Eastern promise: The West bemoans China’s increasing presence in Africa, but Beijing’s engagement with the continent could be more productive and sincere than Europe’s ever was.

Copyright The National
The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa
Deborah Brautigam
Oxford University Press
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For the better part of a decade, China’s profile has risen with extraordinary speed in Africa, with its trade, investment and aid primed to transform the world’s poorest continent on a scale that some say is unrivalled since most African nations declared their independence in the early 1960s. Chinese companies have left few corners of the continent untouched, breaking ground on dams and highways, railways and ports, hospitals and universities, new stadiums and airports.
This is not altruism at work. The Chinese are drawn to Africa for the same reason that powerful foreigners have come since the start of the European slave trade in the early 16th century: resource extraction. Alongside their big infrastructure projects in countries like Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and Congo, Chinese have muscled their way into lucrative markets for oil, iron ore, copper and cobalt, and many other commodities.
China’s successes have produced one of the most unbecoming spectacles in the recent history of international relations: cascading howls of moral outrage in the West over Beijing’s “economic conquest” of Africa. The bill of particulars in this indictment is long, but the common thread is a sense of western superiority about China’s record on issues ranging from democracy and human rights to the environment, transparency and corruption.
The West’s tone of high dudgeon leaves little room for irony – yet if ever there was a situation filled with irony, the West’s new-found scruples toward Africa would seem to fit the bill.
China, for its part, has responded to western indignation mostly with its own clumsy propaganda. But in Africa, at least, the Chinese don’t have to work hard to outshine the West – for reasons that Europeans and Americans now seem eager to forget.
To begin with, the scars inflicted by the West in Africa are legion. Not only do they still loom in living memory, many of them remain open and unhealed. When Guinea’s first leader, Sékou Touré, opted for independence from Paris in 1958, for example, France immediately cut off financial aid, withdrew its technicians from the country and carted away whatever it could to cripple the new African government. This included administrative records, telephones, typewriters, air-conditioners and, it is said, even copper wiring.
For a long time after this humiliation, Guinea mouldered in isolation and autarky and it has never really recovered from this false start as a nation. France may have granted the rest of its African colonies independence two years later, but it held them in a smothering paternalistic embrace that would gradually turn extraordinarily corrupt.
The point here is not to pick on France. The West’s record of awfulness in Africa is generalised. At the same time Paris was kicking the Guineans, Belgium was proclaiming its ambition to indefinitely hold onto Congo, a mineral-rich colony larger than all of Western Europe. In 1960, when the Congolese demanded and won independence, they inherited a country with only three African managers in its entire civil service. The new country began life with no military officers, a mere 30 university graduates and a single lawyer.
As if that were not challenge enough, from the start, Belgium conspired with the United States to undermine and quickly overthrow and assassinate Congo’s first leader, the democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, replacing him Mobutu Sese Seko, a dictator who ran a regime of ruinous corruption for three decades.
One could go on and on in this vein, up to the present day, like the blind eye turned to some of the worst despotism in the world today in Equatorial Guinea, because of a similar thirst for its petroleum. Suffice to say that in most places, the Western record is appalling.
There are, however, more immediate reasons why the Chinese need no fancy public relations. The implicit signal they are sending to the continent is one of the most refreshing messages that Africans have received from any quarter in decades.
For China, Africa does not conjure the gut responses that have become common in the West of a dreary burden or a guilty memory. On the contrary, Chinese interest, from eager investment to booming trade, fairly exclaims “we see you not as some hopeless or repugnant cesspool, but as a huge and largely open frontier of opportunity.”
For China’s cash-rich and nimbly opportunistic corporate sector, in particular, what Africa represents can be summed up quite neatly: the future.
Deborah Brautigam, the author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, understands all of this far better than most who have written on this subject. Her richly detailed book has many technical merits, but its greatest strength may in fact be her understanding of this psychological dynamic.
There is a central African proverb that says: “The hand that gives is the hand that commands.” China has come to pay cash on the barrel, eschewing most of the belittling rituals and hollow generosity of the aid game. Brautigam mounts a stout defence of this kind of growing engagement with Africa; so stout and systematic, in fact, that one can imagine many of its arguments being made by Chinese themselves.
But one would be wrong to hastily dismiss the author for what some will perceive as Chinese sympathies in this matter. The universe of third-party experts who are deeply familiar with both China and Africa is vanishingly small, and Brautigam is easily one of the best qualified members of this select tribe. Her observations about China and the continent come hard-earned. Some of the book’s best material draws on her experiences early in her academic career as a young researcher travelling in places like rural Sierra Leone in the early 1980s.
