Six persistent myths about China-Africa relations
An inconvenient truth often ignored or denied is that Chinese economic activities on the African continent are not worse than (and often not even as bad as) US or European activities in Africa. Clingendael Research Associate Sanne van der Lugt presents six persistent myths about China-Africa relations based on her own research experiences.
A week after The New York Times wrote down Chinese economic activities in Africa as driven by the Chinese state, using Chinese workers, focusing on extracting resources and flooding Africa with cheap imports1, McKinsey presented a study that refutes these accusations.2
McKinsey found that around 30 percent of the about ten thousand Chinese firms in Africa are actually operating in the manufacturing sector, that 86 percent of their employees are local – as are 40 percent of their managers – and that 85 percent of the firms are privately owned.3
“Beijing” does not see, plan and control everything that Chinese actors do on the African continent
Still, during his visit to the African continent as US Secretary of State in March 2018, Rex Tillerson stated again that Chinese investment is creating ‘few if any jobs in most countries’.4 The power of repetition; sometimes aided with actively preventing that certain facts get published.
I know, because I have done research for ministries and international non-governmental organisations (INGO’s) that had different expectations about the outcome of the research on China-Africa relations that they commissioned. ‘The facts you presented are not true, right?’ ‘What about corruption, Chinese prisoners and the debt-trap?’ ‘The Chinese are behaving like neo-colonialists on the continent. Why did you not write about that? Everyone is talking about it.’
It were highly influential organisations that told me that my reports could only be published internally because the outcomes did not match their expectations. It is time that this knowledge becomes public and that it will influence our policies for the better. It is time to confront this inconvenient truth and to bust the following persistent myths.
1: “Beijing” as all-controlling power
Let me start with explaining that China is not a unitary monolithic actor. “Beijing” does not see, plan and control everything that Chinese actors do on the African continent. This is because there are many different groups of Chinese people active on the African continent.
The first Chinese who came to South Africa were slave workers who were brought there by the Dutch from their colony Batavia in the 17th and 18th century.5 And the first Chinese in Nigeria were owners of textile factories who fled mainland China to go to Hong Kong during the Chinese Civil War. They sold some of their fabric to Lebanese traders, who resold it in Nigeria.
This is how these Chinese textile factory owners learned that there was a market for their fabric in Nigeria. I spoke to the son of a factory owner who joined the second migration flow from Hong Kong to Nigeria at the end of the 1950s. His father established ten textile factories in Nigeria that employed more than 1000 (mostly local) people.6
About five years ago, an American scholar commented at an international conference on China-Africa relations that Chinese investors were about to take over all businesses in Africa and that if we did not take action ‘even the traditional industries like the local textiles will be in the hands of the Chinese’.
Let me help you out of that dream too: there is nothing inherently local about hand-dyed wax print textile in West Africa. Firstly, it were the Dutch who introduced this Indonesian batik technique in West Africa. Secondly, the most famous brand in wax print textiles in West Africa nowadays is Vlisco, a Dutch company with no African designers.
2: ‘Those poor Africans’
Then there is the notion among Europeans that ‘those poor Africans’ are no match for Chinese investors and that they need to be protected. I have experienced this when I visited Kinshasa for research on Chinese infrastructure projects in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).7
My Danish colleague and I first went to the delegation of the EU in Kinshasa to get informed on the situation in the DRC by one of the European diplomats there. His story: 'The Congolese are ignorant and will be the big losers of this resources-for-infrastructure deal that they have with the Chinese. They do not know how much their mines are worth and they have no idea how much the roads that the Chinese are building are worth8 and then they think they can make a good deal? Of course, the Chinese will rip them off.
We tend to overlook African agency in China-Africa relations
After that meeting at the EU delegation, we went to the L’Agence Congolaise des Grands Travaux and the Unit de Coordination des Projets (both agencies of the Congolese government) where we met government officials with engineering degrees from the United States and Europe. They knew exactly the value of the roads that the Chinese firms were building.
These government officials acknowledged that the Congolese government lacks expertise in mining, but so do the Chinese. Therefore, the solution that the Congolese government and Chinese companies involved in this project agreed to, was to hire Australian experts to evaluate the mines. They built their resource-for-infrastructure contract based on the Australian estimations.
3: China as a hungry/thirsty dragon
China is often depicted as a dragon hungry for African resources. It is, for example, frequently assumed that it is the Chinese government that takes the initiative in the resources-for-infrastructure deals in Africa.
