China in Africa: A reason for dread or celebration?

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit ended last week in Beijing with three additional members - São Tomé and Principe, Gambia and Burkina Faso.

President Uhuru Kenyatta was among the guests. Among the issues on the meeting’s agenda included the One Belt, One Road Initiative and how China would ensure a win-win situation for itself and the African countries.

Reading through the speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping, I found the tone friendly and brotherly.

One thing that caught my eye was the President’s indication that he has been to Africa nine times. How would President Trump react to that? Xi referred to Africa as “this land of great promise”, which made me wonder if the Western media captured the same.

He further noted: “China will continue to grow an open economy for win-win cooperation and it will embrace an open world economy and the multilateral trading system and reject protectionism and unilateralism.” An indirect reference to US tariffs?

Dark Continent

The five “nos” were another of his speech’s highlights. This included not imposing their will on others as well as the promise not to interfere with internal affairs of other countries.

Going through the speech, it seemed to me that he was indirectly responding to well researched views on China’s entry into the erstwhile Dark Continent.

He seemed to be responding to fears of China’s dominance, hence the focus on a win-win for all, a theme he repeated in South Africa during the BRICS meeting, which in my view, Kenya should be included to make it BRICKS. 

Despite those reassuring words, there are still fears that China will re-colonise Africa, riding on debt. The cases of Sri Lanka and Zambia stoke such fears. Is this fear founded on truth or hearsay? Is the fear based on threat to Western dominance?

Talking of re-colonisation of Africa 60 years after the wind of change swept the colonial powers out of Africa is stretching the truth.

I have argued before that China is unlikely to become a colonial power for two reasons. One, she has no experience in running colonies. By the time Britons came to colonise Kenya, they were in Australia, Canada, South Africa, the Caribbean, China, Ireland and many other parts of the world. The same applies to other colonial powers. 

China also lacks the sinews that tie empires together - religion and powerful militaries. Beyond Confucius institutes, China has nothing else ideological to offer Africa and other countries. It will take ages before Mandarin can become an official language in any other country. 

We learnt English from elementary school; I’m writing in English, am I not? Think of how we take tea while growing coffee to become “British.” Think of the English menu in our hotels from English tea, though no tea grows in England, to English breakfast. How many of you take Chinese green tea without milk and sugar? 

The West is so entrenched in our minds. From our homes to our graves, we are westernised. Our names, our ceremonies from weddings to funerals are westernised. We are unlikely to start wearing red dresses like the Chinese during weddings.

Why then the fear of the Dragon, as China is popularly referred to? 

One, the growth of China took everyone by surprise. After the end of the civil war in 1949, China came to terms with the past and new global realities. She was undeveloped, almost a third World country with one asset - long history espoused by the Great Wall, a writing system and conflicts with neighbours who loved subjugating her like the Mongols and Manchus. 

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, the country opened up to foreign investments around 1978.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping seemed to have realised that communism, as defined by Marx and Engels, would not work. He infused China with selected elements of Western capitalism. He deftly combined the visible hand of the governments with the invisible hand of the market. 

This is what has perplexed many people. We are used to the superiority of markets over governments even shouting that the government has no business doing business. But China seemed to have succeeded through the road not taken, to quote poet Robert Frost. 

Economic powerhouse

The country has another asset - a big population which acts as a huge market before the rest of the world. This market is what made the Western powers forget that China is communist. On a visit to Beijing or Shanghai, one is greeted by so many Western brands that call China home. Money it seems, sees no colour or ideology! 

With a long history, an inflow of foreign direct investment and no baggage of empires like the UK or France and a political party without competition even able to leave the current chairman with open-ended reign, China became an economic powerhouse, overtaking Japan to be the world’s second-biggest economy.

The fear of China partly arises from this newly found economic position and confidence.

The West, (read the USA), fears China will become the world’s biggest economy, taking up the prestige that goes with it. The talk of colonialism is not surprising. Anytime foreigners have been to Africa, they ended colonising the continent and so we think China will be no exception.  The fear of China is all based on her unfettered access to Africa after bringing her neighbours to her fold. China has money and seems focused on what she wants. Her success is based on the simple fact that Africa has been abandoned by the West. China found a low-hanging fruit. She quickly understood what Africans need. They want development in the shortest time possible and no lecturing on human rights and other issues.

African countries are listening because they saw China grow and admire her. In whispers, China’s easy entry into Africa is based on our love for help. The West's endearment to Africa was based on the same through foreign aid.

China has even come with a special purpose vehicle to fast-track development (some prefer exploitation) of Africa and other countries - the One Belt, One Road Initiative. It has both sea and road components. At the Beijing meeting, China dangled some $60 billion (Sh6 trillion) towards this initiative.

The initiative dovetails with Africa's needs. We want rails, roads, and other infrastructure. This is being done through projects such as the standard gauge railway, but not without controversy. In a country like Kenya where land is privately owned, issues of compensation are likely to arise.

We must, however, see something positive about China’s entry into the continent. They have brought new work ethics like a 24-hour economy.

The projects they have supported have made a difference to the Kenyan economy. It is easier to visit Mombasa and soon Western Kenya. An efficient transport system is a prerequisite for economic growth.  

Ever thought how Thika Road would be today if it was not expanded? More importantly, the Chinese have given us choices for development partnership, markets, and perspectives about economy and governance. The big Chinese projects might leave us asking in silence why the West did not carry out such projects for all the time they had Africa for themselves.

The environment will definitely crop up on the Silk Road, the other name for the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Routing SGR through a national park that was gazetted in 1946 is not something to debate about.

Animals have as much right to this planet as human beings. An alternative route should be found. The truth is that we allowed China to build through this park through the representatives with queued for hours to vote for. One can only hope our grandchildren will marvel at the coexistence of technology and wildlife.

Past investors in Africa have been accused of plundering the natural resources and polluting the environment. It is feared that the Chinese will be no different. We hope the creation of the new Ministry of Ecology and Environment will help mitigate environmental issues in China and beyond. Luckily, China is just starting on the One Belt, One Road Initiative.

The debate over Chinese in Africa and One Road, One Belt is not about to end. It will suck in the Africans, Chinese, Americans and other nationalities. One curiously quiet nation as China makes inroads into Africa is India. 

Countervailing force

If China learns from the past mistakes and ensures that the win-win cooperation is a reality in Africa, we’ve got no reason to fear the Dragon.

The presence of former powers in Africa such as the British, French and Americans could act as countervailing force to any excesses of the Chinese. Truth be told, the colonialists had no such countervailing force. We hope that as China and others contest over Africa, we shall be the beneficiaries as they pour foreign direct investment and check each other. One reason China developed rapidly is because of foreign direct investment as the graph above goes to show. Can China reciprocate by investing in Africa without strings attached? Time will tell.

The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi

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(FOCAC)Forum on China-Africa CooperationOne BeltOne Road InitiativePresident Uhuru KenyattaChinese President Xi JinpingPresident TrumpDebt