Opinion: The Chinese Should Not Overplay Their Hand In Africa

Man walks past a poster promoting the upcoming China-Africa Summit in Beijing

The fates have dealt the Chinese a great geopolitical and  economic hand when it comes to Africa.

The global economic meltdown that affected the U.S. and Europe and a shift in public policy in the African continent are some of the reasons many African governments have adopted ‘look East’ policy in international relations.

Trade between China and Africa reached $200 billion in 2012, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency, making the country Africa’s largest trading partner.

It was no surprise then that China’s new President Xi Jinping started his first trip as head of state in the continent.

“Africa belongs to the African people,” he said during a keynote speech in Tanzania. “In developing relations with Africa, all countries should respect Africa’s dignity and independence.”

African governments’ reasons for looking East stem from a disaffection with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which is seen as a tool serving largely the agenda of Western countries and their governments’ forceful advocacy for social change in Africa as part of promoting social justice and universal human rights across the continent.

The debate on these issues sometimes falls prey to wily African dictators who oppose meaningful change and greater freedoms within their borders under the guise of fighting neocolonialism.

And China has skillfully exploited this tension.

For instance, it has rushed to pledge support to countries that find themselves in trouble with the ICC such as Sudan and Kenya, pledging continued political support and engagement on huge infrastructure projects.

The Chinese have built palaces for presidents, such as in Malawi, and did strike a deal with Kenya to build a modern railway.

Their presence in Africa has never been more evident.

On my recent trip through the Addis Ababa International Airport, more than a quarter of the people in sight were Chinese, smoking cigarettes.

In recent media reports, workers in Gabon went on strike because Chinese companies brought in unskilled labour from China and pay the expatriates more for the same work. In Ghana, the Chinese are competing with the locals in mining operations leading to ugly confrontations on the same charge of importing labour unnecessarily.

While China needs to sell vehicles, industrial components and engage in big construction projects, it will lose the goodwill of locals by bringing better capitalized Chinese to engage in small businesses, relegating locals to the margins of commerce.

This state of affairs, in the long run, will only foster resentment towards the Chinese.

Nonetheless, it is not all woe; there is a win-win situation that China can and must embrace.

Through technology transfer, instead of selling finished products such as plastic combs, the Chinese can sell the industrial equipment and plastic pellets to African traders and spearhead an industrial revolution that for a long time will depend on Chinese semi-processed material. Same can be applied to the pharmaceutical industry. The Chinese can build an African pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity to rival India’s and sell the active pharmaceutical and other ingredients to Africa.

These technology transfer approaches will meet with the approval and appreciation of African governments, businesses, and citizenry alike and build longer-term relationships that a deluge of cheap items, marked with the Chinese characters for “made in the Middle Kingdom,” can never rival.

On the political front, the Chinese will need to reassess their unquestioning ‘buddy-buddy’ relationships with African governments and personalities. While this might be welcome as non-interference in the sovereign affairs of African governments, irate citizens unhappy with their governments on daily bread and butter issues might miss this nuance in statecraft and lump the former and the latter, taking out their resentment of their government on the Chinese.

The Chinese must be patient in their forays in Africa and have approaches that are better thought-out and which will benefit both Africans and them for generations to come.

After all, they are the ones who said: “Patience is power; with time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes silk.”

Image courtesy of chinaafricanews.com

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