China in Africa

Chris Alden
London: Zed Books, with the International African Institute, Royal African Society, Social Science Research Council
A Review by Morgan Robinson

Africans have taken notice of China’s curiosity for their continent.

While volunteering in Tanzania this past summer, I worked with an American girl of Chinese descent. Whenever we walked around town, someone was sure to call my friend “Mchina,” or “Chinese person” in Swahili. She might have been a “Mwamerika,” but the Tanzanians on the street recognized a Chinese face when they saw one.

Author Chris Alden would argue that this recognition reflects the growing influx of Chinese laborers arriving in Africa, working for the Chinese-owned companies that tap into the continent’s abundant resources. For some Africans, the Chinese immigrants arriving on the continent are welcome harbingers of development investment. For others, the relationship is one of competition for scarce jobs. Alden’s “China in Africa” explores the nation’s evolving role on the continent, an entanglement of complex motivations and consequences as ties between the two grow.

A common and simplistic view of China in Africa presents it as a neo-colonial force, an external power seeking only to exploit the continent’s natural resources and then turn around and sell finished goods to Africans. There’s some truth in that view. Chinese energy companies are heavily involved in oil extraction in places like Nigeria and Sudan. Cheap Chinese merchandise floods the market, providing Africans with goods to buy, but also forcing domestic manufacturers and vendors out of business.

For his analysis, however, Alden applies a more complex framework. In assessing China’s role in Africa, he suggests that readers examine three factors: the country’s immediate interests on the continent, the implications of its success in pursuing these interests and the perceptions that other external powers have of China’s involvement. The characterizations of China as a partner, competitor or colonizer, Alden writes, “oversimplify what are complex and overlapping interactions which are themselves nested within the diverse African political and economic landscape.” The role of China, too, is anything but unitary, depending upon whether an initiative is driven by centrally-controlled corporations or medium- to small-size provincial enterprises that are not so sensitive to Beijing’s political vision.

In many ways, Alden finds that China’s successful economic and diplomatic endeavors in Africa undermine its longstanding policy of non-interference in other country’s domestic affairs. As the “China question” becomes an issue in domestic elections, China is inevitably drawn into African politics. Where once exploitative agreements, poor working conditions and environmental degradation were accepted, Chinese corporations hoping to maintain their position must now respond to rising criticism coming from African civil society.

Take the example of Zambia. Chinese engagement in this landlocked African country began in the 1970s with the Chinese-funded construction of the TanZam railway. Beyond the Zambian government’s obvious pleasure in China’s large investment in the country, Alden writes that “the spectacle of thousands of Chinese workers diligently building the railway, living modestly and conducting themselves with decorum, made a lasting and positive impression on ordinary Zambians as well as the political elite.”

Chinese engagement with the country grew throughout the following decades, creating thousands of jobs through the revitalization of mining and textile enterprises. The Zambian government welcomed Chinese companies and laborers, and Zambian people worked for these firms.

With the start of the 21st century, though, tensions surfaced. Workers raised concerns with Chinese operations about low wages and unsafe working conditions. The final straw was an April 2005 explosion at a Chinese-owned mine in which 46 Zambian workers were killed. Employees began agitating against the poor conditions, aided by trade unions previously banned from the mining site.

Even before the mine explosion, in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the opposition candidate used anti-Chinese rhetoric to discredit the incumbent government. The vitriol led Beijing to threaten withdrawal of Chinese investment if the opposition party were to come to power, completely violating the sacred principle of non-interference. Chinese attempts to assuage the grievances of civil society through investment in social goods have helped to somewhat repair perceptions, but Africans increasingly question even symbolic gestures between Zambian and Chinese officials. Such local criticism is not as easily ignored as European or American condemnation, which Beijing often dismisses as jealousy.

The perception of the outside world comes into play in the example of Sudan. Alden addresses China’s connections to the government of Omar al-Bashir and the continuing violence in the Darfur region. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called upon organizations such as the G8 to discuss the crisis and possible solutions with China, writing that “we’ll get further by treating China as important rather than as evil.” Alden would agree. The horrific violence in Sudan has become embarrassing for Beijing. Outrage over China’s ties to pariah regimes is no longer limited to the West, but comes from within Africa itself. Witness the refusal by South African dock workers to unload Chinese arms for Zimbabwe. If only for the sake of its own commercial interest China now must nudge recalcitrant elite allies towards reform.

Alden has done his research and is familiar with the range of players - corporations, government agencies, NGOs, and bilateral and multilateral institutions and initiatives. This means, however, that his book is peppered with acronyms, forcing the less well-versed reader to flip back and forth between the text and the glossary. Eventually, though, the most repeated acronyms - FOCAC, MNC, NEPAD - and their functions become familiar, even after proper names are forgotten. The book, therefore, can offer new insight to scholars of both Africa and China, focusing as it does on points of convergence. In this way, too, it escapes the limitations of an area study, appealing to readers interested in globalization and international relations in general.

One distraction is Alden’s failure to question the oft-cited cultural stereotypes of Chinese laborers willing to work themselves to the bone and African employees uninterested in hard work. At times, his writing becomes bogged down in the politicking of government elites, and he occasionally falls into the pitfall of discussing all of Africa as a single entity.

Regardless of diplomatic niceties and high-level fêting, it’s on-the-ground experiences that will ultimately decide the shape of China’s destiny with its African partners. Consistent in emphasizing this point, Alden writes: “in consequence of the ever-increasing ties, throwing the spotlight on a particular incident or event will at best capture momentarily a feature of the relations that cannot be mistaken for the whole. It is the case, however, that perceptions of relations can be shaped in fundamental ways by these singular examples.”

This is the strength of Alden’s book: it lays out the multiple ways in which China has engaged with African governments and people, describes how this engagement has grown rapidly in the last several years, and demonstrates how grassroots interactions, rather than symbolic gestures, will determine the future shape of Chinese-African relations.

China has focused on Africa - in search of natural resources and markets for its manufactured goods.
© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization