Five imperialist myths about China’s role in Africa

May 14, 2019

The former South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, shaking hands with Mr Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, after giving opening remarks on the occasion of the Opening Ceremony of the 6th Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), 3nd December 2015, Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: DIRCO.

Setting the stage for “great power confrontation”

That China is a rising power is undeniable. Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has undergone several substantial economic and social policy changes, in response to both the evolving domestic situation and international obstacles and challenges. Along the way, China has lifted 800 million people out of poverty, increased wages and the standard of living, raised life expectancy (even beyond US life expectancy), and is asserting itself on the international arena to the dismay of U.S. imperialism.

In the space of seven decades, China has gone from a semi-feudal, semi-capitalist, poor country, colonized and carved up by multiple imperialist nations, to the world’s largest or second-largest economy, depending on how you measure it.

China’s rise is producing alarmism and anxiety from mainly Western governments. Why? China has risen within the established rules and institutions of the global capitalist economy, first by leveraging its massive and educated labor force to attract foreign investment as the world’s “factory floor,” and then by steadily transforming into a center of high-technology and  developing a growing internal consumer market. It has been guided at the macro level by the state, which put many conditions on foreign investors that have gradually increased China’s technological and productive capacity. Prioritizing stability and national development in internal and international politics, China has seen the highest annual growth rates of any country, year after year. Another feature of its rise was that, compared to the United States, China devoted a very small proportion of its national economy on war and militarism. This was enabled by a long-term friendly relationship with the West — compared, for instance, with the Soviet Union which devoted large sections of its budget to military spending during the Cold War.

Western capitalism for decades did not try to arrest this development. After all, China did not interfere significantly with the U.S.-dominated unipolar world order after the fall of the Soviet Union. The opening and massive investments in China have returned massive profits to Western capitalism — in some ways resuscitating it from the prolonged downturn of the 1970s.

So why does the U.S. ruling class now view China as an existential threat to the global economic and political order?

The relationship has changed. A tipping point has already past. While China and the West remain deeply interconnected in their economic relations — creating a tendency towards stability in the relationship — China has become more politically assertive as its economy has grown. More than that, its growth has been so spectacular and prolonged, now extending into the most path-breaking technologies that the West long assumed its monopoly over, that it could become the main driver of the global economy. U.S. imperialists are doing everything in their power so that the 21st century does not end up the “Chinese Century,” instead of the “New American Century” that they dreamed of.

China’s rise alone guarantees increased antagonism with U.S. imperialism — not its policies in this or that country, or its human rights record. No matter the character of Chinese domestic leadership or its international policies, given its size it cannot be reduced to a puppet or junior partner of the West. It cannot fit into the“Washington Consensus” — that is, the bipartisan goal of unchecked U.S. global dominance. This is important to state because one must always try to identify the deeper politics behind the headlines of the moment.

The Pentagon and foreign policy establishment have reoriented U.S. power for an era of “major power confrontation.” This reorientation is prescribing confrontation at a strategic level, not a momentary or tactical one. This is how the U.S. imperial strategists view this entire historical period, regardless of whether it’s a Republican or Democrat in the White House, or Xi Jinping or someone else at the seat of power in Beijing.

The Pentagon now characterizes China as a more serious threat than the “war on terrorism” and “Islamist extremism.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when acting as the CIA chief, declared China to be more of a threat to U.S. national security and interests than Russia and Iran, two other thorns in the side of imperialism, which have confronted U.S. imperial aims more directly on the battlefields of the Middle East.

This is the strategic framework and background for the flood of statements, policy papers, newspaper articles, and (mis)information on China. In the U.S., the combined ruling-class offensive against China guarantees that it will become increasingly targeted for demonization of every kind in the media, both liberal and conservative. “Russiagate” has started to morph into “Chinagate” with fanciful stories of China undermining U.S. “democracy.”

This propaganda is nothing other than the ideological and “soft-power” component of the military’s “major power confrontation” strategy. All wars and confrontations require pretexts and the demonization of the enemy. In the modern era, they usually require humanitarian pretexts. In the United States, this presentation of the “foreign enemy” is typically mired in racism as well. In the current period, therefore, anti-war progressives and class-conscious workers must be vigilant in identifying these patterns of demonization, phony humanitarianism, and racism in China coverage. They’re preparing the U.S. population for war.

No element of this coverage is more duplicitous and hypocritical than those dealing with China and Africa. In the span of 10 years, from 2000-2010, China went from a relatively minor trading partner with Africa to its leading trading partner. Total trade amounted to $10 billion in 2000 and recently surpassed $220 billion. Many of the deals are long-term agreements; this is not a passing phenomenon. This economic interconnection is occurring on the backdrop of a major global demographic shift: Africa’s share of the world population is projected to rise to 38 percent by 2100 (compared to just 9 percent in 1950). If the nations of Africa — with their vast natural resources and enlarging markets — were to decisively reorient towards China, this would alter the global relationship of forces in a fundamental way.

And so, the very countries that enslaved, plundered, and colonized the African continent for centuries are now raising a hue and cry about “Chinese colonialism and imperialism.” Few would consider Mike Pence, Hillary Clinton, and Steve Bannon champions of anti-colonialism, but when it comes to China in Africa they all raise this banner. The distortions have been repeated so much in the bourgeois media, by U.S. politicians, and in committees dominated by U.S. officials at United Nations, that it has practically become “common knowledge,” and has seeped into progressive, leftist, and even some Black liberation spaces.

Take the following description:

“What the [Chinese] are doing in sub-Saharan Africa is predatory capitalism. They understand that many of the loans, the projects they are funding are never going to be able to pay back on the cash flow that comes out of it. They intend to foreclose on it and gain much more active control on some of these countries.”

These words come from Steve Bannon, the former top advisor to Trump. But they could have been uttered by many on the Left.

Given the expanding trade war against China, the increased possibility of direct military conflict, and the waves of anti-China propaganda in front of all our faces, it is imperative to begin to clarify the relationship between China and Africa. What follows are investigations of five primary myths about China’s role in Africa, which gain far too much currency in progressive discussion. The goal here is not to present a comprehensive and final analysis about the very complex and dynamic China-Africa relationship, but to disprove some common imperialist talking points, and in so doing, to demonstrate the importance of research, scrutiny, and finding sources not tied to the Western media.

It is not necessary to have an identity of views with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), or to defend all of its domestic or foreign policies, in order to recognize that the main arguments used to indict China for “colonialism” are myths.

This does not deny that there have been inequalities and examples of abuse in some particular agreements and practices. And of course, all international trade between parties of vastly different sizes and markets can replicate an unequal dynamic insofar as the trade is conducted on a bourgeois basis whereby each party seeks the most favorable terms for their side, but one holds far more leverage and power. Even this conclusion would need to be qualified in the case of China-Africa trade, however; for every example of such an imbalanced trade agreement one could find another where China presents unusually favorable terms to African countries — not necessarily because of either ideological conviction or charity, but because China views accelerated African economic development and independence to be in its long-term strategic interest as well.

This in itself is a baseline difference between how European and U.S. powers viewed and engaged with Africa.

Myth 1: Chinese investment merely repeats “neo-colonial” patterns

First, what is neo-colonialism? In 1965, in his pioneering analysis of the issue “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism,” Kwame Nkrumah offered the following definition:

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.

The methods and form of this direction can take various shapes. For example, in an extreme case the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it. More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power.

What country in Africa is politically directed from China? Not one. There is one African country with a Chinese military base, Djibouti, but its politics are not directed from Beijing. While there are arguably examples of “dumping” of Chinese products in some African countries, no country has been obliged to exclude “competing products from elsewhere.” China controls no African banking system. African countries have begun to adopt the Chinese yuan as a foreign currency reserve, but they have done so as a form of diversification away from dependence on the dollar and Euro.

