Sino-Africa ties: East is not West

The President of the People Republic of China, Xi Jinping, has recently participated in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. In his warmly welcomed speech, the President announced packages of worth $US60 billion financial support to Africa. The support aims at developing infrastructure, improving agriculture and reducing poverty.

Africa as a continent has received more than $3 trillion worth aid in the past fifty years from the developed nations in which Western countries are at the center of it. However, whether this huge aid has helped Africa is under debate. Pro Aid activists maintain they have plenty of evidence to show aid is working in Africa. Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, reports “the charity One has compiled a list of 14 African countries – including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Malawi and Senegal – that shared some characteristics in the period after 2000: they qualified for debt relief; they weren’t dependent on extractive industries; they were not embroiled in civil conflict. On average, in these countries aid flows increased threefold between 2000 and 2010.” Thus aid advocates, including charity One, lay claim aid to Africa must increase. There is also a strong political push in favor of aid so as to consolidate or assume power in western politics.

On the contrary, anti-aid lobbyists, argue African countries are not flown high as a result of aid, rather they are much wretched. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian-born international economist, criticizing Western aid in her book ‘Dead Aid’ asserted, “Between 1970 and 1998, when aid flows to Africa were at their peak, poverty in Africa rose from 11 percent to a staggering 66 percent.” Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner economist says, “Much foreign aid damages the opportunity for the poor to get richer.” Peter Bauer, a high profile economist, also pointed out that “foreign aid {development aid} is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for any country’s development.” These scholars call for immediate halt of development aid and emphasize other means of development.

In the middle are those who believe aid should not be abandoned but adapted. They advise the need for critical assessment of the changes resulted from aid before splashing of money. Todd Moss, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of African Affairs in the U.S. Department of State, laments, “Whenever we don’t know how much aid we need, we just say let us double.” However, the view that aid is not a key to development has achieved consensus among almost all development economists. Though its effectiveness is arguable, attachment of conditions to aid is also customary state of affairs scholars are of the same mind.

The West is well known for its famous quote, “no free lunch”. The aid and loans Africa received has been coupled with conditionality. Prescriptions are attached with the aid the West gives to the continent. Even those humanitarian and crisis time supports had never been free from prerequisites. The IMF put forwarded numerous conditions including structural reform and market liberalization in recipient countries during the 1980’s debt crisis. For the West, shock has been a must to conduct shock therapy. Naomi Klein in her book titled ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’, presented plentiful examples how Milton Friedman’s free-market ideology, through the exploitation of disaster, shocked people and dominate countries in the world. In many historical occasions, aid has been used by Western donors as hard power to force African countries do otherwise they would not do.

So, what makes China’s pledge a new narrative? Is the East to be the next West to Africa?

Africa’s relation with the East is different from its relation with the West. History has left its black scar from the times of colonization to today’s globalization. Many Africans, including its leaders hold the view that the West underdeveloped Africa. Walter Rodney, a prominent Guyanese historian, articulates, “The decisiveness of the short period of colonialism and its negative consequences for Africa spring mainly from the fact that Africa lost power.” Conflicts concerning land and unresolved boarders in East Africa, South Africa and more African countries are also conceived as ticking time bombs of colonialism.

Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama says, “We say, “No we have come of age.” Most countries in Africa are independent for 50, 60, 100 years. We should be allowed to think for ourselves.” However, Western countries’ foreign policy is still oriented by the effects of colonialism. Some European countries, like France, still have extended interest on their former colonies. As witnessed a year before, Europeans draw colonial lines again for supplying aid to Ebola stricken African countries.

Unlike the West, Asian countries have no historical malpractice with Africa. Rather it was the victim of the then dominant powers. China, the ancient civilization, has been humiliated by all great powers during the 19th Century. Thus, both China and Africa share the same history. Bearing this in mind, to allege China will be the new colonizer is to repeat realists’ misjudgment of Asia’s future will be Europe’s past. The realists employ microscopes from European laboratories that they are unable to see Asia’s exceptionalism. You do have no chance of testing a new wine once you put it in an old bag.

Besides, both Africa as a region and China as a regional power are still developing status. Africa is the second fastest growing continent following Asia; and countries like Ethiopia and Mozambique are among the fastest growing countries in the world. China is of course the fastest growing country. Both parties have millions of citizens waiting to be lifted out of poverty. Promoting peace and development are the priorities for both parties. Hence, they have the same destination. It is unlikely that these same history and same destiny parties will try to develop at the expense of the other.

Apart from history and destiny, China strongly believes in non interventionism. Three of the five pillars of its foreign policy are about equality and non interference. President Xi Jinping reiterated this stand in the FOCAC summit saying “China strongly believes Africa belongs to the African people and African problems should be handled by the African people.” He assured China considers Africa as politically equal partner and would never inflict its interest on Africa.

