Economic, political and security cooperation between China and Africa has grown exponentially in the last decade, presenting new opportunities and challenges for Africa. The need for Africans to understand China, and its motives for the enhanced engagement with Africa over the last decade, is now greater than ever before, writes Ndubisi Obiorah.
The rapidly evolving relationship between China and Africa is reflected in the evolution of African perceptions of China and its motives for engagement with Africa. For decades during the Cold War, the primary perception of China in much of Africa was as an ally against colonialism, neo-imperialism and Western domination, especially amongst left-wing circles. China was the alternate source to the Soviet Union of political, diplomatic and military assistance for African liberation movements. Post-liberation governments however often had to contend with Sino-Soviet rivalry for influence as well as the vexed question of Taiwan. Chinese aid, particularly scholarships, were welcomed across Africa. In the eyes of many Africans, the Tan-Zam railway project established China’s profile as a friend and ally against Western neo-colonialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa. Chinese success in building a railway pooh-poohed by ‘Africa hands’ in the West was a turning point in Sino-African relations and led to wider recognition in Africa of China's growing industrial and technological prowess.
From the 1950s, Chinese businesspeople from Hong Kong and Taiwan as well the overseas Chinese diaspora in South-East Asia established trading ties with African counterparts. Taiwan and Hong Kong were widely known across Africa by the early 1970s as sources for cheap imports of textiles and consumer goods although often of dubious quality. In particular, traders from southeastern Nigeria established elaborate trade networks with Hong Kong and Taiwan manufacturers and traders as well as with overseas Chinese businesses in southeast Asia. The increased popularity of kung fu movies and the establishment of schools of martial arts in major African cities led to relatively greater awareness of China among ordinary Africans - although often with distorted perceptions of Chinese history and culture.
Virtually in tandem with the shift in China's focus in its relations with Africa from ideology to trade, the dominant image of China in Africa by the 1990s had changed from ideological ally against colonialism, apartheid and Western domination to business partner and emerging economic colossus. The Chinese doctor or technical aid worker traded places with the Chinese entrepreneur or state corporation. The impact on Africa of China's trade with Africa and the wider world as well as the activities of Chinese businesses operating in Africa elicits diverse perceptions from local populations which deserve extensive and careful study as well as nuanced analysis. It is immensely difficult to attempt to describe popular perceptions in Africa of Chinese business or of China itself with a tolerable degree of accuracy because this is a relatively new area of scholarly inquiry and reliable information beyond anecdotal sources is hard to come by.
Perceptions among Africa's political leadership and intelligentsia of the prospects and implications of China-African engagement warrant further research and measured analysis. China's offer of trade and aid without apparent political or humanitarian conditionalities is apparently much appreciated by some of Africa's politicians (French 20/11/05).
It is noteworthy however that perceptions of China among
Africa's political leaders go beyond appreciation for 'no-strings' aid and trade. China as 'alternative' political and economic model to Western prescriptions appears to be a pervasive optic among African politicians, intellectuals, civil society and media. While the end of the Cold War brought welcome changes including the end of proxy wars fought on Africa's soil and the liberation of Namibia and South Africa, the unipolar world characterized by Western dominance that followed has been the source of much discomfort for many African intellectuals and political leaders. In this light, China's emergence as a major axis of global power is often welcomed among African intellectuals who hope that it may herald a return to global multi-polarity in which milieu Africa and the developing countries will have a greater role on the global stage than they currently do.
A Chinese model?
In a nuanced perspective on China, the senior leader of the Nigerian legislature, Senate President Ken Nnamani, in a welcome address entitled "China: A Partner and Example of Development and Democracy" during President Hu's April visit to Nigeria, describes China's 'outstanding (economic) performance exclusive of western democracy' as "the paradox of development and democracy".