Moving away from technical definitions, what is the result of neo-colonialism? Nkrumah says:

The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and poor countries of the world.

Is this what is happening? Taken as a whole, is Chinese trade deepening Africa’s inequality compared to the Global North or helping resolve it? Has China-Africa trade led to meaningful development or simply extraction and exploitation in the old colonial form?

Unlike the Western imperialist states, China invests considerably in technology and infrastructure in Africa. For instance, China played a pivotal role in major railroad projects, such as one linking Nairobi, Kenya to that countries largest port of Mombasa, and one between Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and ports in the country of Djibouti.

There is a similar Chinese project designed to link Mali to the West African Coast via Senegal.

The Brookings Institute, no friend of China, noted in their review of the rail deals: “The benefits of the railway projects to African countries are obvious. Transportation is made easier, faster and cheaper; infrastructure is built; jobs and revenues are created; related economic projects are stimulated. All these would not have been possible without the Chinese financing and contractors.”

China has led the construction of electric dams in over 10 African countries, recently winning the contract for a major project in Ethiopia. In 2015, China finished construction on a major dam in Guinea one year ahead of schedule, helping resolve chronic electricity outages; they did so despite the Ebola outbreak that led most Western firms and employees to leave the country.

In addition to rail and electricity, China is also at the forefront of the air connectivity on the continent, funding a range of airports in various countries.

In 2018, China and 47 mainly sub-Saharan African nations announced a partnership entitled “10,000 villages” designed to deepen the penetration of satellite television services into the country. By way of example, in Rwanda 6,000 individuals across 300 villages will gain access to satellite television with plans to train hundreds of engineers to help manage the installation and roll-out.

On a similar note, China announced this year that it will be covering the vast majority of the costs for Ethiopia’s first satellite, which follows on the heels of a similar deal between China and Nigeria last year to launch two satellites.

All of these efforts, of course, bring their share of contradictions. But to call them “colonial” or “neo-colonial” obscures far more than it explains. China’s investments, loans, and grants are aimed against neo-colonial patterns, and objectively offer many African nations’ opportunities to break total dependence on the Global North, increase their own economic capacities and, by extension, their negotiating position with the West.

One motivation for increased China trade, coming from Africa, was the impact of the 2008 economic crisis that emerged in the Western imperialist economies and rippled outwards. That meltdown deeply damaged African nations because of their dependence on the West and the U.S. dollar. Western lenders called in their debts, investors hurried their money towards “safer” investments, and many African nations sold off assets in order to raise the money necessary to keep their governments afloat.

Despite China’s level of integration with the West, by contrast, it used a variety of planning and stimulus mechanisms to weather this storm (while the West imposed brutal austerity). Many African countries learned this lesson and have increased their relations with China so as to create a layer of protection and independence when another crisis hits the imperialist core countries.

To what degree each of these trade and infrastructure deals are a “net positive” for workers and peasants of Africa is an issue beyond the scope of this piece. That judgment would require a case-by-case examination, and working-class and leftist forces on the continent may of course oppose or only cautiously welcome certain deals negotiated by their bourgeois governments.

A decisive issue in evaluating each situation is often the character of the African governments in question: what are its strategies, priorities, and demands, and to what extent does it act in the interests of the popular classes or, by contrast, small cliques of crony capitalists, as it enters negotiations with China. While it is impossible to generalize and state that every deal with China is good or bad from an African working-class point of view, it is wrong to generalize that these new agreements are simply neo-colonialism with a different face.

Myth 2: Chinese enterprises only employ Chinese workers

Former president Barack Obama and his Vice President Joe Biden took aim at China during the 2014 Africa-U.S. Summit with this claim, and it has been repeated many times since. Joe Biden said “America is proud of the extent to which our investment in Africa goes hand-in-hand with our efforts to hire and train locals to foster economic development and not just to extract what’s in the ground.” Secretary of State John Kerry then followed up with a rhetorical question, “how many Chinese come over to do the work?”

