China in Africa: The Real Story

Hibiscus is a Global Voices project designed to amplify Sino-Africa conversations taking place online and create dialogue about the relationship between China and Africa, specifically encouraging conversations between bloggers in both regions and those outside the region who write about the China-Africa relationship.

Chinese interest and presence in Africa has increased rapidly in the last few years and the country has become Africa's largest trading partner. “Trade between China and Africa increased by more than 22 percent year-over-year to $80.5 billion in the first five months of 2012,” writes Mike King quoting figures from China’s Ministry of Commerce.

As part of this project, we will regularly feature blogs or any other social media sites that focus on the China-Africa relationship. Today we are introducing to you China in Africa: The Real Story blog, written by Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa.

Banner in Beijing in November 1996, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Image released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Flickr user stephenrwalli

Banner in Beijing in November 1996, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Image released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Flickr user stephenrwalli

Deborah Brautigam is:

Professor and Director, International Development Program, Johns Hopkins University/SAIS; senior research fellow at IFPRI, and author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford U. Press, 2009, 2011). A China scholar, I first went to Africa in 1983 to research Chinese engagement and never stopped.

China in Africa: The Real Story won the Danwei Model Worker Awards 2012, which is a list of the best specialist websites, blogs and online sources of information about China.

Below are some of interesting stories that Deborah Brautigam has written about the Chinese presence in Africa.

Learning Chinese in Zambia‘:

A growing number of students are producing really first rate field research on China in Africa. I recently read the M.A. thesis of Arwen Hoogenbosch, who is finishing his M.A. in Leiden. His thesis, “Made-in-China”: Chinese as a commodity and a socioeconomic resource in Chinese language schools in Zambia” makes fascinating reading.

Arwen spent several months doing “participant observation”, enrolled in a Chinese language school in Zambia (which has both a Confucius Institute and a private-for-profit Chinese language school). He got to know his fellow students, and reports on their varied goals and hopes for learning Chinese.

She continues:

Arwen's analysis of the motives for Zambians to study Chinese is thoughtful. Some thought it would advance their job prospects, although Arwen writes: “it appears that Chinese companies prefer Chinese skilled employees.” I think there is a lot more potential for Africans who speak Chinese than perhaps Arwen does. I'm current in Ethiopia and seeing some fascinating examples of Chinese companies employing Ethiopians at a high management level. One firm's production manager is Ethiopian — he runs the place (the Chinese owner also has factories in Somalia, Sudan, Mali, and several other African countries).

Kenyan Traders Protest Against Chinese Competitors‘:

The proliferation of Chinese traders in African markets is one of the perinneal sore spots in China-Africa relations. This video highlights the recent protests in Nairobi where African traders fear and resent the competition. Consumers generally welcome the expansion of products at lower cost, but frequently complain about the low quality of cheap goods.

On the plus side: cheap Chinese cell phone have allowed Africans at the bottom of the pyramid to communicate in unexpectedly large numbers. On the negative side, counterfeit pharmaceuticals — a regular phenomenon — can exacerbate illness or fail to prevent death. This creates a climate of fear and distrust affecting all Chinese pharmaceutical exports. None of these products need to be sold by Chinese, of course. As I've noted in this blog, thousands of African traders visit Chinese cities and export directly from China to their home markets.

The YouTube video below posted by NTVKenya on August 16, 2012, shows Kenyan traders protesting against Chinese traders:

“Zombie” Chinese Land Grabs in Africa Rise Again in New Database!‘:

Last week, the new Land Matrix “land grab” database was released at a big World Bank conference on land. The Land Matrix project is “an international partnership involving five major European research centres and 40 civil society and research groups from around the world.” On paper, they have a strong methodology and very strict criteria about projects that are to be included. But in practice, they seem to violate their own rules routinely, at least when it comes to Chinese “projects” in Africa.

She goes on to list Chinese “zombie” land grabs in Africa:

I understand there is a lot of Chinese land investment in Asia, especially in Cambodia and Laos. I don't know the Asia cases, but when the database was made public, I checked the China-Africa cases in the online database, which supposedly only lists the cases that have passed their “robust” fact-checking process (which apparently involves checking to see if another NGO has published a link to a media report on an alleged case). I was interested to see which “Zombie Chinese projects” (i.e. dead projects, or projects that in fact never had any life to them at all!) are in their database as confirmed. Here is a sample:

(1) ZTE oil palm project 2.8 million hectares in DRC The project was discussed but never finalized, land was never allocated, the project — which was almost certainly a maximum of 100,000 ha — was never this large — and has been dead in the water for years.

(2) ABSA Biofuels 30,200 ha in Ethiopia. Huh? This proposed joint venture is not “Chinese” but South African-Chinese-Ethiopian, and was listed in an Ethiopian database in 2008 as in the “pre-implementation” phase. It has never been implemented.

(5) Zimbabawe 101,170 ha irrigated maize project. I've written about this countless times. It was a construction contract given to a Chinese company by the Zimbabwe government, not a Chinese investment. They were not paid. They went home. The land never ended up being developed. This all happened almost ten years ago, in 2003 for Pete's sake!

Africa's Free Press Problem: Is China Causing It?‘:

On April 15, 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mohamed Keita on Africa's free press problem, arguing that press freedom was getting worse in Africa — because of China.

Keita's piece makes a lot of good points. Investigative reporters have a very tough road in many parts of Africa and there are many examples of courage under impossibly tough conditions.

However, his opinion oversteps his evidence in linking increased Chinese economic activity in Africa with increased repression of the media.

Asking “Why this disturbing trend? (of media repression)” Keita points to (inter alia) “the influence of China, which surpassed the West as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.”

As an example of this causal linkage, Keita wrote: “The volume of trade between Rwanda and China increased fivefold between 2005 and 2009. During the same period, the government has eviscerated virtually all critical press and opposition and has begun filtering Rwandan dissident news Web sites based abroad.”

She agrees with Keita about Chinese technical and media ties with African government:

Keita actually does make a good point in his observation that with growing trade, “China has been deepening technical and media ties with African governments to counter the kind of critical press coverage that both parties demonize as neocolonialist.”

Rather than training African reporters to be like Xinhua reporters, the Chinese goal in stepping up training and PR activities is to present a different picture of Chinese activities in Africa to counter the negative reporting eminating from “the West”.

The establishment of modern China-Africa relations dates back to the late 1950s when China signed the first official bilateral trade agreement with Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Somalia, Morocco and Sudan. However, ancient China-Africa relations date back as far as 202 BC and AD 220. Archaeological excavations at Mogadishu, Somalia and Kilwa, Tanzania have recovered many coins from China.

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