However, this is not always the case. For example, it was a Congolese delegation that went to Beijing asking the Chinese government to create a similar deal for the DRC as China had with neighbouring country Angola9; with copper instead of oil. We tend to overlook African agency in China-Africa relations.
It is widely believed that Chinese firms targeted Sudan (an instable country with relatively weak institutions) to exploit the oil, in the absence of Western powers.10 However, the reality is quite different.
When first approached by Omar al-Bashir’s government to invest in oil concessions, the Chinese officials suggested Sudan to look to the American oil concern Chevron instead.11 However, Chevron had left Sudan after 18 years of operation in 1992 and was not planning to return.
When the US placed Sudan on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism” in 199312 and the economic sanctions were implemented in 199713, it became clear that other American (and European) oil concerns would not invest in Sudan in the foreseeable future either.
The Sudanese were left behind with the knowledge that they were sitting on huge oil reserves but without the expertise and necessary finance to exploit these reserves by themselves. The Sudanese ambassador to Beijing at that time, did everything in his power to convince the Chinese to invest in the oil sector of Sudan.14 When the ambassador managed to do so, he became a national hero.
China’s win-win rhetoric in Africa is often misinterpreted in the West. It is perceived in the West as if the Chinese government claims that one could weigh the benefits of both the Chinese and African partners objectively on a scale and that the result shows equal benefits for both parties.
The Chinese government emphasises that Chinese actors are in Africa to do business and that China also needs to benefit from the cooperation
However, the Chinese government intended to express something very different with their win-win statement. In reality, their aim is to make clear that China is a developing country and that it therefore needs to get something out of the relationship as well.
It cannot sell the altruistic motives (some Western countries claim to have) to its citizens. The Chinese government emphasises that Chinese actors are in Africa to do business and that China also needs to benefit from the cooperation: win-win.
5: ‘The Chinese do not care about social and environmental issues’
Do large European and US firms in Africa care about the environment and social issues? Yes, they write beautiful corporate social responsibility reports, but what happens on the ground?
Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands are European champions in illegally exporting waste to China, India and the African continent.15 See, for example, the infamous story of the ship Probo Koala, rented by the Swiss-Dutch company Trafigura, which left Amsterdam full with toxins that then got dumped in Ivory Coast in 2006.16
Europeans also tend to blame the Chinese government for supporting African dictators
My argument is that Chinese businesspersons are not inherently less moral than European or American businesspersons. Our image of the moral differences in business practices is skewed because of different ways of reporting on Chinese versus European and US scandals on the continent.17
Europeans also tend to blame the Chinese government for supporting African dictators. For their part, the Chinese government blames Western governments for interfering in national issues and ignoring sovereignty, when they invest in so-called grassroot organisations in other countries.
For example, Chinese infrastructure companies do make environmental assessment reports when they are asked to build a road through a rain forest or a village. They provide the different options (plan A through or plan B around the forest or village and the various costs involved) and follow the decision of the local leadership.
Both Chinese businesspersons and diplomats argue that the only way the people can hold their leaders accountable is when foreign actors deal with these leaders directly. It would be too easy to write this Chinese perspective off as abusing the situation.
6: Debt-trap diplomacy?
There is one aspect in particular in which the Chinese government is blamed for abusing the situation, namely when countries are highly indebted to the Chinese government. It is widely believed that the Chinese government purposefully lends money to countries that are not creditworthy in order to get stakes in strategic assets like ports and mines.
This is also referred to as “debt-trap diplomacy”. Political scientist Debora Brautigam did a great job explaining that debt-trap diplomacy is not more than a very successful meme; the concept could receive so much traction because of a prevailing negative bias towards Chinese economic activities abroad.
If we keep telling ourselves that our value system is the opposite of the Chinese value system, we create unnecessary distance.
In fact, China has been a major lender for only three low-income African countries that were considered by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to be debt distressed or on the verge of debt distress.18
Furthermore, Brautigam shows that while Chinese actors have been involved in the construction or operation of 116 overseas ports in 62 countries, only one (Hambantota, Sri Lanka) has been cited as an actual instance (rather than projected possibility) of debt-trap diplomacy.
She explains that in fact the situation in Sri Lanka is similar to the situation in Greece; selling the port was a means to raise money to deal with larger debt problems. Again, we tend to overlook the agency and motives of the host country and overstate the intentions of ‘China’
Although there surely are occasions in which Chinese businesspersons misbehave on the African continent, it is important to realise that this is not unique for Chinese businesses. If we keep telling ourselves that our value system is the opposite of the Chinese value system19, we create unnecessary distance.
