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China’s Engagement With Africa?



A recent online search found over 51 million articles on China and Africa, making it one of the most recognized and talked about international engagement. However, the engagement is not without controversy. This is particularly true as Western headlines portray exploitative relationship: Is China Good or Bad for Africa? China in Africa: Collaboration or Colonialism? China in Africa: Investment or Exploitation? China Aid to Africa: Monster or Messiah? Clinton warns against ‘new colonialism’ in Africa. Just before his visit to Africa in March, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson sang the same tune accusing China of using “loan practices,” undermining growth and generating few if any employment in Africa. In Ethiopia, Tillerson charged the Chinese with offering “opaque” project loans that enhance debt without offering significant training. Also, China is accused of bringing its own workers or “grabbing” African land to grow food to send back to feed the Chinese people. This brings me to my fundamental question: Does China really deserve a finger pointing in its engagement with Africa? China’s approach to economic cooperation with Africa is diametrically opposed to the approach linked with colonialism that is based on the principle of restricting territorial access and trade to protect the interest of the metropolis. Having said that, I think African nations are mature enough to measure their own willingness to cooperate with any nation. African nations have grown to accept the fact that their engagement with China is about productivity, economic growth, and development.

China presents itself as a partner that has never colonized Africa nor enslaved any African nations. And it emphasizes the fact that it is a developing nation, so it understands the numerous issues Africa’s developing nations’ face. African nations are being treated by China with a level of respect that all leaders crave. African nations never had the level of attention and treatment they are getting from the Chinese before. China remains a life support machine for African nations through its development projects. China supports, while relatively invisible to the ordinary person, but has been building for over a decade. In terms of training, China has been active in sharing knowledge with African nations. This is as a result of the fact that in the past China has given a lot of concessionary loans to Africa nations, but nowadays, China wants African people to have the capacity to create wealth for themselves – that is why training is now the core in China-Africa cooperation. For instance, since the mid-1990s, China has been supporting the capacity building for African nations by engaging in the scale of technical training as well as offering scholarships to African students to study in China. That is why when Africans are thinking about technology and skills acquisition, they are thinking of China as a valid alternative.

In terms of employment opportunity, surveys show that over three-quarters of the workers in China projects in Africa are, actually local. This makes business sense. In China, textile workers now earn over $500 a month – higher than workers in numerous African nations. Chinese investors are flocking to set up factories in low-cost nations like Ethiopia and are not thinking about importing Chinese workers. Like the United States and European factory owners who moved their factories to China in the past. Chinese companies are presently outsourcing their own manufacturing to cheaper nations and in turn, reshaping Africa’s manufacturing sector and turning “Made in China” into “Made in Africa”; Ethiopia is a prime example. Chinese investors in diverse manufacturing and service sectors of Kenyan economy employ a majority of local workers and having the policy to localize its labour force.

In terms of loan practices, record from John Hopkins University shows that China had lent at least $95.5 billion to African nations between 2000 and 2015. A lot of people might say that is a lot of debt. Yet by and large, the Chinese loans according to the record from John Hopkins University database were performing a meaningful service: funding Africa’s serious infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure. Most of these projects were not airports with no passengers, or bridges to nowhere; they were projects that are currently reshaping African economies. Chinese loans generally have comparatively low-interest rates and long payment periods. Chinese loan is reshaping Africa based on the fact that infrastructure is certainly an enabler of growth and, in the face of financial constraints from public sources, China’s loan presents a better way to obtain infrastructure. IMF calculates that growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been very impressive over the past decade, especially in the mid-2000s when GDP growth averaged close to 7 percent. This was due in large part to China’s infrastructure investment.

Still, speaking of infrastructure investment, Chinese recently constructed the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway. The railway reduced travel time significantly – freight transit time will be between 10-12 hours, down from three days – other expected economic benefits include reduced demurrage fees, and improved regional economic integration and people-to-people relations; the West did the opposite during the colonial period. During the colonial period, rather than the colonial government improving African infrastructure to encourage regional economic integration and people-to-people relations and enable growth, they would rather improve the transportation system connecting Africa to European metropolises in order to had immediate effect on the reduction of transfer costs of manufactured goods from the center to colonies and raw materials from Africa to metropolises. Easy access to imports African raw materials explained why there was no incentive to develop local manufacturing in Africa during the colonial period. China is offering to lend for the purpose of building infrastructure that can be used to pull many out of poverty. The Chinese leadership does not hide behind phony altruism the way the West does. The Belt and Road policy is a pretty clear signpost about how China sees the role of an economic superpower. The West has lost its power and it is clear that the West wealth was entirely due to violent colonialism. The West knows this, and that is why there is such a (poor) charm offensive to try and win African hearts and minds away from Chinese investment. Because Africa is the last financial hope for Western Nations dying empire, and even that appears to be slipping away.

In terms of “land grabs” – a term employed for any purchase, rental or theft of relatively large amounts of land – are controversial around the world, but especially in Africa, where the colonial powers such as France and Britain grabbed almost the entire continent. The narrative that China was presently a “land grabber” in Africa seemed to make sense After all, China has 9 percent of the world’s arable land, 6 percent of its water and over 20 percent of its people. Africa has plentiful land and the world’s largest areas of underutilized land and water. And Chinese firms were obviously interested in investing in Africa; some came to inquire about land. Nonetheless, there have been diverse media reports stating that China is grabbing African lands in nations such as Congo where China recently purchase half of the farmland under cultivation and Kenya where China has rented land to move some one million peasants to Africa. Are all these media reports true?

Deborah Brautigam recent study will help us answer this question. She carried out a research to find out if these rumors were true by collecting a database of 57 cases where Chinese companies (or the government) were alleged to have acquired or negotiated large (over 500 hectares) amount of African farmland. If all these media reports had been true, this would have amounted to a very alarming 6 million hectares –1 percent of all the farmland in Africa. She and her team spent three years tracking down every single case. She confirmed that almost a third of these narratives were literally not true. She also asserts that the stories of large-scale land grabbing and Chinese peasants being shipped to Africa to grow food for China turned out to be mostly myths. That China is not a dominant investor in plantation agriculture in Africa, in contrast to how it is frequently portrayed. Above all, Deborah found a narrative of globalization, and not colonization; a narrative of African agency, rather than Chinese rapacity. Chinese loans are powering Africa, and Chinese companies are creating employment. Chinese agricultural investment is far more modest than reported and welcome by Africans.