I recently attended the book launch of Stephen Chan’s ‘The Morality of China in Africa’ at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, an event supported by the Royal African Society. As an observer of African development, the question posed by the book was strange to me. After all, who was asking the question about whether China’s activities were moral and what gave them the mandate to ask that question in the first place?
The West is clearly threatened by the growing influence of China in Africa. Many of the questions raised on the world stage are an indicator of that feeling. In a recent interview with Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, she intimated that closing a deal with the Chinese could be done within a day whereas it would take two years with a western country to even get to the end of talking about it. It would also come with a string of conditions completely unrelated to the project. The Chinese have a completely different, more egalitarian approach to Africa, and the leadership is reaching out to it.
Professor Stephen Chan describes the questions of China in Africa and the negative attention it has attracted as “misunderstanding because of economic advantage”. He went on to say that the relationship between China and Africa has been very long standing. At the time when China was described as a pariah state by the West, countries that recognised it, have lived long in the memory of the Chinese. Many of those countries were African. Now it’s payback.
What is refreshingly different about Stephen Chan’s book is that the voices commenting are African and Chinese. Not Western. Very little analysis covered in the global media was written by Chinese or African commentators. The book itself is a compilation of edited essays providing a welcome balance to the flood of Western academic writings over the last decade.
Professor Chan provided insights clarifying China’s global strategy which was supported by Dr Hong Bo, a senior lecturer in financial economics at SOAS. The Chinese imprint in Africa for instance, is small compared to that outside of the continent. Subsaharan Africa represents 13.8% of China’s investment portfolio, Europe is 13.4%. China uses a range of instruments to manage different types of assets, from the buying of bonds and assets in Europe and the USA to financing of projects in Africa in exchange for access to resources and markets.
There is a Confuscian based relationship, an older brother younger sibling hierarchy between China and Africa. China also deals with each African country individually, something that Europe and the USA never did. The West is guilty of what Professor Dan Large of the Central European University describes as “historical forgetting” of its role in Africa.
With the new Chinese President Xi Jinping travelling to Tanzania, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo on his first state tour in March 2013, it is clear that Africa is a key part of China’s global strategy. For Africa itself,it now has options about who to deal with, and how, something it has never had before.
As for morality, the Chinese relationship with Africa has nothing to do with that, it is much more about opportunity, using an approach which is more welcome to African leaders than anything they have encountered from the Western nations in the past.