Nnamani’s comments highlight the increasingly common perception in Africa of China as an alternate political and economic model to the Washington Consensus. Since the mid-1980s, many African countries have been compelled to adopt a series of 'Structural Adjustment', 'Economic Recovery' and 'Poverty Reduction' programmes often under pressure from Western donors and international financial institutions. From the early 1990s, demands by Western donors that African governments adopt economic reforms prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have often been 'bundled' with so-called 'conditionalities' usually consisting of demands for 'political reforms' such as political liberalization, ending of one-party regimes, respect for human rights etc. Environmental advocacy groups in Western countries often pressure their governments to demand environmental audits and impact assessments before funding new infrastructure and industrial projects in Africa.
When African post-colonial governments began moving towards one-party states and 'African socialism' in the 1960s, they often proffered the rationale that Western models of democracy were unsuited to Africa's material conditions and to its history and cultures. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the debate raged in Africa as to whether Western political and economic models could be transported to non-Western societies, whether capitalism or Soviet-style socialism was the better model for Africa or whether African states could craft a 'Third Way' to nirvana. The end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of the Washington Consensus led to a temporary cessation of the debate partly due to the disillusionment and intellectual exhaustion of the African Left. When donor conditionalities were introduced, some African governments vigorously resisted the political conditionalities and argued that Western democracy was unsuited to Africa's needs and would fuel ethnic conflict and instability but their dissent was increasingly muted as aid flows dried up.
Through the 1990s, it appeared that the debate had been settled for good and that most Africans, at least implicitly, accepted the thesis that political liberalization and structural adjustment would lead to economic recovery in the short term and sustainable development in the long term. By the turn of the millennium, virtually no African government openly questioned the Washington Consensus or suggested 'African alternatives'.
China's emergence as a major economic power in the 1990s despite not being a democracy or adopting economic policies typically recommended by the IFIs has become a source of great interest for both Africa's rulers and ruled. For some among Africa's contemporary rulers, China is living proof of 'successful' alternatives to Western political and economic models. The semi-colonial Western domination of pre-revolutionary China is often cited as being analogous to Western colonialism in Africa in the early-mid 20th century while China's status as a developing country in the 1950s through the 1990s is also cited as co-terminous with Africa's post-colonial experience. For many, China represents hope that another world is possible in which bread comes before the freedom to vote.
Given the democratic reversals experienced in much of Africa from the late 1990s onwards, there is a distinct possibility that some authoritarian regimes in Africa will seek to utilize China's economic success to rationalize avoiding further political liberalization and genuine democratization. Human rights advocates and democratic actors in Africa may increasingly find their traditional arguments that respect for human rights and political liberalization will inexorably lead to economic success challenged by some African governments pointing to China as the poster-child for development sans democracy. A mid-term prognosis could be some African governments invoking the 'China paradigm' to justify the adoption of state-led economic policies coupled with intensified political repression.
Virtually by stealth, the old debate about appropriate paths to Africa's development has been re-ignited by China's emergence as a major global power. The implications of this debate for advancing human rights and democracy in Africa are critical. A failure to re-establish the primacy and legitimacy of liberal democracy and strong human rights protections among Africa's intellectuals, media and civil society as the most appropriate path for Africa's development may ultimately lead to popular disillusionment with Western-inspired political and economic prescriptions that are perceived as unable to put bread in the mouths of hungry infants while communist China becomes the workshop of the world. More important than the desires of some African governments to return to political illiberality is the danger of resurgence in the old, anti-Western, anti-democratic tendency among Africa's intellectuals, boosted by China's apparent success.
It is increasingly likely that a central challenge for civil society in Africa in the next few years will be an effort to prevent democracy reversal especially an 'intellectual rollback' to the 1970s. It may become necessary to re-establish or re-validate across Africa the legitimacy of democracy and human rights per se and also as the most appropriate and effective path to Africa's development. Africa's human rights advocates may be well served in this effort by projections that India may eventually surpass China's economic progress, thanks at least in part, to a freer political and intellectual culture. As the largest democracy in the world with long standing ties to Africa, India's economic progress in the last decade especially the exponential growth of its ICT industries could serve as an 'alternate' model to China.
