Since the late 1990s China's economic engagement with Africa has extended surprisingly quickly. It often feels as if reporters and journalists are chasing to keep up with the pace of development, and to provide some sort of explanatory framework.
I am simplifying, but the standard narrative you hear and read about China-Africa relations usually goes something like this: the Chinese used to care about spreading socialism and actively supported national liberation movements in Africa, but today they only care about getting at the continent's resources, and pragmatism has supplanted principles (hence China's backing for "pariah" states like Sudan and Zimbabwe). Then we are supposed to appreciate the irony that the former liberator has become the "new colonialist."
Below is an excerpt from a BBC Newsnight report on China's role in Zambia, which I think exemplifies the sort of ahistorical and simplistic reportage of this story which is all too common.
"Are the Chinese just new colonialists trying to exploit Zambia's raw materials?" the reporter asks. The rest of the report seems to answer in the affirmative - competition from local Chinese businesses receiving subsidies from China's state-owned banks is stopping Zambia from diversifying its economy away from dependence on exports of raw materials. Presumably China does this, among other reasons, in order to secure better terms of access to these resources.
The fundamental difficulty I have with this argument is that it overstates both the coherence and the state-centric agency of China's activity on the continent - it depicts as a kind of grand master plan what has been in many ways a disjointed and spontaneous response to changes in Africa's relations with the rest of the world.
I will explain in more detail what I mean by this towards the end of this post. First, I want to examine the "first wave" of China-Africa relations in the 1950s and 1960s. Contrary to the idea that China was ever regarded by post-independence African leaders as being in the vanguard of global solidarity, it will be seen that this was the exception rather than the rule - more often that not China's interventions were seen as cynical, opportunistic and vacillating.
The PRC won early plaudits on this basis by officially registering its opposition to apartheid at the UN in 1950. As Gerald Segal has noted, China's own history of colonial domination meant that the course taken by post-colonial Africa had a symbolic significance far beyond its own shores: "It was not so much that China was intrinsically concerned with the individual struggles in Africa as much as it saw the continent as undergoing a stage in the revolutionary process that China had already endured."
|Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference|
The Sino-Soviet split at the decade's end provided the greatest stimulus for Chinese involvement in the continent's politics. The CPC saw Africa as a key battleground for influence in the rest of the world, because it saw it as a test for leadership of the world communist movement. Whilst Khruschev was moderating the USSR's domestic and international policies, China could win the allegiance of Africa.
"Three Worlds Theory" that underpinned the strategy at a meeting with President Kaunda of Zambia. When the world was divided into capitalist and communist states, Mao said, Africa was part of an "intermediate zone." But since the Soviets had abandoned the revolutionary cause, the struggle between the two super-powers had become less ideological and more nationalistic, which re-oriented the pattern of incentives for international alliances - red or not, states that were disadvantaged by the international status quo were natural partners:
"[T]he greatest threat to world peace lies in the rivalry of the two super powers, the USSR and U.S., for world hegemony, whereas China and other Asian, African and Latin American countries constitute the "Third World." In order to oppose hegemonism in the interest of world peace, it is necessary for China to unite first and foremost the third world countries including African countries as well as the second world countries; and the more the better."
The list of contents actually gives a nice precis of the argument:
Here is some footage of Mao meeting with African leaders of various persuasions (including the Congolese President at 04:50 and Heile Selassie at 12:13):
The Chinese habit of overlooking ideological disagreements with post-colonial African governments all but collapsed during the Cultural Revolution, when China's relations with the outside world were dragged along by the currents of domestic conflict.
Most of the aid went to the poorest, most stridently socialist yet anti-Soviet regimes, such as in Guinea, Mali, and Somalia. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story:
This new assertiveness required a new theoretical rationale. The "Three Worlds Theory" was essentially defensive, insofar as it called on "third-" and "second-world" states to align in response to a future war caused by super-power competition. China's riskier policy of intervening and undermining potential allies was justified by Mao's heir-apparent, Marshal Lin Biao.
In 1965, to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of WWII - what the Chinese refer to as "the War of Resistance Against Japan" - Lin wrote a pamphlet entitled Long Live the Victory of People's War.
In this collection of essays, Lin contends that what happened in China before 1949 is now taking place on a global scale: the "world cities" are being encircled by the "world countryside." In other words, now that China was being thoroughly revolutionised from within, the world was ripe for the oppressed to rise against their oppressors, whether they be super-power proxies or national bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, Moscow's brutal suppression of the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 provided a timely reminder of its own imperial baggage.
But it came at a price. In the same year that Lin's pamphlet became the new required reading for Red Guards, the attempt to organise a second Afro-Asian summit in Algiers fell through.
The conference was due to convene in June, but a military coup only weeks beforehand deposed Algeria's independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella and left participating nations divided over whether it was still appropriate for them to attend. In a show of naked self-interest, Beijing lobbied hard for the conference to proceed as scheduled, because they were worried that any delay would give President Nasser of Egypt a chance to lobby for Russian attendance. China's diplomatic insensitivity divided the group of nations further - even President Nyere of Tanzania, ordinarily a staunch ally, denounced China's opportunism - and a follow-up to Bandung never materialised.
One of the factors complicating the Angolan civil war was the attempt by South Africa's white rulers to install "friendly" governments in their neighbouring states, who would co-operate in stemming the flow of money and arms going to the independence movement inside Namibia.
