China in Africa, Hearts and Minds

Why all the noise about China in Africa now, when China has had good relations with Africa since the 1950s?

Pang Zhongying, Professor of International Studies, Nankai University

China’s chairman Hu Jintao is on another Africa trip from February 10th to 17th, with scheduled stops in Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius. The Chinese embassy to the U.S. quotes China’s assistant foreign minister Zhai Jun as saying that energy cooperation is only part of Sino-African cooperation.

Senegal was one of the battlegrounds between China and Taiwan for diplomatic relations with African states (Beijing doen’t maintain formal ties with governments which recognize Taiwan). Senegal had switched diplomatic relations from China to Taiwan in the past, and back to China in 2005.

Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador in Senegal, on February 5th, made the same point as Zhai Jun about Beijing’s relations with African countries: “China doesn’t only come to Africa for the natural resources and markets. (…) Senegal isn’t rich in natural resources, although there is iron ore, but that isn’t mined by China, but by the Europeans, by Arcor Mittal. There is gold, but it isn’t mined by China, but by the Canadians. So, China isn’t coming to Africa only for natural resources and markets.”

But China is encountering some image problems, just as other outsiders in Africa may do. There are people who feel that they have got the short end of the stick in African-Chinese relations, and make no secret of their feelings.About fifty Senegalese in Guangzhou took the opportunity of Hu Jintao’s visit and tossed a turd into the punchbowl, complaining about unfair treatment in the wake of the Olympic Games. Ever since the Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities had refused to renew their visas, according to Ms Mbèye Ndiaye, speaking for the Senegalese living in Guangzhou, and talking with a local Senegalese radio station, RFM (apparently this one). They didn’t dare to leave their houses in Guangzhou any more, and the police didn’t hesitate to chase them just up to (or into) their flats. Ndiaye hoped that, during Hu Jintao’s visit, Senegal’s politicians would make sure that she and her compatriots could either live in peace in China, or that measures would be taken to re-patriate them to Senegal.

If caught, they faced prison for fifty days unless they paid 350,000 FCFA (Central African Francs), said Ndiaye.

Seneweb, the source reporting about Ndiaye’s interview or talk with RFM doesn’t describe the role of the Senegalese in Guangzhou – they might be business people, or overseas students. For sure, most of the comments underneath the article aren’t exactly China-friendly.

One however criticizes the original source of the article, (which is harder to read than seneweb, because there are too many plug-ins required): “Bravo, Nettali. You encourage repressions against the Chinese in Dakar. (…..) Encourage hate and racism. Bravo / Shame on you.” And neither seneweb nor nettali seem to be too familiar with the issue itself: They spell Guangzhou “Ghaounwazou”, apparently blindly transcripting the RFM’s radio program. Comment No. 20 points that out. There is also an argument about how factual the complaints are.

One commenter (No. 27) sees problems at home – and in Europe:

“The problem is that the Senegalese government is niak diom (irresponsible). In places abroad like France, Italy, or China, Senegalese people have to go through a lot for getting a visa or employment, but when a foreigner comes to Senegal, he is allowed to do anything during a long, free stay or his sex trip. That’s the real shame! Arise, Senegalese people! You are ruled by servants of France!

Maybe the next Globalscan survey will be made in Africa. Hard to tell from here who Africa’s bigger devil – the one they’ve known for centuries, or the new one.

China’s investment in Africa now stands at $1.5 billion a year, there are at least 700 Chinese enterprises operating on the continent, and China’s trade with Africa is approaching $50 billion, according to [Peter] Lewis [director of African Studies at the Johns Hopkins University]. This has made China the second-largest trading partner with sub-Saharan Africa, eclipsing one of the continent’s former colonial powers, Britain, which formerly enjoyed the highest economic profile in Africa. (VoA News)

Western governments and corporations competing for influence in Africa might still hold an advantage over China – but only if they avoid a mistake frequently made by them in the past, and by the Chinese government now. In the long run, it won’t be the relations among governments and elites alone that will count. Africa in general may profit from Chinese engagement once China’s own political system becomes less corrupt – but that can take a while, if it is ever to happen. Meantime, other stakeholders should offer Africa better terms of trade than in the past – terms that don’t only favor Africa’s oligarchs. If that happens, international competition with China for African resources and markets (let’s face it, this is what counts most after all) may actually begin to serve African countries.

But that might require changing some habits on the ground:

“I can’t count the number of times I spoke with people in South Africa or Kenya or Mozambique, who explicitly made the comparison between Chinese traders – some of whom had actually been sleeping in the market – and Western expatriates…who are viewed very differently than small-scale Chinese traders.” [Joshua Kurlantzick, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.]
Many Western expatriates in Africa live in relative luxury, and are resented by some Africans for their apparent efforts to isolate themselves from the communities amongst which they work. (VoA News)

Let’s learn from president Bush.

OK – cracks aside. Conservatism may be something appreciated in Africa indeed, and most Chinese people probably do have a rather conservative attitude. But the official statements made by China’s diplomats – that Chinese engagement in Africa isn’t just about markets – is underpinned by their volunteering concept. Mauritius for example is one of China’s traditional diplomatic relations, and it’s the first place in Africa where five Chinese nationals volunteered to teach Chinese in 2004.

And while the Senegalese may have bigger problems with getting visas in China than other foreigners (the problem isn’t quite unfamiliar for Westerners either), and while the economic crisis may have an impact on global trade for a while, China has reasons to stay in Africa.

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