The Changing Face of China-Africa Relations

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This article first appeared in the China Daily on May 11, 2018

The relationship between China and Africa is one that generates immense interest and debate in both countries and around the world. The combination of strengthening economic growth in both China and Africa, particularly in the context of an increasingly insular USA and Europe means that the relationship between the two parties will play a progressively important role in their development and global dynamics. There are three factors to consider as we unpack Sino-African relations.

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First is the leadership of China where Xi Jinping is redefining China’s presence on the global stage. In the context of the trade spat between the USA and China, Xi Jinping continues to emphasise China’s commitment to globalisation and free trade perhaps best demonstrated in his massive Belt and Road Initiative. In early April, Jinping restated his commitment to continue to open the nation’s economy affirming that China will open its doors wider to foreign investment. While some may argue that China does not walk the talk and that the country’s economy remains very protected in some ways, what is clear is that Xi Jinping is positioning himself as a global leader and one who encourages global cooperation both economically and diplomatically. Whereas in the past it seemed China was happy being a leading economy but not necessarily a leading voice in global interactions, Jinping is redefining how China positions itself globally. As Europe and the USA turn inward, he emphasises that China continues to look outwards and seeks to lead global conversations.

The implications for Africa in this regard is that Africa can expect initiatives under Jinping to deliberately foster deeper collaboration and cooperation. These will not only be from an economic standpoint but politically and militarily as well. Geopolitical dynamics in Africa will be informed by a leadership in China that seeks to strengthen its global presence and reputation and Africa will be an important party in how this plays out globally.

Secondly and linked to the point above, Jinping is actively rebranding China. Brand China has both positive and negative elements. The key negative elements particularly with regards to Brand China in Africa, is that China is corrupt and environmentally destructive. It seems China is aware of these negative elements of its brand because the Two Sessions addressed both these issues. A key focus of Two Sessions was to ratify a law to set up a new powerful anti-corruption agency. Africa’s struggle with corruption is a well-known fact, and Brand China has been seen to tolerate or even facilitate this corruption. Thus, the announcement of steps that will be taken to stem corruption in the Chinese government may have an impact on Africa in the form of new rules and requirements linked to Chinese funding. The two Sessions also revealed the growing importance of environmental concerns as a government priority in China.  This seems to stem not only from an understanding in the Chinese government that environmental degradation must be addressed as a strategic concern for the country and economy, but also as a response to growing demands from the Chinese public for responsible environmental behaviour and action as part of the country’s development model going forward. Again, it will be interesting to see if this shift will be reflected in how the Chinese government interacts with Africa going forward. The point is that Jinping’s administration is taking clear and bold steps to address the negative aspects of the country’s brand as he seeks to position China as a powerful and responsible global leader.

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Finally, as China continues to strengthen economically, and as Jinping strengthens China’s global influence, we will likely see a heightening of Sinophobic narratives on China’s presence in Africa by Europe and North America in particular. One key feature of EuroAmerican analysis of China in Africa has been notable Sinophobia; and we have seen an evolution in this Sinophobic commentary. The narrative started with Europe and North America warning Africa that China is the new colonial power and that China will subjugate Africa with colonial-like behaviour that undermines Africa’s sovereignty. This then shifted to the Africa being warned that China only wants to exploit the continent’s natural resources in a rapacious relationship that will suck Africa dry. This was coupled with accusations that China facilitates and participates in corruption in Africa and that Chinese investment has poor social and environmental standards and indeed kills the continent’s environment in the form of unregulated pollution and destruction of wildlife. Now, the narrative is that China is saddling Africa with unsustainable debt and seeks to use indebtedness to further its geopolitical control over the continent. China should expect more aggressive Sinophobic commentaries coming out of Europe and North America as an ideological battle is waged on African hearts and minds.

However, despite the fact that the Sinophobic narrative will continue to be generated by Europe and North America, the reality is that China is not good at communications. China does not do a good job at sharing its contributions to Africa’s development in a strategic and sustained manner both inside and outside Africa. Whereas Europe and North America have sophisticated communications strategies both as government and private sector, the same cannot be said of China. Both the Chinese government and private sector ought to be cognisant of these dynamics and generate positive counter-narratives on China’s presence in Africa. Africans ought to also be aware of the ideological battle on the continent and generate informed narratives that analyse China-Africa relations from an African perspective.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;



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