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The Morality of China in Africa
The Middle Kingdom and the Dark Continent
By Stephen Chan
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2013 Stephen Chan
All rights reserved.
The Middle Kingdom and the Dark Continent: an essay on China, Africa and many fault lines
In 1980, during the fraught transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, I encountered officers in Mugabe's guerrilla army who ate with chopsticks. They informed me of the range of skills, military as well as culinary, they had learnt from their Chinese instructors. It was a sobering and moving experience for me as a young man who, as an alienated part of the Chinese diaspora, had actively sought to escape Chineseness. I couldn't escape it even in the tensest part of Africa. The struggle between black and white had yellow inputs. I always hated such terms, but my dining companions looked upon me as an unusual representative, but a representative all the same, of a land that had come to their aid. If I lived and worked in Africa, I could not escape China. At that time, the image of China was divided between heroic assistance – in both liberation struggles and developmental efforts – and the romance of pony-tailed Shaolin fighters in the ubiquitous kung fu films. In many African countries, they were the only films cinemas could afford to screen. There was a brief moment when being Chinese in Africa, especially if wearing long hair, was a passport to admiration. That is not the case now. This is an essay about the years of Chinese involvement in post-independence Africa, about its romance and philosophy, its achievements and failures; and about outlooks and forebodings. It is about something I never looked upon with academic eyes – so even now I look askance at the academic fashion that is fascinated by the 'new' Chinese penetration of Africa. It is something which intruded upon my peripheral vision over thirty years of involvement with Africa, until it became a monster in my path. It was deposited in my path, more like a pile of elephant dung than a living, complex elephant. Everyone kept asking me questions about Chinese dung in an already dark continent. No one really wanted to understand China and fewer wanted to understand Africa. They just wanted to know about the 'sudden' arrival of a lot of shit in the Western outlook on resource-expropriation from Africa. There is much more to Africa than China – so this is an essay to write China out of my way, to explain China in Africa to my readers, and to render Africa as several complex countries that will – thank you very much – decide their own futures, with or without China.
Elephant dung, by the way, can be turned into very good, odour-free fertilizer, paper products, and parts of paintings by Chris Ofili.
The academic fashion mirrors an international political concern. It was recently a minor panic, especially in the UnitedStates. Throughout the Cold War, the Americans had been acutely aware of China – but little of this was to do with China in Africa. Henry Kissinger made special efforts to detach the Chinese from any residual sense of Communist identification with the Soviet Union. This was not to court China for the sake of China. It was to neutralize China as a unilateral actor in the global power struggles of the day. It was to allow the United States to contemplate the Soviet Union as the only other actor in a two-actor game. Three-actor games are hard to model, so a Sino–American rapprochement allowed a clean Soviet–American confrontation. China was to be given its own security space in East Asia. It allowed the USA to scale back its involvement in Vietnam, on the understanding that the Chinese would not scale up their involvements outside their own security zone – that is, not intrude upon established Western economic interests and alliances in Taiwan, Japan and Southeast Asian countries outside the Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia triptych.
In the Henry Kissinger years, the USA did not view Africa as a major foreign-policy concern. Provided South Africa, even if under apartheid, remained secure as a provider of raw materials and a guardian of the shipping waters around the Cape of Good Hope, and provided resource expropriation continued in Zaire, there was no core US interest in the continent. Kissinger dreamed sometimes of a Pretoria, Nairobi and Cairo alliance. Lagos was included on occasions. However, this was Kissinger in his 'poles of power' musings, hangovers from his Harvard days when he conceived the world in terms of power and the logistical anchors that power required. By and large, Kissinger was happy if the Chinese wanted to play in Africa, and, in so far as the Chinese made Soviet interests in Africa problematic, welcomed it. The Chinese in Africa were not seen as a threat to Western interests just three decades ago.
So, some years after the end of the Cold War, with the West slow to recover from its triumphalism at having 'won' that war, the sudden perception of the Chinese posture in Africa was a shock. The sense of shock has coloured analyses ever since, so that much that has been written over the last ten years is alarmist. Not much of it is aware of the Cold War period of the Chinese African adventure. When it seeks to become aware, analysis is in terms of the Western political concerns of those days, just as it is in terms of Western economic concerns today. The Chinese are not accorded philosophical reasons for wanting to be in Africa and, above all, the Africans are accorded no agency of their own. Africa is depicted as an undifferentiated continent that can do nothing but await courtship and penetration by others. This essay is couched, therefore, as a personal journey, but is also concerned with philosophy and agency. These do not remove political and economic considerations but add to them. They make the relationship between China and Africa properly complex.