Her involvement with China coincidentally dates to the same period, when she travelled there as one of the first generation of foreign students after the country opened up to the outside world following Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution.
One of the main achievements of The Dragon’s Gift is shattering the many myths and misperceptions that have fuelled the almost-Victorian western depiction of a weak and defenceless Africa, seduced and ravaged by the Chinese interloper. And in this, the media, which are careless with their facts and quick to accentuate the negative, emerge as an ever-ready foil.
For starters, the Chinese haven’t just arrived in Africa. Beijing has been conscious of the continent as an important source of both political support and natural resources since it began mounting assistance projects there in the 1960s. Though much poorer then, China was already taking a long view of its prospects in Africa, forging relationships that have endured through investments large and small.
China makes no pretence that its aid to Africa is selfless or altruistic, and for Brautigam, this is exactly how things ought to be – especially for a country that still has hundreds of millions of its own poor. According to Brautigam, the roots of China’s African strategy lay in the country’s experience with Japan during the early years of China’s opening and reform era in the 1980s, when Japan allowed a capital-poor China to finance its imports of badly needed modern industrial equipment with oil and other natural resources, rather than cash.
Emulating Japan, China has gone on to broadly apply this pattern in Africa, where in countries like Angola and Congo it has engineered huge and controversial resource for infrastructure deals.
Brautigam handily disproves, however, the commonplace assertion that China concentrates its energies disproportionately on the continent’s mineral storehouses, with findings that show Chinese aid and investment are present nearly everywhere in Africa. What is even more interesting is the way that she illustrates how tightly the two are bound together.
A central motif in the recent Western panic over China’s supposed takeover of Africa is the booming Chinese aid to the continent. By 2006, when China organised a grand summit, hosting leaders from all over the continent, it announced it would commit $20 billion over three years to support Chinese exports and business in Africa. By comparison, the World Bank’s commitments over the same period amounted to $17 billion. Headline writers everywhere rushed to the conclusion that China was outstripping the West as a source of aid.
Exhibiting a care for detail rare to this topic, Brautigam explains that the bulk of China’s development assistance in Africa has not taken the form of foreign aid: most often it is lending from the country’s Export-Import Bank and other official entities, for which Beijing expects a profitable return, even if a slim one.
China’s true aid, which is still relatively modest, is typically given as part of a package not just to obtain minerals, as the stereotype would have it, but to leverage open African economies to Chinese exports, to Chinese industry, and even, increasingly, to Chinese migration.
The shrillest notes of the alarmists – that China is pillaging the continent and undermining good government by showering no-strings packages on resource-rich countries while propping up their pariah regimes – merit much of the scorn the author accords them. It is equally clear there is upside potential to China’s massive push. Africa, for one, is desperately in need of infrastructure, and China is suddenly building more of it than anyone else. What is more, China is helping to integrate the continent into the global economy with a vigour that surpasses anything that Western-driven aid or extractive enclave industries like oil have managed to do before.
There remain, nonetheless, many reasons for concern. Resource-based investments that go straight through the president’s office in undemocratic countries rarely turn out well, and China has had nothing to say about democracy, and too little about transparency and accountability.
Where Brautigam sees a strong potential upside in a kind of trickle down industrialisation, through which China casts off undesired factories to Africa, because they are too polluting or not hi-tech enough, others warn of the makings of new environmental disasters and industrial dead-ends.
Where some may applaud the access to new capital from China, others worry reasonably that Beijing’s export financing amounts to a seductive new mercantilism that will dump cheap manufactures into African markets, dooming indigenous industry.
To its great credit, The Dragon’s Gift takes a well-informed look at much of this scepticism before the author delivers, time and again, her reassuring best guess that the Chinese impact will be, as the book’s name implies, a net positive.
Brautigam is at her best by far, though, with Chinese sources, Chinese explanations, and in the end, Chinese rationales, and it strikes this reader as odd that someone so acutely aware of the skewed presentations of the Western press could have come up substantially short on considered African voices and analysis.
The world is already long accustomed to the West knowing what’s best for Africa. Here, we are told why China’s approach is good for the continent. One still awaits, indeed yearns for a critical missing piece of this picture: how Africans see themselves fitting into our shifting global puzzle.
Howard W French, who covered both Africa and China for the New York Times, is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.
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