Sunday, December 9, 2007

China In Africa: The Red Cherry in the "Dark Continent's" Coke

In November 2006, a diverse gaggle of heads of states and dignitaries from 48 countries flocked to Beijing, China to attend what would be the largest international summit in the Chinese capital ever held. The Chinese government, eager to shine and bedazzle in the spotlight of the world’s attention, put on an impressive and warm-welcoming display. Bright red banners proclaiming ‘Friendship, Peace, Cooperation and Development’ lined the capital cities’ streets, exotic images—commonly associated with Africa—of giraffes and elephants brazenly roaming the savannahs were posted on all of the one hundred and fifty five giant billboards in the capital’s main streets and squares. According to People’s Daily, a Chinese newspaper, the ‘beautiful scenery and colorful lifestyles of Africa’ that were posted on the billboards inspired long lines to form of people waiting their turn to take a picture and led one observer to passingly declare "I hope I can visit Africa one day, it's really fascinating’.[1] Other aspects of African cultures had also seeped into and flooded the streets of China. As one shop assistant informed the newspaper reporter "The CDs and DVDs on Africa are very popular, and some of the African musical products have been sold out."[2] Another manager, this time of a book shop, reported that on October 31 he had set up a special shelf allocated solely to books about African culture, history, people and tourism. The latter of which appears to be an increasing sector of change in Africa as China has ‘granted tourist destination status to 26 African countries’ which means that Chinese citizens are now permitted and encouraged to travel to these regions, which is shown by the fact that ‘200 tourists registered for the tour to Africa this month, up 30 percent compared with the same period of last year’. The Chinese agency Xinhua reported that ‘In a restaurant of African food in the Chaoyang District, east of Beijing, it [was] hard to find a seat in the recent week. The unique foods and hot African dances [had] attracted many people’. At the National Museum at the east end of Tiananmen Square two exhibitions had been on display, one showing coins and stamps of 48 African countries, and the other artifacts and relics of African handicraft. Thus the People’s Daily would describe the overall experience and feeling of the Chinese impression, from what I gather, quite acutely, when it said that the visitors ‘brought a trend of the mysterious continent to the capital of China’.[3]

I use these examples to illicit the fact that foreign policy, the objectives and practices adopted by and between nations, what often governs their relations, can also have a profound effect on the cultural changes that take place amongst their citizens. However, it is important to emphasize that this effect is not a one way street. Foreign policy does, at times, determine aspects of a people’s culture, (if they live in a culture which has a government that can create and enforce its foreign policy) but aspects of the people’s culture also plays a heavy hand in determining and shaping the foreign policy that the nation ultimately adopts and enacts. The two are often mutually and at times indistinguishably interacting with and affecting one another in myriad and significant ways, which makes the task of determining at a certain moment which, exactly, is influencing which MORE, rather difficult. It is an intriguing question, but because it will most likely never be settled (akin to the nature-nurture or mind-body debates), it seems best to embrace the notion that they are mutually dependent on one another, interacting with one another, at times, in a mutually beneficial manner, (which I measure based on their affects on and from the point of view of the citizens of the nation), but the past record shows that more often than not their interaction is, historically, detrimental.

The continent of Africa, for example, has represented a very many different things to a very many different people, cultures, and civilizations. It has been the ‘dark continent’ of immense mystery, mischievous eroticism, and alluring exoticism; it has been the ‘romantic continent’ of noble ‘savages’, harboring the remnants of some revered past and natural way of life, living on the cusp of the wild, the bosom of Nature; it has been the ‘primitive continent’, underdeveloped, riddled by political corruption and absolutism, stricken by poverty, raped by war, and helplessly plagued by disease; and various other conceptions, which we, today, diligently top with our cherry of the prefix -mis. All of these conceptions of Africa which are, perhaps unfairly, all past ‘Western’ conceptions of Africa, have no doubt lingered, however subtly, as stereotypes in the minds of many. These conceptions of what Africa actually is have grossly misinformed past nations’ foreign policy and often determine how they have dealt with the continent (as the devastating affects of colonialism or more recently, the economic and political realities in Africa today that are far from what Western nations such as the US and a number of European countries want them and are desperately trying to force them to be).

In the West the common conception of Africa is that it is a continent that needs to be helped, and it is up to us, the nations of the capable and the willing, to help fix Africa into a functioning, stable, democratic and socially liberal, open market, and prosperous continent. Obviously three of those things mentioned are unquestionably reasonable and laudable intentions for these states to embrace, but two of them, democracy/social liberalism and open markets, have an almost missionary-esque zeal for the conversion of other citizens to adhere to these principles, when in other cultures they are somewhat ambiguous or different from our own conceptions. Thus our efforts of conversion seem in vain, because not everyone agrees with what we are trying to profess to them. Moreover the West in particular has yet to realize that what has successfully worked in the past for them, will not necessarily work ipso facto for other states in the future. Perhaps the reason the West has yet to realize this secret is because it is so blatantly obvious (like searching for your glasses everywhere when they’re right under your nose): What works for other states is primarily and fundamentally what they find works for them. Culture plays a huge role in this regard, because the foreign policy that nations adopt must adapt to the culture or cultures that exist within their state lines. However some would argue that even state lines desperately fail to represent the cultural and ethnic milieu found in Africa, which is why governments have little control over the boundaries they inherit when they ascend to power.[4] But this question is too large for me to cover sufficiently and address productively, so I will leave it, for now, to the other scholars in African politics to wrestle with and move on to discussing China.

Against the backdrop of failed Western attempts to ‘fix’ Africa, was a growing feeling in some circles (mostly Western) of despair and ‘Afro-pessimism’. Africa was starting to be seen as innately responsible for preventing itself from success and prosperity, incurable to Western prescriptions, because it wouldn’t swallow what we prescribed, and therefore any attempt to try and change Africa seemed historically futile. This grim and pessimistic outlook was even beginning to sink into and be widely accepted by some circles in Africa, until China, the ascending star, with its burgeoning economy, became a faint red glow, slowly glowing brighter and brighter, as people in Africa became more and more convinced that it was here to stay. To perhaps exhaust the metaphor, China was just the right kind of star that Africans had been waiting for to illuminate the terrain and help them navigate over the rough obstacles that had prevented them from achieving their goals and objectives. China’s foreign policy was attractive because it offered assistance without ‘political strings’ or the kinds of conditionalities that had been made mandatory by the West; moreover China was willing to do what past Western states had long ignored: provide trade instead of simply aid. For example, in 2000 trade between China and Africa is reported to have been around US $1 billion, but by 2006 it exploded up to US $40 billion making it Africa’s third largest trading partner (which isn’t bad for a new kid on the economic block). Another attractive aspect of China, from Africa’s perspective, is that China represented a successful alternative to the West’s dogmatic principles of development. China proves, by its very example, that there are other ways to achieve economic success that do not involve the ‘Washington consensus’. This view is shown, for example, by the senior leader of the Nigerian legislature, Ken Nnamani, who in a welcome address entitled ‘China: A Partner and Example of Development and Democracy’, which was hosted for President Hu’s April visit to Nigeria, describes China’s ‘outstanding (economic) performance exclusive of western democracy’ as ‘the paradox of development and democracy’. Nnamani would go on to say:

China has become . . . a good model for Nigeria in its quest for an authentic and stable development ideology . . . China [is] a lesson to Nigeria on the enormous good that a focused and patriotic leadership can do to realize the dreams of prosperity and security for the citizen . . . in embracing China . . . it should not only be in [the] field of economic prosperity since . . . [China’s] steady and gradual democratisation confirms the lesson that no nation can sustain economic development in the long run without democracy.