A global outlook from withdrawn enclaves
Four initial points need to be made. First, emphasis on China in Africa is often at the expense of a view of China in the world. China is rising as a global player. On visits to Beijing it is impossible to avoid a 'now it's our turn' self-assurance. The instant the view is widened, Africa becomes only one part of a complex Chinese global strategy – a valuable but not necessarily overwhelming part. Second, Western views of China in Africa are often constructed by Sinologists who are not Africanists, or Africanists who are not Sinologists, or by Africanists and Sinologists who are not expert in international relations or international political economy, or international relations scholars who know nothing about either China or Africa. Blind or partially sighted people are describing the parts of the elephant they can feel. Third, such Chinese scholarly commentary that exists on Africa tends to observe Party lines closely. That is a necessity for career advancement, even career security, and to obtain funding for research in Africa. However, Chinese academic research in Africa can be extremely superficial and parochial. It tends to seek answers from officials of the African governments of the day. There is no wider political ethnography. In so far as academic research makes any contribution to Chinese policy towards Africa (and it is only a third stream input), it suggests Chinese policy that doesn't always know what it is doing. Western observers who seek to comprehend Chinese African policy by studying the work of Chinese academics (and there are very few such Western observers) can reveal nothing of substance. Fourth, if there is a key objective in Chinese global economic policy it is to secure indisputable inroads into the European and US economies. The readiness, if not enthusiasm, to purchase American toxic debt in the economic meltdown of 2008–09 is an indication of the Chinese wish to own not only African resources, but key Western fiscal levers. Economic leverage over the USA is more important than access to oil inAfrica. With leverage, everything else becomes possible anyway. In many ways, the Chinese should be exceptionally happy at all the emphasis on their profile in Africa – perfect camouflage.
As it is, figures relating to trade patterns reveal just how much emphasis on Africa skews the overall Chinese global profile. Over an eighteen-year period, 1992–2010, South African trade with China (all imports and exports) rose from 1.8 per cent of the South African total to 13.1 per cent. Nigerian trade with China rose from 0.5 per cent to 6.9 per cent. Egyptian trade rose from 1.6 per cent to 9.0 per cent. The key in these three African cases is that in none does trade with China represent anything close to a majority portion, or even approach a quarter of total trade volume. However, the percentages increase when looking elsewhere. US trade with China increased from 3.5 per cent to 14.3 per cent. Brazil's trade increased from 0.9 per cent to 14 per cent. The pattern throughout the most powerful trading nations of South Asia and Southeast Asia indicate 2010 volumes of 10.5 per cent (India) to 16.3 per cent (Malaysia) trade with China. However, it is the East Asia/Pacific basin that reveals the greatest percentage volumes of trade in 2010 with China. Here they do begin to approach the quarter mark: Japan 20.4 per cent, Taiwan 22.1 per cent, South Korea 22.8 per cent and Australia 20.6 per cent. The trading volume of an economically advantaged country like South Africa is analogous to that of Saudi Arabia (12.8 per cent), and Nigeria's is smaller than that of Russia (8.9 per cent).
Of course, trade figures tell only part of the story. Overall Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa is growing at an increasing rate. But the original ambitions of the Chinese leadership, as outlined below, were to gain the wherewithal to trade globally and successfully. FDI to secure expropriation rights is to ensure materials and inputs for the Chinese manufacturing sector, and it is income and profits from trade in manufactures that underpin the Chinese outlook for the future – no matter how much of an effort is made to diversify the market by greater internal consumption.
But external trading and FDI relationships need to be crafted on a carefully researched basis. A note on my third point, above, to do with academic work on Africa: this work, such as it is, takes its place alongside political reportage from Chinese embassies. The Chinese embassy model, however, is of fortress diplomatic enclosures. Staff live and work on site. The junior officials might as well be prisoners. Even senior diplomats confine themselves to government contacts. The embassy in Harare had nothing original to say to Beijing about Morgan Tsvangirai when he morphed from defeated opposition leader to prime minister. The Chinese had never talked to Tsvangirai. If Thabo Mbeki's vexed mediation did nothing else, it should have taught the Chinese a lesson in broadening political contact and reportage. However, even embassy reportage is subordinated to Party deliberations. The foreign affairs committees and organs of the Party, with their own research and deliberative apparatus, determine policy. The PLA (People's Liberation Army) has a powerful input on African issues, especially now that the Chinese have committed themselves to peacekeeping in arenas like Sudan, but it is an input to the Party. Chinese policy on Africa comes, essentially, from the Party. No one outside really knows how the Party works. Watching the Chinese Communist Party requires skills that make Cold War Kremlinologists seem infantile. These points are all by way of context and caveat. This essay seeks to be bold, but it is hard to be unconditionally bold about anything Chinese these days.