Criticism focusing on China’s engagement on Africa for the most part comes from the liberal media which is shaped to and best at safeguarding Western ideology and interests. This media accuses China for grabbing African natural resources; yet ignores the West’s an ending interest on resource rich developing countries. It tells stories of the oil from Sudan and South Sudan but never report about America’s scandal on Iraq in the name of War on Terror. It never dares to tell us the US had moved in more contractors than military personnel at times of the Iraq invasion. The ultimate reason to the killing of Gaddafi lies behind its resistance to the West than its similarity in style of governance with pro American leaders around the world. Of course, the realities on the ground now show the opposite of NATO’s assertion to Libya’s bombing and overthrowing of Muammar Gaddafi. Libya, Syria and Iraq were apparently more peaceful and stable before Western intrusion in the name of democratization and anti terrorism. President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe calls these allegations “distorted, imaginative creations.”

The liberal media also criticizes China for turning deaf ear to human right abuses in Africa. In doing so, it is claiming China should meddle in African countries’ internal affairs as the West is doing. Yet this is what many African leaders, scholars and ordinary people do not like to happen. As Professor Lumumba speaks, “Africa will go nowhere as long as Africa depends on friends of good will whose name keep on changing from time to time” Africa should left to Africans as America belongs to Americans. And it is up to the Africans to decide which way to go; to the East, to the West or towards both.

Over the last decade, there are signs of optimism in Africa. Many African economies are registering an annual growth of over 5 Percent. Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire and Mozambique are among the world’s top 10 fastest growing economies in 2015/16 growth forecast, shows a report released by rating firm Moody’s. With the urgent need to develop and improve the living standard of the citizens, African governments have seen China as a godsend opportunity. Africans now hope China will help them succeed in the struggle against poverty and backwardness for which the continent is known for long. Current Chairperson of the African Union and President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, praising Xi’s speech as “so rich”, implied Africa’s discontent to the West and easiness to the East.

China’s success story coupled with its non tied aid appeals African governments look for China’s partnership. A few years ago, China surpassed the US and EU to be the largest trading partner of Africa; it still holds the position. According to China’s state news agency Xinhua, two-way flow trade volume between Africa and China amounted to $220 billion in 2014, up from just $10 billion in 2000. The volume is estimated to rise to $400 billion in 2020 and would continue to rise rapidly through the Continental Free Trade Agreement and the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement which Africa was establishing. Currently, there are more than 3 000 Chinese companies in Africa.

Of course, China’s trade with Africa is largely import-driven. China consumes oil and African countries take in Chinese goods. This has to be diversified. Their relation must go deeper. If China follows the directions already set in its policy on Africa, that is industrial capacity cooperation and strategic complementarity, and if Africa builds its capacity to use the biggest consumption market by providing semi processed and processed goods, their partnership would bring comprehensive benefit.

Apart from the size, this year’s pledge from China to Africa is different from the previous one in its composition. This time, the $60 billion financial support encourages investment as it includes $5 billion for grants and zero-interest loans, $35 billion for concessional loans and buyer’s credit, and the rest as commercial financing. This implies Chinese commitment to and confidence on its policy on Africa.

The money China gave to Africa is huge. Of course this is not too much for the currency rich China; but it is a lot for the Africans who sell raw material for less and buy products for much. If properly used, it can change many Africans life to the better. But what if it falls in the hands of corrupt leaders and businesspersons? The answer is clear; it skyrockets the few and trickles down to the lots. I strongly believe China do not want this happen. But success is not guaranteed by wishing, but doing. With the money, accountability should be attached.

I don’t mean corruption is unique or endemic to Africa. As it is usually said corruption is a disease shared by all continents. But the case is different for Africa as it affects the poorest most. According to African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa loses $148b annually due to corruption. It is like the poor widow who cast all that she had in the treasury; but this case to no avail. Apart from the financial support, China also promised to train 200,000 African technicians. So, how is the selection for the scholarship made? Criteria for eligibility must be well defined and its implementation should be monitored. I am attending my scholarship in one of the Chinese universities after fulfilling the criteria and selected based on competence. But a classmate from Africa informed me, in his country, top officials’ family members get precedence to scholarships. Hence, others compete for leftovers. As the beneficiary of scholarship, it is sad to know the deserving ones lose it only because they do not belong to the “lucky family”.

What is above all important is African governments’ commitment to fight and curb corruption and punish corruptors whatsoever their status might be. But how China manages its support also plays role. I think, with the money, it is good to attach carrot, if not stick. China, still respecting its fundamental policy of non intervention in others internal affairs, can maximize the benefits of its support to Africa. If such mechanisms by which countries that used the aid and scholarships effectively gain next priority and the underachievers lose are set, it will not only help curtail corruption but also promote good governance. China can also do it through helping African countries establish efficient and strong anti corruption institutions. Following sweeping campaigns, anti-corruption has become an emblematic feature of Xi’s leadership. And the President’s relentless campaign against official corruption is bearing fruits in recent years. China can therefore help Africa through capacity building and sharing lessons.


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