By Amrithavarshini Venkatesh
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
The Congolese Minister for construction likes one thing more than the riches he has acquired over his years in office and his tailor made exquisite suits – the Chinese flooding into his country. In Congo, China has built the Alphonese Massadena stadium, the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters, an airport, apartment buildings and Brazaville’s entire water system. The minister is responsible for housing improvement in Brazaville, and he happens to have only outlined a larger plan for the project. The Chinese Shandong based ‘Weihai International Economic and Technical Cooperative’ has taken these projects up. With fifteen such projects, China has managed to revolutionise the infrastructure in Congo-Brazaville. Their GDP has risen by six percent. The Congolese minister then makes a public statement to the press ‘It’s a win-win situation!’
Employees of the Chinese consortium CITIC-CRCC are working around the clock in Algeria. They started work on a 528 kilometer highway running east-west across the whole country on September 18 2006. Today’s Algeria, only few years after its massacre in its bloody civil war is trying its best to turn its back on terrorism and embrace oil. They collect $60 billion every year as revenues from oil and invest this money in infrastructure, most of which has projects whose lion’s share goes to Chinese companies. The highway project in Algeria is the largest construction project ever to be undertaken in the country and at its peak employed nearly 75000 people.
In Cameroon, the Chinese built all the country’s stadiums, offered the local police new motorbikes and restored the water supply network. In addition to this, they took care of the health of the Cameroon people as well. They’ve built hospitals and clinics in the most inaccessible regions in the country. In the realm of transportation, China has supplied the capital city with 28 ultra modern buses. The China Road and Bridge corporation has restored roads and sidewalks in Cameroon. People in Cameroon feel that there hasn’t been a single aspect of their life that the Chinese haven’t upgraded, replaced or otherwise improved by the Chinese intervention.
These three of many such examples of China’s influence in Africa show us the extent of Chinese investments in African countries. not only are such investments being made, they are actually going a long way into developing African infrastructure. This has also led to African leaders trusting the Chinese, especially over the Americans and the west. A fundamental question regarding such investments and their effects on African dependence on the Chinese to ask – Is China exhibiting imperial arrogance through economics?
Although many argue that this is the new scramble for Africa through economic imperialism, this can be disagreed with. Such criticism is misplaced in its own way. Western led developmental projects, even though of well meaning have not been able to pull Africa out of its under developed nature. Moreover, Africa is less likely to trust the west as a result of their past experiences with white people. In the light of this, China’s methods show light for an alternative way forward. Also, the west has insisted on aid with strings in Africa, where they have expected democracies to precede developmental aid. However, China approaches this problem in a different way. They focus first on economic development before liberal strategies, just as they did in China.
As a result of such Chinese involvement in Africa, we see that China has flooded African markets with cheap consumer goods made in China, which can be afforded by the African populous. We can analyse China’s decisions from a simple economic perspective that benefits both China and Africa, where labour costs rise in China, so they seek new ground for production in Africa, where they sell cheap products. We can therefore conclude that Chinese strategies are made for sound business reasons as opposed to colonial reasons.
It has been argued that there is a new scramble for Africa, and that there are but subtle differences between the one from the 19th century and the one we see now. Criticism of China includes the fact that this new colonialism follows similar patterns of the past – a scramble for resources initiated by industrialisation of the colonising countries. Western critics feel that the only difference happens to be between the use of arms and brute force and that of provision of economic and humanitarian aid.
One could argue against these criticisms however. To begin with, former colonial powers have no right to lecture China on Africa. Moreover, the fact that they preach competition to the world should be the reason why they should not complain if China has outbid them in terms of African resources. On the other hand, regarding the idea of economic imperialism, the idea that its similar to colonialism in the past should be rejected because the approaches of the past and the present are fundamentally different. It isn’t a subtle but fundamental difference in the ways the west approached Africa and China is approaching Africa. The west was violent towards African people, and even committed massacres to exert complete control of the continent. They never cared for African economic development and structurally destabilised African self sufficiency. The development from this point onwards in Africa requires a stronghold. This is being provided by the Chinese, who actually choose to foster economic growth in Africa. Moreover, an interesting point would be to note that the Chinese ship their own workers into Africa to work in their companies as well as recruit Africans, as opposed to exploiting African people.
Another very important and deciding factor that contributes to how we judge whether this mirrors colonialism is how people react to it. Colonialism was never welcomed by people in the past, irrespective of where it was practised. However, research shows that ten Saharan countries welcome Chinese presence in the African continent even over the masses, showing that China has been beneficial to the African public.
While it may be true that they prioritise their development first, they have realised that their way to sustain their development is through the development of African nations as well, as that s what is conducive to their investments. Questions have been raised about how African workers are treated by Chinese companies, but it is only fair to argue that economic development requires tradeoffs. Some of these tradeoffs include that of compromising human rights and labour laws. Also, the Chinese culture is to work without leisure, which is what has resulted in much of their development, and they are trying to integrate this culture with the African, without corroding their culture in the process of revival or impressing upon them.