Today's Chinese global outlook originates from Deng Xiaoping's four great economic modernizations of 1978 – although these were based on work initiated by Zhou Enlai as early as 1963. These were not simply to render a transition, within China, to a freer market economy, but to render China a participant in the economies of the wider world. The emphasis was largely internal in the first instance as, in the 1970s, there was no Chinese capacity to compete with the West. The idea was to build a base. From that base there would be expansion. Deng's idea was to purchase foreign industrial plant and machinery. The resulting products would form an export-led economic growth. In time, China would become one of the world's major trading powers. Until then, the Chinese were very much concerned to build bridges and forge alliances. This has been seen as political outreach but was as much an effort to form an international bloc of emerging economies which would become a strategic intersection between the West and the socialist economy of the Soviet Union. It was economic insurance, in case global trading power never came – or was successfully resisted – and it envisaged political leadership of a large part of the globe.
As with the four modernizations, the Chinese Three World Theory originated with Zhou Enlai – notably in his 1956 speech to the Bandung Afro-Asian summit – and this, in turn, was developed from Mao's 1946 interview with US journalist Anna Louise Strong. Mao told her that, between the two colossi of the United States and the Soviet Union, within the zone of imperial outreach by the USA and its resistance by the Soviet Union, was the rest of the world. The world was the target of struggle, its goal. By 1964, Mao had differentiated the zone in between as having two parts: developing nations, and what were basically the OECD nations outside the USA. It was Zhou's 1956 speech that suggested that not only was the world not bipolar, but that China would side with the middle zone, the world between, chiefly the Third World. By 1974, following China's disenchantment with the Soviet Union, the First World had become a conjoint imperial bloc encompassing both the USA and the USSR. The Second World comprised the developed nations outside the two great superpowers, and the Third World was developing. This was made official Party policy by Deng Xiaoping on 9 April 1974. Confucian protocol made it necessary to ascribe praise to Mao. Appropriately, in February 1974, when Zambia's President Kenneth Kaunda was visiting Beijing, Mao was said to have come up with the final formulation of the Three World Theory – inspired by the African leader.
It was a neat trick, simultaneously Confucian (according Mao praise for the creation of the theory) and brotherly (even the theory's development owed to China's links with the developing world, in this case Kaunda). It also accorded respect to Africa since, at that time, Kaunda was regarded as a 'philosopher-king' figure. It was China saying to Africa that it did not believe the stereotype, created by Western colonialism, of the native without thought. The symbolism was carefully crafted for both internal and Third World consumption, and the Chinese got the symbolism right. The Three World Theory created space for the Chinese, and to this space it devoted money.
Well before 1974, however, as a result of Zhou's commitment at Bandung, Chinese largesse had begun to flow to Africa. In November 1956, only seven years after the Chinese Revolution, and after massive expenditure fighting in Korea, China made a US$4.7 million grant to Egypt. That was a huge amount for the 1950s. Even so, the Chinese were not always sure-footed. Zhou's 1965 tour of Africa was an unmitigated diplomatic disaster, in which the usually sure-footed Chinese premier succeeded only in putting his foot in his mouth. His people had certainly not helped him by failing to prepare the ground well, and that was a lesson it took the Chinese decades to learn – with academic research and embassy reportage even now, as noted above, failing to assist the Party leadership.
From 1970 to 1977, the Chinese spent some US$2 billion in Africa. This was half the Chinese aid budget. These were the years of the construction of the 550mile Somalia border road; of the great Tazara Railway between Zambia and Tanzania, giving Zambia a transport route to the sea that was not at the mercy of the racist regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. In some ways, it was the Tazara project that best epitomized the relationship China wanted with Africa. Workers from both continents laboured side by side. Zhou, calling for volunteers to go to Africa, warning that conditions were harsh and many would not return, had no difficulty with the numbers wanting to go. It was a romance in many ways – and that's the curious thing: despite all the self-interested calculation of Chinese benefit, there have been moments of pure idealism and romance. Africa, while well aware of Chinese interests, has never forgotten that idealism and romance.
It was precisely in the mid-1970s, however, that the contradictions in the Three World Theory became apparent. Siding with the Third World against the Soviet Union could not sit alongside fighting the Soviet Union's Third World allies. In the struggle for Angola that intensified with the precipitate departure of the Portuguese colonialists in 1975, China found itself on the side of the UNITA faction – along with the USA and South Africa – while the Moscow-supported MPLA faction received the support of the Organisation of African Unity and, with decisive Cuban military intervention (financed by the Soviet Union), emerged victorious. It was also the decade where, alongside the more publicized Israeli assistance in the South African nuclear weapons programme, China covertly sold reactor-grade uranium to Pretoria.
Excerpted from The Morality of China in Africa by Stephen Chan. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Chan. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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