For years, many in the West have accused China of grabbing land, extracting resources and neo-colonialism in Africa.
Hillary Clinton, then-US secretary of state, made a veiled attack on China during her visit to Africa last August, when she said “the days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century”.
The many seminars on China and Africa I have attended over the years in the United States more often than not have sent a similar message, although, ironically, Chinese and African speakers were often absent at these talks. When they are present, as they were at the Brookings Institution in Washington last month, the mood and message are totally different.
Chinese, African and American speakers talked about win-win-win, instead of a zero-sum game, in Africa – in sharp contrast to the past rhetoric that China’s presence in Africa cuts into the US’ and European interests and threatens Africa’s future.
While more than 80 per cent of African exports to China are oil and raw materials, Nwabgi Kimenyi, from Kenya, now working at Brookings, reminded the audience that 90 per cent of US imports from Africa are also oil and other raw materials.
So why do we never read about the US grabbing resources in the headlines? Is it because the US has been doing it for so long that it is no longer news?
Many Western media outlets like to suggest that the Chinese are hated in Africa. So I asked Patricia Aidam, a researcher from the University of Ghana, whether China is viewed favourably on the continent. “China is actually doing a great work in Africa ... and China is seen favourably,” she said.
Aidam said that loans with no strings attached are a good thing because not all African countries can meet the conditions set by Western countries for their loans.
US-based AidData reported last month that China’s official aid to Africa reached US$75 billion between 2000 and 2011, close to the amount committed by the US.
But even China’s so-called lending with no strings attached has come under attack from the West. A World Bank report released last month suggested that Africa should promote more public-private partnerships to increase its competitiveness. It also calls for more investment in better roads, efficient ports, electricity and other infrastructures to make African countries more attractive to job-creation investors.
This is exactly what China has been doing over the years – building roads, railways and other support services that have been neglected for far too long.
Fantu Cheru, an Ethiopian economist, and Cyril Obi, a Nigerian political scientist, co-authored a paper recently entitled “De-coding China-Africa Relations: Partnership for Development or (Neo)Colonialism by Invitation?” It is a balanced assessment of the mutually beneficial relations between African countries and China.
In Cheru and Obi’s views, China has become Africa’s preferred partner at a time when Africans are engaged in a major soul-searching exercise to find out what went wrong with Africa’s development in the past half century, despite its close ties with Europe and North America.
They believe China’s development experience is attractive to Africans, and the lending with no strings attached has helped build much-needed infrastructure, which Western policy lending has not done. China’s view of a dynamic Africa also contrasts sharply to the West’s doom and gloom analysis of Africa.
China is not perfect, at home or in Africa. But it’s also deadly wrong to dismiss China’s work in Africa as the selfish grabbing of land and resources or neo-colonialism.
Chen Weihua, based in Washington DC, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.