Why then does China not demand that African governments institute changes in government like the west does? China maintains its position that people cannot ‘eat democracy’ and that is the reason why it does not demand that African nations make changes to their government. It claims that it believes in fostering economic development in the African nations. This just reflects China’s own philosophy that economic progress comes before any so called political progress. Many Chinese officials, analysts and businessmen find the West’s overwhelming emphasis on democracy, governance, transparency in Africa amusing. To the West, they would ask an innocent but critical question: “for people who do not have food on the table, what’s the point of having democracy?” Using its own experience of subjugating political liberalization to the “higher cause” of economic development, one can argue that China’s approach to Africa as one that prioritizes the provision of basic elements of development, completely legitimate and fully justified.
Therefore through looking at the Economic perspective of China being in Africa, it is almost impossible to determine the nature of China’s involvement in the African continent. However, we now follow the other avenue that China is using to gain support in Africa, which looks more like imperialism – the arms trade.
Violence, divide and rule, control of resources. Very similar to the policies of western colonial powers, China through its arms trade relationship with African nations comes closer than ever to neo-colonialism. To understand the similarities, we first need to see why powers in the past scrambled for Africa. The simple response was resources and raw material. Right now however, power is mirrored by who control oil resources and has developed nuclear technology, be it for energy or weaponry. Africa has the answer to these two questions. They have deposits of Uranium and oil resources. We see again, a literal scramble for Africa, where China is in the race for these resources along with France and Britain.
Through its arms trade, China is gaining the upper hand in this race. They’re competing with only the United states in terms of the arms they sell. They are the leaders in the arms trade, especially of small arms and light weapons to over forty three African countries. Apart from this, they give leaders of African dictatorial governments tanks, fighters and military technology.
What interests does China preserve through this trade?
First, China sells arms to rebels who wish to overthrow dictators, not to establish democracies but to set up their puppet regimes. This has resulted in the dictators themselves going back again to China for aid and support. China then lays its terms with respect to uranium mining permits, and oil drilling. Following this, they supply the government with arms, aiding them in crushing the rebels. This is what happened in 2006, when China offered Sudanese rebels arms to overthrow Idris Deby in Chad. When the rebels tried overthrowing Deby, the French support for Deby managed to suppress the rebels. Scared however, Deby approached China for future help and military support. China, in exchange for such a bargain seized the opportunity and shut the diplomatic door on Taiwan by gaining permits to oil resources in Chad. China therefore eliminates competition. However only into the near future, the rebels attacked again, only to find that their government, whom China encouraged them to overthrow, now had the unconditional backing of the Chinese. Such an indiscriminate arms trade has led to violence in Africa and China being able to gain monopoly over their resources.
Another appalling situation that China has been a part of is trading arms to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, when he promised fair elections. When China sent a shipload of weapons to Africa, South Africa tried stopping it from reaching its destination, Zimbabwe, in vain. The continent tried to express its solidarity towards human rights by disagreeing with the decision to transport the weapons to Zimbabwe. However, China, despite all that, got its weapons through to Zimbabwe and helped Robert Mugabe intimidate his opposition and consolidate his position in Zimbabwe.
Favourite business partners of the Chinese in the Arms trade happen to be Sudan and Zimbabwe. This helps their people in no way whatsoever, and only causes their conditions to recede, much like what happened to the African people when the west divided them. China is also setting a precedent for other nations to compete with it and enter this race, viz. Brazil, India and South Korea, much like Britain and France did in the past with Africa in the nineteenth century. This makes it more like imperialism of the past than ever.
China in this area maintains that it abides by international regulations. This although, is allegedly because they don’t maintain records enough of their trade in arms, especially small arms and light weapons. Moreover, China recognises these governments as legitimate as opposed to the United Nations or western countries not doing so.
To make this worse, this race for oil and uranium has brought the world to the situation of another cold war, one between the United States and China. Various issues around the world have seen the United States and China taking opposing sides. And as fuel to fire, China and Russia have joined hands.
This really brings us to the question of whether or not Chinese involvement in Africa is necessary. On the one hand, we see both china and Africa reaping economic benefits. On the other hand, we see China creating more divide. We now consider the two arguments put forth as to how China is colonising Africa. First being economics, second being weapons. Such Chinese influence seems very promising to the outside, but slowly will turn against its initial purposes. China is giving impetus to an age of neo-colonialism.
In the economics case, it is arguable that China is merely promoting its interests through promoting African interests, which colonialism has never done. China’s economic engagement in Africa has created significant benefits for African countries. Most importantly, Beijing has considerable capacity and willingness to provide financing to fuel Africa’s growth. During his recent trip, Xi reconfirmed China’s commitment to provide another $20 billion in financing to Africa. China usually attaches a significant amount of such funding to infrastructure projects, which forms the foundation for Africa’s industrialization and economic development. Many of these projects require large investment and long pay-back terms that traditional donors are reluctant to provide.
In the case of the arms trade however, the story is different. So the solution isn’t really to regret Chinese influence or try and fight it, but is for governments to avoid giving China a free pass in terms of what they do and how they treat Africa. It is true that China is playing to the interests of the dictators, but it is in their position to be responsible and draw a line because China is the only hope of economic development Africa has in terms of who is capable of helping Africa develop.
Amrithavarshini is a 19 year old with a passion for debate and theatre and immense hatred for bugs of all shapes and colours. Sharp in her thoughts and loud in both words and actions, when she is not lambasting anti feminist rhetoric, calling out hypocrisy or eating Malai Kofta, she can be found on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras where she is pursuing an Integrated Masters in Developmental Economics in the Humanities Department.