Thus the ‘China model’ is attractive for two chief reasons in Africa: a) it is an alternative to the political and economic models—roughly encapsulated by the Bretton Woods system—of the West and therefore promising; b) the Chinese model is one of partnership, mutually participatory, emphasizing cooperation, win-win, and south-south relations, and is thus devoid of the political and economic conditionalities that were prescribed and enforced by the West—an outsider, (something that Africans have been all to familiar with, distasteful towards, and suspicious of). Proof of the legitimacy of this latter pole of attraction is clearly shown by some of the documents that have been released by the Chinese government, briefly advertising their foreign policy to the public (though mostly in response to the many criticisms). Chris Alden, who specializes on the topic of Chinese involvement in Africa, points to three quotes in particular which illustrate this cooperation and partnership building, which is at the core of Chinese foreign policy. The first one is a declaration that ‘Sincerity, equality and mutual benefit; solidarity and common development: these are the principles guiding China-Africa exchange and co-operation’.[6] Alden diligently points out that ‘The emphasis on self-interest mingled with shared experiences and developmental aims is seen to be the ‘common project’ that encapsulates the rationale for a renewed engagement between China and Africa’. He then grabs a quote from a notable Chinese scholar on African affairs, He Wenping, who said ‘Common sense about human rights and sovereignty is only one of the common values shared by China and Africa.’[7] This shows an effort to build upon the over lapping layers of consensus in other areas of the China-Africa relationship, instead of focusing solely on those aspects and details that often cause conflict.

While I could bore you with the facts and figures that are so prominent and prolific in the political science discourse of China in Africa I would like to briefly focus on the media’s reaction to this recent development, because the media is often a good bellwether or thermometer of the general sentiments and opinions of the masses, for obvious economically incentivized reasons. In the West the reverberations of China as a growing power and China becoming more involved in Africa, the two main discussions amongst political wonks, could possibly be detected on a Richter scale. The entire discussion primarily revolves around criticisms lauded at China, what is thus aptly termed the ‘discourse of fear’, for whenever someone is not attaining something they want, the first thing they usually do is point the finger of blame at someone or something else. Thus the criticisms by the West directed towards China only exist partly because of the past failures of the West, for which they will never admit. As a result the discourse in media outlets primarily describe China as some monster, solely interested in satisfying its own needs, and nothing else. For example, in The Economist magazine, China’s recent actions are directly attributed to its growing economy:

Its economy has grown by an average of 9% a year over the past ten years, and
foreign trade has increased fivefold. It needs stuff of all sorts—minerals, farm
products, timber and oil, oil, oil. China alone was responsible for 40% of the
global increase in oil demand between 2000 and 2004.[8]

Moreover the topic of China in Africa revolves around the former country and largely neglects the latter’s states. The verbs used in the Western media’s discourse and analysis of China’s actions are mostly associated with actions associated with actors who are greedy or thieves or otherwise generally just actions largely deemed as unwarranted. This can be seen across the board.

From the Washington Post: ‘China's reach into Zimbabwe's economy is equally pervasive . . . China's voracious appetite for raw materials ‘;[9] from the New York Times: ‘China’s hunger for resources’[10]. . . ‘Chasing China in resource rich Africa’[11] ; US conservative media outlet Fox News takes the liberty of going so far as to say ‘Not only has China become an exporting giant, dumping cheap goods and creating enormous trade deficits all over the globe, but it continues to reach out to historically oppressive regimes for trade, economic partnerships and greater influence on the world political stage, policy watchers say’.[12]

The titles in European outlets of media also help stoke these flames of fear and suspicion, though they also have a common theme of colonial oriented questions, which perhaps isn’t surprising. For example the BBC: ‘China’s Long March to Africa’, ‘China’s Hunger for African minerals’, and their most recent Have Your Say Segment , which was entitled ‘Is China Africa’s New Master?’ [13]; The Lemos and Ribeiro article ‘Taking Ownership or Just Changing Owners?; and numerous others. Just today actually the newspapers were abuzz with the recent EU conferences that are addressing and in some regards responding to this very issue of China in Africa. What has been particularly interesting to see, though still to early to tell for sure, is the significant change in course and attitude European countries are adopting as a direct result of China engaging Africa.

