The Economist magazine noted on the eve of Xi Jinping's first overseas trip as Chinese president, when he visited three African countries: "China's image in Africa, once marred by suspicion, is changing ... a growing number of Africans say the Chinese
Certainly, Western criticism has faded, but in its wake has emerged criticism of China by Africans. For example, Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, said recently: “We have had some bad experiences with Chinese companies in this country.”
In an interview with the Johannesburg-based newspaper Business Day published on March 21, the Botswana leader complained about China’s practice of importing Chinese workers rather than using African labour. “We accept China’s goods. But they don’t have to export their population to sell us those goods.”
The previous week, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, warned that Africa was “opening itself up to a new form of imperialism” and urged African governments to get rid of their “romantic view of China”.
“China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones,” the central banker wrote in the Financial Times. “This was also the essence of colonialism. China is no longer a fellow underdeveloped economy. China is the second-biggest economy in the world, an economic giant capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West. China is a major contributor to the de-industrialisation of Africa and thus African underdevelopment.”
China’s image in Africa took another hit when the Zambian government took over control of a Chinese-run coal mine with a history of labour and safety problems. This was the same mine where, in 2010, Chinese managers shot and injured 13 workers who protested against low pay and poor working conditions. The Zambian president at the time, Rupiah Banda, defended the Chinese.
The following year, Banda lost the presidency to Michael Sata, who made Chinese investment in Zambia a major campaign issue. After assuming office, Sata reassured Beijing that Chinese investments were welcome but said Chinese investors should adhere to Zambian labour laws. China has adjusted to the new leadership and, coincidentally, Sata was due to begin a week-long state visit to China last week.
In fact, over the years, China has adjusted its Africa policy in light of criticism. In 2006, after charges that China was “grabbing” Africa’s natural wealth, China’s State Council issued “principles” to guide Chinese enterprises in Africa. These included abiding by local laws, bidding for contracts on the basis of transparency and equality, protecting the labour rights of local employees and protecting the environment.
Chinese officials readily acknowledge problems in their relationship with African countries.
Liu Guijin, China’s former envoy for African affairs, responding to charges of “neo-colonialism”, agreed that the current structure of Sino-African trade was not satisfactory but noted that it was a problem that also existed in trade with Europe and the United States, where African countries mainly exported resources and imported finished goods.
Zhong Jianhua, China’s current special envoy to Africa, in an interview with the Caixin media organisation, depicted Chinese companies as lacking in experience and sophistication when compared with their Western counterparts. “If the Western way of operating in Africa can be compared to a large formation of regular army soldiers,” he said, “then Chinese companies are still at the guerrilla stage.”
And, he said, while Western companies start with technical considerations, researching geology, technology, financing, legal protection and local sentiments, and conduct feasibility studies, Chinese companies typically bring a bag of money to the table and “some Chinese entrepreneurs think bribing” an African official is enough.
China’s courtship of Africa has been ardent. In addition to visiting Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of the Congo, Xi also met with leaders of several other African countries while in Durban.
Beijing has refrained from urging African countries to emulate its form of government the way Western countries have been pushing democracy. But as China continues to dazzle the world with its economic success, other countries inevitably take an interest in the Chinese model.
As Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, said in Durban, his country not only regards China as a partner but as a role model for development.
To a large extent, China and Africa complement each other. China needs natural resources and Africa needs capital and infrastructure. Together, both can develop.
But the Chinese – and Africans – need to remember Xi’s words in Tanzania, when he said: “In developing relations with Africa, all countries should respect Africa’s dignity and independence.”