How have China-African relations changed in the past 50 years?


Fifty years ago, China’s first Premier Zhou Enlai paid his first visit to Africa. Recently, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid official visits to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya. Between then and now, a lot of things have changed: China has become the second most powerful economy in the world, and alongside its growth, is helping Africa globalise on a more equal footing with the rest of the world.

Thanks to China-Africa “Win-Win South-South Co-operation”, Angola has become the fastest growing economy in Africa; Nigeria has just been proclaimed the biggest economy on the continent; and the process of industrialisation has been kick-started in Ethiopia, South Africa and elsewhere Chinese companies have set up factories of local production. 

Fifty years ago, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai proclaimed in Mali that “Africa has stood up”, a reference to Chairman Mao’s Independence Day speech in which he said that China had stood up, and that nobody would ever put China down again. 

It is broadly true that Africa has achieved political independence, but it still has a lot of work to do in order to achieve economic independence – for as Patrice Lumumba said, “Political independence is meaningless without economic independence”. Such independence would start with food security, infrastructure, a vibrant middle class and entrepreneurship; as well as the development of African technology for natural and mineral resources, used to create jobs and markets at national, regional, continental and global levels. With 20 percent arable land, China manages to feed 1.3 billion people and still exports food. Such great agricultural expertise could be shared with African countries to achieve food sufficiency. Africa can find solutions to many varied problems in the framework of China-Africa relations. Just one example is that of China building satellites to enhance security and agriculture – not only for African countries (including Nigeria), but also for Latin America. 

It is now clear that China, which has surpassed the West as Africa’s biggest trading partner – trade between China and Africa surpassed US$200 billion in 2013 – can never be dissociated from African trade. China’s high levels of capital, expertise and technological advancement ensure it has a great role to play in Africa’s continuing growth. When playing the role of a catalyst for African emergence, the effects will boomerang back to China – as long as Africans play their part by concurrently turning their backs on corruption and uniting against poverty and underdevelopment.

Some Westerners criticise Chinese “neo-colonialism” in Africa. However, this is because they are still thinking from a colonialist perspective, and observing the world with a Cold War mentality. The “China threat theory” is also the “China-Africa threat theory”, as the policies the Western powers adopt vis-à-vis China are exactly the same as those they adopt vis-à-vis Africa – such as the “pivot to Asia” or “Asian rebalance”, and “the African military command”. The objective in both cases is the same: military build up to contain China in the case of Asian rebalance, and to contain Africa in the case of AFRICOM. This policy is especially focused on countries rich in natural resources, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo – the idea being both to contain it, and to instrumentalise neighbours to that end. In terms of resources, it benefits the West to approach Africa with a colonialist mentality and the rest of the world with a Cold War mentality, as without the wealth of resource-rich Africa, the future of the West would be bleak indeed. For instance, coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo is an essential part of the mobile phones, satellites, and drones made and used by Western countries, but it has become “deadly” for the Congolese people. The “coltan war” has already cost 8 million lives in the DRC. For this and similar reasons, resource wars have been fomented there and now the West would have people believe that they can spend millions of dollars on humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect, in the course of disarming the same rebels and feeding the same refugees that they created through their resource mining. If that money were spent on development projects, Africa in general and the DRC in particular would be quite different. For this and many similar reasons, the West frets about the Chinese approach to Africa: common development, as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang describes it. 

Not long ago, I challenged someone at a conference who criticised Chinese state-owned companies for sub-contracting private companies in Africa. My contention was that there is no problem with contractors, as long as they are working in development. Meanwhile, AFRICOM put up an advert recruiting military sub-contractors in Niger. Clearly, there is a greater need in Africa for peace and development than for military bases as in the colonial times. In this respect, Chinese foreign policy has a big advantage over that of the US in placing more emphasis on common development, whilst the US emphasises militarisation. 

Premier Li Keqiang said that relations between China and Africa have entered a “golden period”, with both sides benefiting from co-operation. However, I would argue that the relationship is still upgrading, because China-Africa relations have future growth potential, particularly in increasing economic cooperation.