Besides ethnolinguistic divisions, the three main movements for national liberation in Angola were differentiated by their Cold War backers: the MPLA were supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba (who provided ground troops), whilst the U.S. sponsored (with C.I.A. support) a tenuous alliance between the Pretoria-backed UNITA and the staunchly anti-communist FNLA.
Here is an episode from the CNN Cold War series which focuses on specific 'Third World' conflicts and provides a good overview of Cold War dynamics in Angola (starting at 20:10):
But China quickly acquired a reputation for cynical and opportunistic meddling in these countries' internal affairs, ironically because its interventions were too ideological in nature. China's professed commitment to support the most revolutionary groups in any conflict incentivised increasingly unrepresentative and extremist splinter groups to come to the fore; as these groups unravelled, China was forced to bit the bullet and switch its support to less likely allies - including the FNLA leader Holden Roberto, whom China had once dismissed as a "CIA tool" - which led to a fresh round of recriminations and accusations of "selling out."
"The need to compromise with reality in independent Africa could be set against continuing support for revolutionary movements fighting for independence in the Portuguese territories and in southern Africa... But the facts are that Chinese support for these movements has been sparing, conditional and always given, not according to merit, but according to the dictates of the Sino-Soviet dispute... Her actions were seen as meddlesome and cynical."
Gerald Segal writes:
Having backed their enemies, the PRC finally established diplomatic relations with the MPLA-led government of Angola in 1983.
Yet Chinese engagement with Africa during this period did yield other, more durable legacies, such as the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, or "Tazara."
At the time of its construction, the Tazara was the biggest foreign infrastructure project in Africa since the Soviets built the Aswan High Dam, using the labour of 15,000 technicians. Most of the construction technology and clearing vehicles were Chinese imports, but Chinese workers themselves made up less than a third of the workforce.
It ran for 1800km, across 2500 bridges and through 21 major tunnels, linking the landlocked Zambian copperbelt directly to the Tanzanian coast, facilitating the export of precious metals and minerals without the need to pass through white-ruled Rhodesia.
Here is a Chinese map of the seaward route:
Here is how the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, described the project in a speech to inaugurate its construction on October 28th 1970:
Nevertheless, these high-profile projects were the exception rather than the rule, as China sharply curtailed its aid to Africa from the late '70s. More recently, this BBC documentary foreshadows the return of Chinese technicians to upgrade the railway, which has re-ignited the same kind of accusations that Nyerere rejected over forty years ago:
Whilst China seemed to abandon Africa in the late Mao, and early post-Mao, period in order to focus on its ailing domestic economy, the CPC leadership came to believe that petroleum was the country's only industry with the potential for immediate expansion.
|Yu Qiuli inspecting equipment|
In his book The Search for Modern China, Jonathan D. Spence describes the group's importance in the key debates that shaped China's "reform and opening":
This short film by U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration illustrates some of the ways in which the U.S. was pushing the boundaries in ways that would have especially interested Chinese policymakers confronting decades of under-resourced and over-used oilfields - policymakers who were, according to Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael Oksenberg, searching for "equipment which permitted improved secondary and tertiary development of a field."
|Gulf of Guinea oil platform, Angola|
I have tried to show in the preceding section how changing expectations of global demand and supply led to a rebalancing of power and influence among competing ministries in the Chinese state, and that once "the near monopoly of petroleum was broken", opportunities opened up for a more evenly balanced growth strategy. Here is how Liberthal and Oksenberg summarise this argument:
|Chinese-built junction, Kenya|
As the LSE China specialist Chris Alden has noted:
If China's trading partners in Africa were to sever their ties, this would likely reduce Chinese growth rates, and, as a knock-on effect, lower global growth, which in turn would be expected to reduce world prices for Africa's raw materials. It would also likely have some effect on the so-called "resource curse" in particular African states that are overly reliant on a few natural resources to power their economies.
Hence it seems to me that if the China-Africa economic relationship carries the risk of exacerbating certain anti-developmental processes already at work on the continent, we should also remember that it contains the prospect of overcoming these. For example, Alden notes that:
But I agree with Deborah Brautigam - author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa - that a crucial determinant seems to be the political will of individual African states to challenge Chinese investors where national interests are imperfectly aligned, to enforce decent working conditions and wages (such as the Ethiopian government has done), and to investigate reports of abuses by Chinese managers and workers without succumbing to dangerous populism. Moreover, it is notable that China stopped opposing the deployment of peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan under pressure from a galvanised African Union, rather than from other external actors.
Here is a talk she gave during an IQ-squared debate last year, opposing the motion "Beware of the dragon: Africa should not look to China":
According to Alden, China is seen as a consistent and reliable trading partner on the continent, in contrast with Western development agencies which are perceived as being too short-term oriented: "[W]hat is striking about China's discourse about development partnership is that it has proved to be notably resilient in being constant over time as opposed to the chameleon pattern of shifting Western development discourse." This needs to be borne in mind whenever we hear about Chinese-built "ghost cities" in places like Angola; substantial risks are being borne by both sides.
On balance, I am hopeful for the future of China-Africa relations. I hope that it can move beyond trite statements about the inherent shared interests of underdeveloped nations and become a creative, long-term partnership based on an honest recognition of shared, and divergent, interests. To steal a phrase from Zhou Enlai, it is still to early to tell.