During the last decade, China has been showing an increasing interest in Africa. In almost every corner of Africa there is something that China needs to fuel its enormous economic growth: metals, minerals, oil… Trade between Africa and China has grown rapidly:
Is history repeating itself? China’s involvement in Africa brings back the worst memories of Europe’s colonial domination. In its efforts to secure access to African natural resources, China tries to ingratiate itself with African dictatorships. The result is often aiding and abetting. For example, on several occasions, China threatened to use its UN Security Council veto to block the adoption of sanctions against Sudan over the Darfur conflict. It rewards its African friends and suppliers with arms sales, diplomatic support and financial and military assistance. It has no qualms to support the most brutal governments and sell them their weapons of oppression, and it thereby helps to sustain the resource curse.
Part of the ingratiating process is China’s strong belief in “no-strings” aid, a marked contrast to Western donors who – justifiably I think – impose human rights conditions on aid. China’s only demand for entering into commercial relations is a complete break of links with Taiwan. Understandably, given its own performance, it refrains from lecturing African governments on democracy and human rights. This has emboldened governments, allowing them to ignore Western calls for reform.
The rise in the price of agricultural products is also due in part to China’s growth because China is dependent on imports. And since African countries are as well major importers of those products, China’s rapid development and the concomitant price rises have negative consequences for African consumers.
On the bright side, China’s growth and involvement in Africa have given African countries a new export outlet and increased the price of raw materials on which these countries so heavily depend. But this is a theoretical bright side, given the resource curse (see above). China is also in the process of giving Africa a new infrastructure. It employs large numbers of local workers, although the wages they offer remain low and many Chinese companies prefer to use Chinese workers. Still, those Africans that are employed have an income that is often above the African average, and they learn new skills and knowhow.
When criticizing China for aiding and abetting, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the West often makes the same mistakes. While it’s unfair to silence the West because of it’s colonial past – it’s current criticism of China is in no way invalided by its own mistakes – it’s also unfair to blame China for all the evils in Africa. Africans themselves are partly to blame. And so is the colonial heritage, the apathy of the West and many other factors.