Do these accusations hold up to reality?

After surveying 1,000 Chinese companies in Africa, the McKinsey consulting firm noted: “89 percent of employees were African, adding up to more than 300,000 jobs for African workers. Scaled up across all 10,000 Chinese firms in Africa, these numbers suggest that Chinese-owned business already employ several million Africans.”

According to research conducted by the China Africa Research Initiative, “locals are more than four-fifths of employees at 400 Chinese enterprises and projects in 40-plus African countries.” Additionally, “surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are in fact, local.”

The facts just don’t support this mainstream media talking point on Chinese-African relations. There are undoubtedly workplace injustices and abuses in businesses owned by Chinese citizens — just like with capitalists from every other nation doing business in Africa; that is true wherever labor and capital face off with irreconcilable interests. But the idea that African workers are, as a rule, being massively displaced by Chinese workers is not true.

Additionally, the discourse around this issue papers over the agency of the African governments in their ability to restrict or loosen the proportions of local hires and Chinese managers. In the cases of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, the level of Chinese hires are contingent on the government’s policies, not China’s.

Myth 3: China is engaged in massive land grabs

China has nine percent of the world’s arable land, six percent of its water, and over 20 percent of its people. China’s “going global” strategy therefore is necessarily geared to its own domestic needs. However, the constant claims that China is engaging in massive land-grabs don’t not hold water.

Deborah Brautigam and her team of researchers investigated this issue as part of a Johns Hopkins University research project on China and Africa, and produced a book, “Will Africa Feed China?” after three years of fieldwork in more than 12 African countries. They found that China owned or leased “fewer than 700,000 acres” of land in Africa, much less than the 15 million acres the Western press had reported. Moreover:

The largest existing Chinese farms were rubber, sugar, and sisal plantations. None were growing food for export to China. And while countries like Zambia now host as many as several dozen Chinese entrepreneurs who grow crops and raise chickens for local markets, we found no villages of Chinese peasants.

In further research they found that this process has been highly uneven from country to country. As of 2016, 41 percent of China’s land purchases in Africa were in one country alone.

Rather than China stealing land and resources for itself, it’s more accurate to say that China-backed infrastructure projects facilitate the ability of African agricultural interests to sell produce to China and other countries on the world market. It’s worth noting that large subsets of the agribusiness industry in the United States, Australia, and Brazil – hardly Chinese “neo-colonies” – are also highly dependent on Chinese consumers.

Myth 4: China is working to trap African nations in debt

According to research done by scholars at Boston University and John Hopkins University, from 2000 to 2015 China lent African nations at least $95.5 billion. This is a big number. However, Chinese debt can only be viewed relative to Africa’s total debt. Chinese loans from 2000 to 2016 only accounted for 1.8 percent of Africa’s foreign debts.

We should interrogate the claim that Chinese loans are “traps” meant to force African nations to cede their sovereignty or be extorted by the Chinese government.

Research shows that Chinese loans are not speculative or tied to privatization projects and “structural adjustment,” as IMF loans typically are. The vast majority of these loans help make up gaps in infrastructure financing. An unusually honest article in the Washington Post explained: “On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure.”

What gets omitted or mystified in most articles on Chinese loans is that Africa was already in a “debt trap” from the same countries indicting China: Western imperialist states.

The West decimated African nations all throughout the 1980s and 1990s with neoliberal structural adjustment plans, which pushed austerity onto already poor nations, forced them to take loans that have interest rates impossible to pay back, and moreover, are strapped with conditions that are fundamentally neo-colonial: they determine what governance is “good” and “bad,” holding any and all aid essentially at gunpoint to these African nations.

