsored aid and investment, over half for infrastructure projects, to African countries. Today the continent is dotted with Chinese-sponsored projects, from railways to agricultural centers to clinics to stadiums.
Several attributes of China’s engagement in Africa merit particular attention.
Credibility as a fellow developing country
It’s no secret that some Chinese activities in Africa have prompted concern and even hostility, particularly the long-standing support of leaders in countries like Sudan
, as well as questions about worker safety, community engagement, and environmental degradation. Overall, however, the evidence suggests that many Africans welcome the involvement of China not only because of the scale of its resources and commitments but also because it has credibility. The Chinese see themselves as a developing country, a view shared by many Africans; indeed, China still ranks 97th in the world for GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Yet China’s recent development trajectory—lifting hundreds of millions of its people from poverty in the past 30 years—offers Africans lessons and hope. Other factors adding to China’s credibility are its pragmatic, business-like approach to development and focus on much-needed infrastructure projects. Also, Chinese workers are generally well-respected because they are prepared to work in Africa’s fields or factories, often at the locals’ salaries, in contrast to the wages, housing, and approaches of Western aid organizations or commercial enterprises. For this reason, China still explicitly rejects the label of donor.
Project-based aid and investment models
Chinese aid generally focuses on specific projects rather than the large programmatic models familiar to Western donors, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a US-sponsored program for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. This US effort has a broad strategy, operating across several countries, with a multiyear approach and standardized practices. By contrast, China’s health assistance generally involves commitments to build a clinic or hospital in a country or region or to send Chinese medical personnel or medicines to specific countries. These efforts are sometimes associated with a particular investment or a Chinese official’s political commitment to a local African leader. Such projects are not part of a broader program to build networks of hospitals, for example, or to develop a replicable and scalable approach. Instead, the Chinese focus on an immediate need—though sometimes a very large one, such as dams or highways—which they generally execute in a timely, effective way.
Also, the line between aid and investment is unclear for many of these projects. Some of the ambiguity arises from China’s aid model: with no central foreign-aid agency, Beijing often designates different ministries (or, in some instances, provinces) to tackle different projects in different countries. China’s blended model of aid, investment, trade, and technology as levers for development, while less common in Western approaches, has an antecedent: China’s own experience as a recipient of aid and investment in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, China entered into deals with Japan and many Western partners, bartering its own natural resources and commodities for technologies, tools, and know-how.
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