African leaders insist that China negotiates on a level-playing field, since African countries are able to set the agenda.
“As far as we are concerned, it is a win-win situation,” said Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopia’s foreign minister. “They come for business and we negotiate … We make sure that the trade and investment is based on our priorities.”
It is understandable then that China has replaced the World Bank as the biggest creditor to the continent, and that African countries are clamouring for China’s attention.
In theory, it all makes sense. China’s official position on economic partnership is based on a belief in political equality, non-intervention in a country’s political affairs, and a mutually beneficial relationship for both sponsor and recipient.
In practice, however, it is difficult to imagine smaller nations ably negotiating an even-handed deal, going up against Chinese capital.
There is also Chinese pressure on African countries to toe their party line, illuminated embarrassingly by South Africa’s continued refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.
A lack of technological transfers to Africa is also apparent, as Chinese companies bring in their own staff to handle design, engineering and technical aspects of projects. The menial tasks, at best, are left to the locals.
In 2012, President Jacob Zuma described this type of trade as “unsustainable”, adding African history demanded that all foreign interests should be viewed with some scepticism. Ethiopia’s foreign minister Adhanom said the onus lies on African countires, and not China, to ensure they are not taken advantage of.
Obama, speaking in South Africa on Saturday, made a thinly veiled dig at China’s activities in Africa. He urged African leaders to be tougher negotiators with foreign investors, so that ordinary people would benefit and spur broad-based development.
“When we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa,” Obama said.
But analysts working in the region say much of the criticism and reportage of China’s moves in Africa is inaccurate, even wrong.
“I think it is worthwhile looking at the source of such reporting. I don’t think I have seen this coming from African writers … most comes from international correspondents from [the] outside,” Guang Chen, World Bank country director for Ethiopia, said.
“I do believe from my personal observation, the Chinese engagement on the continent has been mostly positive,” Chen added.
China certainly does suffer an image problem in Africa. With all its gains as the world’s second-biggest economy, it has battled to shed its tag as a vestige for human rights abuse, political repression and censorship. On the other hand, one million Chinese workers have moved to Africa working in the telecommunications and mining industries, or selling shoes or tobacco across the continent. These jobs, people say, could be filled by ordinary Africans.
While there are laws in Ethiopia and Tanzania, for instance, designed to protect local vendors and prevent the flooding of cheap Chinese goods into local markets, implementation is rarely carried out.
“You certainly cannot say that scepticism [about China’s moves in Africa] is unfounded. Their activities have to be scrutinised,” Tesfaye said.
With the rapid emergence of China’s Xinhua state news agency and public broadcaster CCTV coverage across the continent, China is poised to remedy its image in Africa.
Other efforts are in play including providing 12,000 African students with scholarships to Chinese universities; embassies established in all but four of Africa’s 54 countries; a growing number of Chinese cultural centres; and the dispatch of 1,500 of its health professionals. All of this illustrates that China’s involvement on the continent is more diverse than it’s given credit for.
Chinese construction workers, meanwhile, can be seen hard at work throughout Addis Ababa, as they are in other African cities.
Despite some scepticism of China’s intentions, for many Ethiopians not having seen new roads, dams, or hospitals built for decades, this new focus on infrastructure development is what counts. Chinese efforts here may also be the best chance of kickstarting the country’s future, the lecturer Tesfaye concludes.
By: Azad Essa