In 2010, He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote an influential article for People’s Tribune in which she forcefully argued that “Africa should jump on the China bandwagon” and that China is helping Africa achieve democracy. Showing the continued relevance of the article, QS Theory (《求是》), the flagship theory journal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, republished the article, “How Far Can China Go in Africa?” earlier this month as part of its spotlight on China-Africa relations. Read our full translation of the article below.
How far can China go in Africa?
A never-ending chorus of opinions has emerged in response to the closer ties between China and African countries that have been forged over the past decade. These opinions range from the negative (“China is stealing African resources” and “China is neocolonizing Africa”) to the positive (“China is promoting African development” and “China presents Africa with multiple opportunities”). But how exactly have China-Africa relations progressed? What actual influence does China have on African countries? In other words, how far can China go in Africa?
Relations between countries are often evaluated through time and space, much in the same way relations between people are analyzed. When examined from the two perspectives of history and geography, the ties China has with African countries seem rather weak. Looking at time, although China’s first encounter with Africa can be traced back to the second century BC, during the Han Dynasty, China did not begin having regular contact with African countries until after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. China-Africa relations in the true sense of the phrase therefore span a mere 60 years. In contrast, the West stepped onto African soil in the 15th century and, through hundreds of years of colonial rule, has had a deep and wide-ranging impact on African politics, economies and cultures.
Looking at space, the West (especially European countries) is only separated from Africa by the Mediterranean Sea. European scholars of Africa I am acquainted with make casual remarks about going to conduct research in Africa as if doing so were as easy as taking a stroll through your backyard. In contrast, a vast distance separates China and Africa. Most Chinese people still think of Africa as a mystical, faraway land. In addition, Chinese scholars of Africa have very few opportunities to conduct research in Africa. On the rare occasions when they do get a chance to do fieldwork in Africa, their trips are usually sponsored by Western organizations, meaning that the researchers have to go through a difficult and lengthy process to get the trips approved.
Although China does not have the advantages of time and space in its relationship with African countries that the West enjoys in its relationship with Africa, the PRC’s relationship with Africa has gone from establishment to expansion to rapid, comprehensive development all within a short 60 years. The rapid progress that has been made in improving China-Africa relations can mostly be attributed to a tradition of mutual respect and a relationship based on mutual benefit. It is, however, also the result of the two sides’ shared history of suffering under colonial invasion and their common desire to subsist and thrive in an international environment dominated by the West.
China-Africa relations progressively improving
The first stage of China’s relationship with African countries, from the 1950s through the ’70s,was characterized by mutual anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist support in struggles for national liberation and efforts to consolidate national independence.
In the second stage of China-Africa relations, in the ’80s, economic elements of the relationship became more important, as China embarked on its reform and opening up policy. As such, this period saw an emphasis on the development, based on equality and mutual benefit, of various economic and technological cooperation programs between China and African countries.
The relationship between China and African countries entered its third stage in the ’90s with continued emphasis on strengthening trade relations and a new stress on the expansion of political, cultural, educational and other ties.
The establishment of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in 2000 provided a strategic platform for the systematization of exchanges, communication and cooperation between China and African countries. FOCAC has given new impetus to the development of China-Africa relations that has led to the rapid expansion of ties in recent years. In politics, for example, a new type of strategic China-Africa partnership has developed under the aegis of FOCAC, spurred on by frequent high-level exchange visits and mutual support in key international issues.
In economics, the volume of trade between China and African countries over the past decade has seen average annual growth of 35 percent, expanding from $10 billion in 2000 to $106.8 billion in 2008. China has surpassed the US to become Africa’s second-largest trading partner, ranking behind the EU. Chinese investment in Africa has risen from $50 million in 2001 to an annual average of $1 billion over the past few years. In addition, Africa is now China’s second-largest provider of overseas labor contracts. It is reported that there are close to a million Chinese people on the African continent, and there are already more than 1600 Chinese businesses operating in Africa.
In culture and education, a number of Confucius Institutes have been rapidly established across the continent with the aim of promoting Chinese culture and encouraging cultural exchange. There has also been an increase in the number of Africans studying and engaged in various training programs in China.
Africans welcome China
The late-blooming yet rapidly progressing nature of China-Africa relations has naturally excited Africans and attracted Westerners’ attention. Although some African NGOs and media have criticized China-Africa relations, the mainstream of African public opinion about China’s growing ties with African countries is positive and constructive. Many shrewd Africans point out that although China seeks to procure natural resources in Africa, the way it goes about doing so is different from the West’s ongoing plunder of African resources. In contrast to the West, China provides African countries with infrastructure and large investments in exchange for resources.
It can be argued that through China’s rapid development over the past 30 years, African countries now have alternative means to solve their development problems beyond uncritical implementation of European and American prescriptions.
Africa should jump on the China bandwagon; when China gallops ahead, Africa will advance along with it. China’s involvement in Africa offers new prospects for the continent’s development. This may very well be the last opportunity for development Africa gets, so it should take full advantage of it.
