Courting China for Africa Development: Following the Beijing Summit

Dr. Lawal M. Marafa



The Chinese University of Hong Kong


The recently concluded Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in Beijing has given China-sceptics further opportunities to comment and analyze the growing close relationship between Africa and China. Although official relationship between China and Africa dates back to more than 50 years, the recent foray is the one that have generated comments and scepticism from what I call China-sceptics. This is the third of such meetings with the first and second held in 2001 and 2003 respectively.


Following from the previous meetings as far back as 2001, great progress was made in follow-up actions according to the previous declarations and action plan immediately afterwards. There were increasing diverse consultation mechanisms at all levels. Trade volume grew between China and Africa reaching US$12.389 billion in 2002 and by 2006 it has grown to over US$40 billion. Regarding the African Human Resources Development Fund programme, China held nearly 300 training courses for about 7000 African professionals. China has also sent more than 500 experts and teachers to Africa since the first forum.


The reality these days is that the world economy is being shaped by China. This is done in earnest by new technologies, services, business and trading relations and poverty eradication strategies. China has since emerged significantly on the international trade scene and this to many people, presents a threat to the traditional western industrial dominance. This not withstanding, experts say, China’s share of manufacturing industry market could grow and reach about 25% in the next two decades.


Before I address the current trend of the Chinese engagement with Africa, it is important to note that for fifty years, China has been involved in almost all sectors covering Agriculture, Construction, Culture, Education, Development, etc. These have been in the form of aid, loans, etc. Statistics are clear on these and tangible impacts are discernible from agricultural projects in Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, infrastructure in Gabon, Liberia, Kenya, etc. to medical doctors in Tanzania, Angola to site a few examples.


On the other hand, from the period of colonization till date, it has been aid, grants, debt, etc., breeding corruption and leaving a legacy of incompetency. Apart from unstable political legacies and fuzzy boundaries that are still being debated in places like Bakassi, there is little to show as tangible assets of involvement. For the purpose of this brief article, I will use aid as an example and discuss trade and its prospects to further buttress my point on courting China for Africa Development.


In approaching the plight of Africa, there are clear differences between the framework of engagement by the west, development agencies and China. While the G8 meeting at Gleanagles, the Blair Commission and even the Band Aid portrayed the sorrow state of Africa in the last few years, the summit in Beijing had a positive undertone and made many Africans and African watchers optimistic and interested. Looking back at the highly advertised G8 summits and their often terse mention of Africa, it is not difficult to draw parallels at which China’s approach differ. The G8 most of who either colonised Africa or have been involved in Africa for over 100 years can be seen to have failed in helping to bring development to Africa and lift its people from perpetual economic doldrums.


The images visible in Beijing at that time were that of Africa being celebrated. What was exposed in Beijing was the culture, colour, diversity, resilience of people and the potential of the continent indicating that the continent will prevail. In addition, trade characteristics in terms of energy, dynamism and opportunity for businesses were similarly highlighted. On the contrary, where Africa is discussed in the west as has been seen in most summits, by both governments, international development agencies, etc., it is poverty, conflicts, wars, corruption, poor governance and hopelessness that are mostly tabled for deliberations.


At the time of the Beijing summit President Hu Jiantao met the leaders on bilateral settings, repeatedly underlying the importance of “political relations of equality and mutual trust’; broadening of ‘win-win economic cooperation with Africa’, ‘upgrading of human resource development’, ‘expansion of cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchanges’. In the history of engagement with Africa, such rhetoric has not been heard. But in dealing with China, these are statements that technocrats will turn into action. These when translated from the diplomatic verbose of modern governance, will go a long way in benefiting the people of Africa and China. For Africans in particular, the opening up of China in providing opportunities for education, sports and tourism; and the prospects of cooperation and mutual support in international affairs, will help the continent as it sets the agenda for itself under the auspices of the NEPAD framework. These indeed had similarly been recognised by the international community given that China was prominently represented in the Blair Commission for Africa.


Although the emphasis of the summit was on ‘Friendship, Peace, Development and Cooperation’, it is not difficult to paraphrase the theme and make trade and economy the hidden agenda that observers foresee. While this is not totally wrong, the approach has been acknowledged and even welcomed by African leaders. Following the summit meeting with President Hu Jintao, in interview after interview, African leaders claimed that it is China’s involvement in infrastructure development, in foreign direct investment through its own entrepreneurs, both large-scale and small, and in increased market access that has been making a difference in their countries.  Their approach and experience in small scale industry and micro economic programs should fascinate Africans and can be emulated.