Without going too far outside the scope of this article, this was also what recently happened in Sri Lanka, where the country turned a major port over to Chinese control. Despite the reporting from the Western press, it was the onerous and accumulating interest rates of Western loans — not China’s — that caused Sri Lanka’s financial crisis. Sri Lanka had been paying its Chinese loans on time (China represents only 15% of its foreign debt). In order to not default on its loans to the West, and to escape stringent conditions to receive new IMF loans, Sri Lanka has been seeking new low-interest loans and debt-equity swaps from China and India. This–and not a predatory debt trap–is what led to the leasing of the port.

In contrast with the West, China’s loans in Africa are largely a mix of zero or low-interest loans with sometimes decades-long repayment plans. Some are concessional and re-negotiable, as well as tied to the actual success and productivity of the projects.

Much of China’s engagement is building “value-added industries” that would allow African nations to begin to accumulate the productive forces necessary to transition to higher-wage sectors. This has, in turn, fostered the development of more indigenous enterprises instead of relying on Chinese labor for finished-product assembly.

An examination of the creditor-debtor relationship as it plays out with China and Africa disproves the debt trap propaganda. As Tim Hancock writes in a recent story about the Rhodium Group’s study on 40 cases of Chinese foreign lending: “China’s leverage remains limited, with many of the renegotiations resolved in favour of the borrower. Debt write-offs were found in 14 cases, deferments in 11 cases, and refinancing and debt term changes accounting for most other cases.”

The study concluded that “total debt forgiveness” was the most common outcome of debt renegotiations, and that asset seizures were “very rare”. The increasing pattern of debt forgiveness is aimed at fostering goodwill and greater openness to China on the continent. From China’s perspective, the creation of durable South-South economic partnerships and long-term trade agreements in Africa is far more valuable than short-term financial interests.

Myth 5: China targets African states with plentiful natural resources and dictators

Chinese trade and aid has been politically unconditional and does not bear the same constraints as Western imperialist governments. Evidence suggesting that China specifically targets African nations with bad governance and abundant natural resources is non-existent. Provided a country recognizes the One-China policy (with respect to Taiwan), China engages with nearly every single sub-Saharan African nation.

Five of the top 10 nations that receive Chinese investment (Egypt, Mauritius, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Madagascar) are not “resource rich” countries. According to a report by the OECD, Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa “has not been particularly skewed towards the natural resources sector in international comparison.”

In its trade agreements, China does not appear to favor any nation for its government’s form or ideology. Since 1964, China’s Premier Zhou En Lai emphasized that in its dealings with African countries, it would attach no political conditions — and this is the principle repeated consistently in Chinese newspapers and international conferences today. China has an interest in modeling this sort of conduct given that it faces constant political interference itself from the West.

Some analysts have highlighted that this principle allows repressive states to prettify their dictatorship, or to allow right-wing African leaders to win legitimacy by touting Chinese-backed infrastructure projects as symbolic economic achievements while the vast majority of the people remain in poverty. There is no question that a broad spectrum of political forces in Africa, including anti-people and counter-revolutionary governments, will attempt to take advantage of Chinese economic deals for their own ends.

But this phenomenon is not fundamentally about China. In Zambia, for instance, Chinese economic presence and immigration has grown by leaps and bounds, and Chinese-backed economic activity has accelerated existing patterns of government corruption. This has stimulated some anti-China sentiment among poor and working-class Zambians. Popular and left-wing forces, however, have sought to steer criticism back to the bourgeois Zambian government behind these deals. In a recent speech in New York City, Socialist Party of Zambia leader Cosmas Musumali warned against anti-China xenophobia, explained that a socialist Zambia would need partnerships with China, and reiterated: “We don’t have a Chinese problem — we have a government problem.”

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

Socialism an integral part of U.S. labor history

In celebration of International Workers Day or May Day Liberation School is republishing "Socialism an integral part of U.S. history" by Eugene Puryear. Originally published in 2010 as a response to the mobilization of anti-communist propaganda against Obama to paint...