Ordinary Africans welcome Chinese people’s arrival on the continent because they have directly benefitted from China’s trade with, and infrastructure provision to, Africa. When I was conducting research in Rwanda in February last year, I came across a young man who was roller-skating on the street. Alluding to Napoleon’s metaphor of China as a sleeping lion, he said he could feel the tremors China’ awakening roar caused around the world even from where he was all the way over in the Ugandan capital of Kigali.
These tremors can be a positive force, providing those who perceive them with new hope for change in an otherwise stagnant life. There are many African students studying Chinese and Chinese culture at the Confucius Institute attached to the Kigali Institute for Education. Some of these students told me that proficiency in Chinese would be a key competitive advantage in the job market as an increasing number of Chinese companies are investing and setting up factories in Rwanda.
I remember meeting a student named “Bretodeau” who was especially diligent and assiduous in studying Chinese. He said that his brother worked for a Chinese company, and that it was only through the salary that his brother got from this job that he had been able to go to school. He also told me that his brothers’ Chinese colleagues were all hardworking, friendly and kind, and held up a thumb towards me saying, “Chinese people are awesome!”
China is promoting democracy in Africa
Of course, the ever closer ties between China and African countries unsettle Western countries that consider Africa their sphere of influence. Concerned over their dwindling slice of the African pie, some unscrupulous Western politicians, media organizations and NGOs turn a spotlight on each and every action taken by the Chinese government, Chinese companies and individual Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa.
This scrutinizing lens is meant to magnify any blemish in Chinese activities in Africa. A few cases of unprincipled corporate behavior have been played up as representative of all Chinese companies and routine cooperation in natural resource extraction has been described as “plundering Africa’s natural resources.” Similarly, Chinese companies’ success in winning contracts — the result of having to make efficient, low-priced bids in order to compete globally — has been attributed to dubious covert practices by the companies or behind the scenes negotiation by the Chinese government.
Criticism has also been leveled at the Chinese government’s unchanging insistence on non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. This principle has been vilified as underhanded support of so-called “rogue states” or “failed states.” Non-interference has also been painted as working to the detriment of Western countries’ efforts to promote democracy and human rights and fight against autocracy and corruption in Africa. This criticism of China seems reasonable at first blush, but close analysis shows that it is a strained interpretation of Chinese policy.
First, it is important to realize that a country’s development mainly depends on its own efforts, not on assistance by foreign entities. More important, however, is the fact that a country cannot achieve “democracy,” “human rights” and “good governance” within a short period by playing up adherence to them and blindly advocating them. Instead, democracy, human rights and governance can only be established after achieving a certain level of economic development, citizen education, legal awareness and democratic consciousness. In fact, Western countries only achieved the level of democracy that they have today after many centuries of hard work.
As such, China’s efforts to increase trade with Africa (China-Africa trade has contributed about 20 percent towards African economic growth in recent years), help Africa carry out large-scale infrastructure projects, increase Africans’ living standard, reduce poverty on the continent and train African personnel, among others, are in fact helping to form an economic and human resource basis for bringing about democracy and good governance in Africa. Ultimately, though, Africans will chose what development model they want for themselves.
We should acknowledge the progress that has been made in China-Africa relations but we must also remain alert to potential crises and challenges, and search out and reflect on our shortcomings and the lessons we have learned. Doing so is essential if we are to comprehensively strengthen our relationships with African countries in a fast-changing international milieu and continue to find opportunities in an ever-changing Africa. We must remain cognizant of the fact that the recent rapid increase in our trade with Africa does not mean that our competitiveness on the continent has also increased. We must improve the composition of our trade, increase our cooperation in science and technology, boost our environmental protection and sustainable development capabilities, and train our legal and other experts, among other areas of improvement.
We still have a long way to go in increasing China’s political influence, economic competitiveness, moral standing and diplomatic rapport in Africa. Improving these aspects of our ties with African countries will provide us with many opportunities that we can take advantage of. There are also areas in which we need to reconsider our positions and learn from the experience of the West. More importantly, we should listen attentively to helpful suggestions and reminders from Africans.
How far can China go in Africa?
The extent to which China can improve upon its relationships with African countries largely depends on our response to some sensitive issues that Africans are concerned about. These areas of concern include Chinese companies’ noncompliance with the laws and regulations of the areas they operate in, insufficient hiring of local labor for projects in Africa, anticompetitive practices that harm Africa’s infant textile industries, poor quality goods and lack of attention to corporate social responsibility.
Progress in China-Africa relations also hinges on the extent to which we genuinely consider African interests while conducting our activities on the continent and how earnestly and diligently we work to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.
