Chinese investment in Africa bears no relation to Western colonialism

By Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-27 0:03:31

Some US politicians endear themselves to voters by kissing babies. Imagine the outcry if another country's leaders said that US politicians are sexual abusers of children because both they and pederasts kiss children. The charge would be derided as illogical and politically-based. That is also how US politicians' claims of "Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa" should be treated.

Most such claims are based on Africa exporting raw materials to China, while China exports manufactured goods to Africa. European colonialists did force that trade pattern on Africa, as part of their underdevelopment of the continent, which resulted in it still not exporting many manufactured goods.

In contrast, Chinese firms are key builders of Africa's infrastructure, the precursor to industrialization. There are also increasing numbers of Chinese-owned manufacturing plants in Africa. Our database of some 600 Chinese enterprises indicates that on average about 85% of their employees are Africans, many of whom learn skills relevant to industrialization. If moreover raw-materials-for-manufactured-goods trade were sufficient to make a relationship neo-colonial, Canada, Australia and India would now, absurdly, be imagined as Chinese colonies. After all, they too mostly sell raw materials to and buy manufactured goods from China.

The key characteristic of colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa is in fact irrelevant to the Chinese presence in Africa:  Europeans ruled the continent, making key decisions and waging wars of suppression against Africans.  For example, the Belgian Congo at independence in 1960 had 10,000 Belgian officials. Post-independence administrations of African states termed neo-colonies have had policy-making French officials and troops. The US has one large and several smaller military bases in Africa, from which wars are waged; China has none and is not fighting anywhere in Africa.

No Chinese administers any African country and no Chinese government determinative influence exists anywhere on the continent. The same cannot be said for certain Western-headed international financial institutions.

Scholars now produce studies that show that Africans exercise significant power in their own interest ("agency") in relation to China.  For example, they mainly call the shots as to investment.

Chinese firms must accommodate African laws and rules, leaving no possibility that Chinese, unlike the colonialists, can impose a formal racial hierarchy on African societies. While there is a growing interest in Chinese culture in Africa, there is also nothing comparable to Western cultural hegemony there.

Chinese scholars argue that "China needs Africa more than Africa needs China." American elites do not have a like view about US relations with Africa.

Chinese officials must take African interests into account in making decisions that affect both Chinese and African interests. State-owned enterprise (SOE) leaders, for example, have adopted policies their Western counterparts cannot contemplate.

During the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, Switzerland- and UK-headquartered copper mining firms in Zambia dismissed some 15,000 workers.  China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Co. (CNMC) adopted a "three no's" policy of no lay-offs, no investment cutbacks and no abandoning of Zambia operations expansion plans.  Instead, CNMC hired 2,580 more locals.

In 2014-2015, with civil war raging in South Sudan, its government asked Chinese SOE oil workers there to remain on the job. They did so. During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Chinese SOEs maintained their personnel in danger zones.

Some claims of Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa may reflect ignorance of colonialism's nature. That is not likely for top US politicians and journalists however. They know concepts and facts, but because they adhere to the notion that China is the US's "strategic rival" - an idea Chinese leaders eschew, these elites don't care what evidence contradicts their charges.

None of this is to say that the global system is fair or just or that Chinese companies, like other foreign firms, do not exploit African labor and resources. Nor is it to assert that all is well with the Africa-China relationship. It is instead to argue that the intellectually dishonest claim of Chinese neo-colonialism should always be sharply refuted so that attention can be focused on discussing and addressing the root cause of global social and economic inequality.

Barry Sautman is a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and Yan Hairong is a professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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