If you ask African farmers, producers or job seekers, they probably do not label the European market – with our agricultural subsidies and migration policy – as open. Transparent and progressive are most likely also not the first words that will come to their mind.
We might be surprised to find a cooperation partner instead of a competitor in China when we change our own mindset
Chinese businesses are not indifferent about the social and environmental impacts of their activities in Africa. However, they do make other choices. In China, the choice has been made to focus on economic growth before social and environment issues – following the argument that Europe did the same and this is the only way to catch up with the West.
The only way to create change is to lead by example and to support developing countries with truly catching up with us while taking some steps back in our own consumption. The aim should be to let them catch up, and the means should be sustainable. We might be surprised to find a cooperation partner instead of a competitor in China when we change our own mindset.
- 1. Brook Larmer, ‘Is China the World’s New Colonial Power?’, The New York Times Magazine, 2 May 2017.
- 2. Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri & Irene Yuan Sun, ‘The closest look yet at Chinese economic engagement in Africa’, McKinsey Report, 28 June 2017.
- 3. Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri & Irene Yuan Sun, ‘The closest look yet at Chinese economic engagement in Africa’, McKinsey Report, 28 June 2017.
- 4. Laura Koran, ‘Why China's footprint in Africa worries the US’, CNN, 10 March 2018.
- 5. Karen Williams, ‘Chained and enslaved: Early Chinese prisoners in South Africa’, Media Diversified, 15 June 2016.
- 6. Sanne van der Lugt, ‘Re-evaluating the impact of institutional distance on the location choice and success of foreign investors: Comparing Chinese and Western investors in Africa’ (Doctoral dissertation), 2018.
- 7. Hans E. Petersen and Sanne van der Lugt, ‘Chinese Participation in African Infrastructure Development: The Case of the DRC and Zambia’, commissioned by the European Commission through the EU-China Policy Dialogues Support Facility, 2011.
- 8. Referring to the Sicomine deal.
- 9. Interview with a former Congolese ambassador to Beijing in Pretoria in 2010.
- 10. E.g. Phillip Manyok, ‘Oil and Darfur’s Blood: China’s Thirst for Sudan’s Oil’, Journal of Political Sciences & Public Affairs, Vol. 4, Nr. 10, pp. 4172-2332; Austin Bodetti, ’How China Came to Dominate South Sudan’s Oil’, The Diplomat, 11 February 2019.
- 11. Joseph Hammond, ‘Sudan: China’s Original Foothold in Africa’, The Diplomat, 14 June 2017.
- 12. List of State Sponsors of Terrorism
- 13. Kimberley A. Elliot, ‘Brief Timeline of Key Sanctions Events in Sudan’, Centre for Global Development, 6 October 2011.
- 14. Ambassador A. Y. Ahmed, ‘Sino-Sudanese relations: A Sudanese perspective’, Clingendael Institute event, 7 March 2013; Jevans Nyabiage, ’Why China is hoping for a peace dividend in South Sudan’, 5 October 2019.
- 15. ‘Nederland kampioen export illegaal afval’, Trouw, 24 juli 2009.
- 16. NOS, ‘Probo Koala: de feiten’, 21 juni 2010.
- 17. When there is a scandal with a European company we tend to focus on the host country or the company name, but not the home country. This is different for scandals with Chinese firms. Look for example at the differences in reporting of two mine shootings in two African countries. In 2010, the Chinese owners of a mine in Zambia shot at their Zambian workers who were protesting for better payment: 11 mineworkers were injured. This news was mentioned in Western newspapers with titles like: ‘Zambia probes shooting of workers at China-run mine’ and ´Chinese shoot at mineworkers Zambia´. In 2012 there was a shooting at a British mine in South Africa in which about 17 people were killed and 78 people were wounded. The British owners of the mine did not shoot themselves: however, they asked for protection from the South African Police Service who opened fire with assault rifles on a group of strikers (Stuart Casey-Maslen & Sean Connolly, Police Use of Force under International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017, p. 397). News articles only spoke about a shooting (or massacre) at a South African mine without mentioning anything about the British ownership of the mine.
- 18. Deborah Brautigam, ‘A critical look at Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy”: the rise of a meme’, Area Development and Policy, Vol. 5, Nr. 1, pp. 1-14.
- 19. In which the Dutch-European-Western value system stands for ´progressive, open liberal, transparent and democratic´ and the Chinese value system stands for ´conservative, closed, illiberal and autocratic’ (Nederland-China: Een nieuwe balans [Netherlands-China: A new balance]).