Another important factor that will determine whether or not China strengthens its relations with African countries is the extent to which we can increase mutual understanding. An Arabic proverb pithily explains the necessity of improving mutual affinity with our development partners: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
On a research trip to Zambia, Ethiopia and Ghana in 2009, I met an African researcher who told me that the West’s understanding of Africa and Africa’s understanding of the West is deeper than the knowledge China and Africa have of each other. He also pointed out, however, that although European countries, the US and other Western countries have considerable knowledge about Africa, they do not support African interests.
China supports African interests, but, regrettably, it has an inadequate knowledge of Africa. An inadequate understanding of each other means that China’s relationships with African countries are prone to mutual suspicions and misgivings. This mutual lack of knowledge also allows the various attacks the West levels against China, such as the accusations that China is neocolonizing Africa or plundering African resources, to fester unchallenged. Africans’ lack of knowledge about China’s economic circumstances also makes it more likely for them to have unreasonable expectations for what China can do for them, which can lead to resentment when these expectations cannot be fulfilled.
Chinese also have a lack of understanding of Africa that lead to two major misconceptions. First is the assumption that there are easily accessible opportunities to make a fortune across the African continent, which leads some to invest without first carrying out appropriate feasibility studies. The second misconception is the reverse assumption – that Africa is synonymous with poverty and unrest, which makes some unwilling to invest in the continent.
Mutual understanding between China and African countries cannot be achieved instantaneously. Instead, it is a progressive endeavor that requires continuous effort from both sides. For its part, China needs to establish a China-Africa research fund to support and encourage Chinese researchers and institutes that focus on Africa to conduct field-based research on the continent. African countries should also increase their funding for research institutes and think tanks that specialize in Chinese affairs, and capitalize on the potential and cultural bridging capabilities of African scholars that return to their countries after having studied in China.
In sum, it is only through continuously strengthening mutual understanding that China-Africa relations can progress.
如同衡量人与人之间的关系一样，我们也常常用时间和空间这两个维度来衡量国与国之间的关系。和西方与非洲的关系相比，中非关系在这两个维度上似乎都不占优势。从时间维 度看，虽然中非间最早的接触可以追溯到公元前2世纪我国的汉代，但真正意义上以及经常性的中非交往则始于1949年新中国成立以后，时间跨度也就短短的60 年。而西方则从15世纪开始，就踏上了非洲的土地，在非洲进行了数百年的殖民统治，其政治、经济和文化的影响可谓相当广泛和深厚。从空间维度看，西方（特别是欧洲国家）与非洲仅隔地中海相望，感觉上常把非洲当成自家的后院。我认识的一些欧洲的非洲问题学者谈起去非洲调研，似乎真如同到自家后院散步一样，透着抬腿就走般的轻松和随意。相比而言，中国与非洲则在地理上相距万里。大多数中国人仍把非洲看成一个遥远和神秘的大陆。中国的非洲问题学者更是少有机会到非洲调研。偶有机会，也大多是借助西方的财力资助，要经过长期和艰苦的课题论证和筹划方能成行。
不过，另一方面，虽然在时间和空间的维度上中国并不比西方占优势，但基于共同的遭受殖民侵略的痛苦历史记忆，以及现当代在西方主导的国际体系中求生存和求发展的共同发展诉求，更重要的是，秉承相互尊重和平等互利的原则，现当代的中国与非洲国家的关系在短短的60年里走过了建立、发展和全方位快速发展的三个阶段。在20世纪50年代到70 年代末的第一阶段，中非关系主要体现在反帝反殖、争取民族解放和巩固国家独立斗争中的相互支持。20世纪80年代的十年则可以说是中非关系发展的第二阶段，与这一时期我国实行的改革开放总方针相对应，经济因素在中非关系中的比重上升， 强 调 在 平 等 互 利 的 基 础 上 开 展 多 种 经 济技 术 合 作 。进 入 90 年 代 以 来 ，中非关系进入了全面合作的第三阶段。除继 续 加 强 中 非 经 贸 合 作 的 力 度 外 ，中 国 还 重视从政治、文化和教育等方面多渠道、多层面地全方位发展中非关系。2000年“中非合作论坛”的成立则为加强双边交流、沟通和合作建立了机制化的战略平台，中非关系在这一战略机制的强力助推下，呈现快速发展态势。如在政治层面，频繁进行的中非双边高层互访以及在国际重大问题和双边事务上的相互支持有力地推动着中非 新型战略伙伴关系的建立；在经济层面，中非贸易额在近十年里以年均35%的速度增长，从2000年的100亿美元上升到2008年的1068 亿美元。如今，中国已超过美国，成为仅次于欧盟的非洲第二大贸易伙伴。中国对非投资也从2001年的5000万美元提高到近年来的年均10亿美元。非洲还成为了中国第二大海外劳务工程承包市场。据悉，在非洲的中国人数目已近百万，在非洲开展经贸活动的中国公司已达1600 多家；在文化和教育层面，以弘扬中华文化和推动文化交流为宗旨的“孔子学院”在非洲雨后春笋般地建立，非洲来华留学生和各类人力资源培训班的数目也呈直线上升趋势……