Consequently, the significance of the summit can be evaluated in two aspects. In addition to the numerous trade agreements that were signed at the China-Africa Business Forum and the prospects of creating a joint chamber of commerce, China also highlighted its political, cultural and people-to-people perspectives on Africa featuring as a starter, a live performance on CCTV, China’s premier broadcaster attracting over one billion viewers across the globe. As the relationship evolves in a globalizing world and with China embracing more and more liberal market economy, China has in the last decade supplied vital elements in foreign direct investment.


It is on record that close to 700 Chinese companies are involved in Africa investing in booming sectors as mines, fishing, wood, telecom, oil as well as other sectors that have been neglected by the west. There is also a huge foray into the informal markets that currently characterizes the African economy. In this era of global trade and economic insurgence promoted and supported by the WTO, China is already a (global) brand. What China is doing now, is working hard to make its economic presence on the African content felt as has its political and aid activities.


So, for many African leaders, central element in the 8-point series of promises by the Chinese president at the Summit was the China-Africa Development Fund of US$5 billion to encourage Chinese businesses further to invest in Africa, and the planned establishment of 3-5 trade and economic cooperation zones. In this connection, it would not be regarded as anything but positive by many attending the Summit that China had reportedly committed US$8.1 billion to Africa in 2006. What is needed in reciprocal is for Africa through the AU organ to either provide a matching fund or create a framework for collectively benefiting from such largesse. In a series of proposals coming out of the summit, President Obasanjo has floated the idea of Africa-China Bank. Such a Bank can operate in the fashion of African Development Bank or Asian Development Bank with development programmes as the core theme. Already, the Grameen Bank (of Bangladesh) has successfully operated on a micro-credit venture; empowering people and alleviating poverty, the success of which was recognized by according the proprietor with a Noble price for peace 2006.


The experience and practice of the China-African Forum over the past six years since its founding indicate that it is not an empty-talk club according to He Wenping, Professor and Director at the African Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing. There are indicators that prove this assertion. These include scholarships, zero tariff, general increase in aid, etc. Even Jeffrey Sachs, the author of the book titled: “The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Lifetime” and Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals admitted that China’s role in Africa is positive and important. He observed that China has a very pragmatic approach in attacking issues. It gives fewer lectures and gives more practical help. Africa indeed, can borrow a leaf from their success thus far in poverty alleviation.


To this end, when governments and technocrats come to evaluate the outcomes of promises made at the summit, it will not be looking at only what China has fulfilled, but what Africa has contributed as counterpart. Discernible language in the structure of agreements mostly underlined “the two sides: agreed, welcomed, reaffirmed, recognised, decided, etc.” This shows a clear difference from the donor language that normally accompanies bilateral and multilateral agreements with Africa by its traditional western allies. While I am not holding fort for China and must caution that any relationship, bilateral and multilateral should be articulated and operated based on mutual agreements, the Africans should be encouraged to “make or to mar” the future of their own continent and resources.


Like Jeffrey Sachs, other scholars and commentators are quick to underline China’s pragmatism and its strong hold and intervention in key sectors that are strategic to economic development and that tend to shape its comparative advantage in the international economy. With this growing close relationship, the Africans will, with time acquire this pragmatism. But the fact is that China’s success cannot be emulated without a stable government and policy, without a long-term commitment to growth rather than what is now commonplace in the short-term pursuit of wealth by the ruling elites.


Finally, nobody should condone authoritarian governments and policies that are not trickling dividends to the grass root level. But regimes with strong grip as we have seen in Singapore and China have and are delivering development to hitherto undeveloped populations and same can be said in respect of Malaysia. To this end, Chinas phenomenal growth success story should make us question the traditional western style market economics and its application to developing world and in particular Africa. Among what China has used to its advantage is knowledge based growth that orchestrates development and produces and maintains a creative class that helps the system grow. In Africa, there is enormous potential to use policies, knowledge and the creative class that is abundant on African streets.


Let me end this brief with some anecdotal phrases that sums up the African position: noting the diligence of the Chinese people and the dexterity with which they drive investment in Africa and the rest of the world, an African senior official (from Sierra Leone) commented that “the Chinese don’t seem to rest’ and “we could learn from that”, and I agree with that. In another note, President Mugabe told a crowd in Zimbabwe that as Africans (I suppose), “we have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets”…. …… how philosophical indeed, even though it is coming from Mr. Mugabe.