A human rights perspective
While China's rapidly expanding engagement in Africa is enthusiastically welcomed by African governments and some African intellectuals, China's relations with Africa's governments is often perceived among human rights NGOs and Western commentators as increasingly problematic for governance and human rights in Africa. China's increasing presence in Africa has generated a flurry of Western media reportage and commentary, often with graphic headlines, the prevailing note of which is that Chinese trade, political and security cooperation may enable repressive regimes in Africa to avoid even the relatively limited constraints on their conduct imposed by Western donor conditionalities. Elements in Africa's civil society are concerned about the potential implications of China's relationship with African governments for the advancement of human rights and democracy in Africa.
China-Africa security cooperation is particularly problematic. Chinese-made weapons are often cheaper than Western equivalents and China does not usually impose political, human rights or humanitarian conditions in its arms sales.
The Nigerian government is increasingly turning to China for weapons to deal with the worsening insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian air force purchased 12 Chinese-made versions of the upgraded Mig 21 jet fighter; the navy has ordered patrol boats to secure the swamps and creeks of the Niger Delta. Nigerian military officials have made clear that they will increasingly turn to China for weapons to quell the revolt in the Niger Delta which traditional Western suppliers appear reluctant to provide.
In particular, China's role in the Sudan crisis, where it has supported a military regime accused of perpetrating or at the very least encouraging ethnic cleansing has cast a disturbing light on Chinese engagement in Africa (Alden 2005). China bought 50 percent of Sudan's oil exports in 2005, which presently accounts for 5 percent of China's oil needs (Pan 2006). China is accused of blocking or diluting UN Security Council efforts to effectively address the Sudanese government’s role in the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region.
Human rights concerns about China's renewed engagement in Africa must of necessity extend beyond China-Africa inter-governmental relations. Indeed, it may be argued that in the near future, the role of the Chinese private sector in Africa may come to acquire as great a significance, if not greater, than that of the Chinese government or its state-owned enterprises in Africa. Some Chinese companies operating in Africa have been accused by NGOs of violating employment and environmental rights in the communities where they operate.
NGOs in Nigeria have accused the Chinese logging company WEMPCO of discharged untreated effluents into the Cross River in southeastern Nigeria, thereby damaging the health and livelihoods of local fisher folk. The company is also accused of colluding with local officials and law enforcement to suppress protests by the local community.
Western commentators contend that China’s lack of domestic political criticism frees its government and companies in their business endeavours in Africa from “reputational risks” and other pressures that Western companies operating in Africa are routinely exposed to. Whereas shareholders of Western companies may be cautious about investing in state-led energy projects in African countries which rely on a brutally-enforced stability, such issues have little visibility to the Chinese public (Melville and Owen 2005). This presents significant challenges for human rights advocates in Africa.
A common African response?
An effective common African response at the governmental level appears unlikely for quite a while to come due to the structural weaknesses of Africa’s regional organization, the African Union. China effectively deals with Africa on its own terms via the China-Africa Cooperation Forum which is convened by China. The AU, which should lead Africa’s engagement with China, is enfeebled by the language and culture divides which still plague Africa’s regional politics.
A common African response is more likely at the civil society level where there is often a mutuality of concerns about human rights, democracy, labour and trade issues. Enhanced Africa-wide networking to develop common frameworks for responding to human rights and governance issues arising from China’s role in Africa is imperative.
What can African civil society do?
Civil society in Africa is increasingly concerned with the role of China in Africa especially the Chinese government’s relations with repressive regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. As China becomes a major weapons supplier to Africa's governments and Chinese energy and mining companies take up substantial stake in resource extraction in Africa, these concerns can only grow.