Take the DRC, my country, alone. This is a country that could be the economic engine of the continent. Since the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by Western powers using local hands, until today, the DRC has been prevented from playing that role. This is due in part to some problems in the east of the country, related to neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. Nevertheless, generally the DRC is open for win-win economic cooperation. Hopefully, China would be the first to “press the button” on the DRC in terms of investments, and in doing so kick start the development of the whole continent. Other African countries could view the DRC not as a threat and potential rival, but as the “economic engine” of the whole continent. The DRC’s Inga Dam alone could provide electricity – without which, as we know, there can be no development – to the whole of Africa. 

Chinese leaders have emphasised that developing countries form a strong component of China’s foreign policy, and have attached particular importance to Africa, with a large measure of Chinese diplomacy focused on the continent, making it deeply important in Chinese global relations. The recently-developed narrative of “tripartite co-operation” supposes that China and the West will co-operate in Africa, to help Africa. I wish it the best of luck, and hopefully the West’s Cold War mentality will dissipate so that this can happen and succeed. But I personally believe that China and Africa have always taken a common stance on many global issues. A memorable example was the act of bravery African countries demonstrated for China to regain its seat at the UN Security Council. Since then, China and Africa have always spoken with one voice with regard to environmental issues, such as cutting carbon emissions when at the Cancun Summit, and supporting Africa’s permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

Although China has become the second-largest economy in the world, Africa will still be a supporting pillar of China’s diplomatic strategy. Those who say China is losing its great common ground with African countries will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Africa cannot do without China; and China cannot do without Africa.

Take the case of Zambian President Michael Sata. During the presidential campaign he adopted a very anti-Chinese stance (by the way, it was in Zambia that Hilary Clinton warned Africans to beware of China’s new forms of colonialism). When Sata became president, his realistic pragmatism overruled his campaign slogans and he has since made an official visit to China. Today, Chinese investments are still flowing into Zambia. Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, also recently made some anti-Chinese comments in the Western media. Recently, Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Nigeria, and it is emerging as China’s largest trading partner in West Africa (in 2013, trade volume stood at US$13.5 billion). According to CCTV, Nigeria remains the biggest market for Chinese construction companies in Africa, and third biggest in terms of bilateral trade relations.

Soon after taking office last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Africa as the destination for his first trip as Head of State,showing his prioritising, in leadership, of “Win-Win South-South Co-operation” . Chinese support for Africa in its struggle for independence is due in no small part to their shared experience – and the notion that China and Africa still share the same future or destiny. 

Part of the secret, then, of the rapidly-developing and successful Chinese-African economic relations is that China treats African countries equally. China is an opportunity for Africa. “China is the brother who has gone ahead”, as one Zimbabwean diplomat told me. It has provided Africa with an alternative choice, which has helped African countries to make quick decisions and implement their development plans. At the same time, as Africa has many underdeveloped areas and sectors ripe for development, especially in comparison to China, there are many investment opportunities for China to find there. This is what I mean by win-win. Africans put the rules of the game clearly on the table for any partner who comes to Africa, and the Chinese usually operate within the framework of those rules, including those relating to environmental protection, quality of goods and workers’ quotas.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, the state keeps a 51-percent stake in every mining contract signed with external partners. Chinese investors have been all right with this rule, but Westerners (thinking they still own Africa) have rejected it, instead resorting to demonising the Zimbabwean leadership and imposing unjust and illegal sanctions on the country. The presence of China enables Africans to work with those who respect them in lieu of those who refuse to do so. 

For the continuing success and health of this relationship, I propose that China and African countries set up regional plans. No African country can develop alone, even if it is on bilateral good relations with China, the US, the EU or whoever. Regional cooperation is necessary for infrastructure and industrialisation to be launched at the same time. 

We should not wait until infrastructure is in place and then think of industrialisation; China did not wait until it had bullet trains to build an atomic bomb. In the end, we see that the development of China-Africa relations is positively influencing the rest of the world, and becoming a new model of international relations. In any conversation with European or American politicians these days, you can also hear the mantra of “win-win co-operation” with Africa, otherwise the West will be overtaken. And this has its roots in the lingering Western mentality of “ownership” of Africa, also manifested when Africans sign deals or do business with China.

* Antoine Roger Lokongo is a journalist and Beijing University PhD candidate from the Democratic Republic of Congo. This article is based on the CCTV Dialogue programme, in which this writer took part on May 5, 2014.

May 2014
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