China's enhanced presence in Africa is primarily driven by economic considerations; efforts to develop policy levers to prompt more constructive Chinese engagement in Africa will have to proceed from China's economic interests. Accordingly, African civil society cannot adopt the conventional 'naming-and-shaming' tactics that have served it well in addressing human rights abuses thus far; 'naming-and-shaming' tactics can however be adapted to deal with Chinese companies operating globally.
As a starting point, China studies in African universities and research institutions should be encouraged by African governments, private sector and civil society. In this respect, the pioneering introduction of Chinese language studies at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa are particularly noteworthy developments which should be replicated elsewhere in Africa.
African civil society should bring pressure through the African Union for a parallel civil society forum inclusive of business, labour and consumer groups to be instituted at the biennial meetings of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum. The parallel Civil Society Forum will bring together non-governmental organisations from China and Africa to enhance people-to-people relations, exchange of ideas and perspectives and to lobby their respective governments to address the Social Dimension of China-Africa relations.
African civil society should take advantage of Western concerns about China’s expanding role in Africa through ‘coalitions of interest’ with Western governments in raising concerns about governance and human rights in African countries where the Chinese government is deeply engaged with repressive regimes.
African NGOs can also work with Western NGO colleagues to mobilize threats of mass boycotts of Chinese-made consumer goods to protest China's arms exports to repressive governments in Africa.
The potential of violence directed at Chinese businesses and nationals in Africa by rebel movements who regard China as an ally of the local repressive regime is likely to compel China to re-examine its security cooperation with African governments. It may be argued that an 'all-comers-served' approach to security cooperation with African governments may not continue for much longer without significant cost to China.
African civil society should seek to highlight to the Chinese government that its activities in Africa cannot be entirely risk-free in the absence of peace and stability which cannot be secured in the absence of democracy and human rights. In particular, African NGOs can also highlight to the Chinese government that unrestrained exports of light arms exacerbate conflicts in Africa and worsen trafficking in small arms which may well end up used against Chinese companies and nationals operating in Africa. In the Beijing Declaration issued at the first China-Africa Co-operation Forum in October 2000, the Chinese government committed itself along with African governments to strengthen their co-operation in stopping the illegal production, circulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons in Africa. African NGOs can and should take China up on this voluntarily accepted commitment.
While the Chinese government may not have to pay much regard to domestic public opinion, the Chinese government is historically very sensitive about its international image. China’s abstention on a Security Council vote on Darfur in early 2006 should be cause for some guarded optimism. This suggests that China is not totally oblivious of potential harm to its global reputation if it came to be perceived as the principal patron and protector of Africa's tyrants.
After an initial phase of snapping up resource extraction concessions, it is well nigh conceivable that China will be compelled by instability and conflict in Africa to realize that its long term economic interests are best served by promoting peace in Africa and that this is most likely to come about by encouraging representative government in Africa rather than supporting dictators. As Chinese investors move beyond resource extraction to investments of a long-term nature, they will increasingly mount pressure on their government to avoid actions or policies likely to exacerbate instability or conflict.
In the long term, it is conceivable that greater internal political liberalization within China will also result in less appetite for supporting repressive regimes in Africa.
• Ndubisi Obiorah studied international law and human rights at Harvard and Essex. He has been a visiting fellow and researcher at Harvard University, the National Endowment for Democracy and Human Rights Watch. He has served as a consultant to USAID and the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights (INTERRIGHTS), London. He is presently director of the Centre for Law and Social Action (CLASA) in Lagos, Nigeria. CLASA, an independent, non-profit policy centre, brings together scholars and activists for inter-disciplinary collaboration in research and advocacy on governance, human development and social policy. [email][email protected]
• This is a shortened version of an article by Ndubisi Obiorah. The full version, including references, will be available in a forthcoming book to be published in January by Fahamu and called ‘African perspectives on China in Africa’. The full articles will also be made available as .PDF files on the Pambazuka News website.