The media discourse in China is of course much more optimistic and happy-go-lucky. In fact I joked with my cousin that reading the newspaper articles in China on Africa were, from an Africans point of view, akin to reading sentence after sentence of words picked from the fortunes you read in those little yellow, pig-hoofed shaped cookies. Most of the information that I gleaned over was from the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, a forum established in 2000 to develop and enhance relations between the country and continent. All of the texts emphasize the mutual effort aspect of the relationship, a sort of silent head-nod agreement that yes China needs resources, but Africa needs trade and investment too, so both parties have something to gain from the relationship. This has really excited a lot of leaders and governments in Africa who felt that the problems their countries faced were due to outside forces beyond their control (which in many cases is true, though can be exaggerated). Now China is offering the opportunity of trade, government incentivized business investment in Africa, and money with no-strings attached, so that leaders and governments and nations can use it for what ever purposes they see fit. This policy of political non-interference I think will be much more effective in achieving the long term goal of eradicating poverty than the West’s system had been, but I do worry that condoning it is somewhat akin to, in politics, endorsing the famous (among political wonks over 40 at least) Jeane Kirkpatrick policy in the 1980’s that authoritarian dictators are preferable to totalitarian ones, and that the US should support the former when necessary, but never the latter. In other words, although it is clearly hypocritical to support regimes that are clearly not representative of the US’ values and practices, it is permissible because it is a minor and sometimes necessary step in that direction. Ronald Reagen supposedly was heavily influenced by this notion and it really shows in the decisions that his administration made during their time in office. I place my faith in the goodness of mankind and under the hope that leaders who come into power will be held accountable by their people, otherwise face turmoil, conflict, and ousting, and in most cases they usually will want to impress their people or provide for them. This, however, is not always the case, but it is the general trend.

Returning to the topic of foreign policy, I think there are two main obstacles that stand in the way of effective policy in Africa. The first obstacle is the habit of trying to oversimplify things by creating an all-inclusive package or policy that is directed at the continent of Africa, instead of catering to its individual nations and peoples. The second is the tacit thinking that modernity (Westernization) is progress, and therefore the closer one emulates and imitates the west, the more one progresses.

The continent of Africa is often treated as being one single country, when in fact it is not Australia. Africa has an extraordinarily diverse panoply of cultures and peoples, not surprising of a massive continent. All of these cultures have been influenced in different ways by outside peoples and cultures and from cultures and peoples that are close in proximity. It is therefore folly to attempt to create a policy that is directed at the continent and not the individual states within that continent. What works for one country may not work for the next, just as what works for you may not work for another country. Foreign policy must be tailored and fitted to each individual state, much as suits are fitted for each individual man. Its expensive yes, but also successful (and probably cheaper if you consider the costs of the effects of failed policy). Africa proves this truth time and time again.

The second obstacle is easily understood by anyone who has been to, lived in, or studied Africa, because they are intimately aware of the sheer diversity on the continent and even within the states. There are myriad ethnicities, cultures, and styles of life, social systems, and governance structures that are starkly different from ‘our’ (outsiders) modern conceptions. We often assume that these indigenous systems and structures that exist are somehow flawed, ‘backwards’, or primitive, because we are under the impression that our way is the right way. As John McCall accurately points out in his book Social Organization in Africa this notion has significantly influenced the decisions and policies of international development agencies. ‘An assumption that economic development means replacing “traditional” African social systems with “modern” Western ones has led planners to favor the centralized administration of development programs and to ignore the practical efficiency of community-based institutions, which can more accurately identify local needs and are relatively free of the bureaucratic waste and corruption that have plagued projects designed on a Western model’. This has been a huge problem in Africa and around the world (i.e. Afghanistan and Iraq) for the West, because it never uses the useful systems that are already in place in the community, because it thinks that these systems are inherently flawed or inept, but as McCall points out, and it is worth repeating and should be taught to all development agencies: ‘modernization does not necessarily mean Westernization’,[14] (nor, for that matter does ‘modernization’ necessarily mean progress’).

This cultural bias, commonly called ethnocentrism in anthropology circles, stems from the idea that one’s own culture is vastly superior to someone else’s culture. Unfortunately people or states with power can convince through force or appeal, other people or states that this is true. Thus among some people in Africa there is a strong appeal and incentive to adopt the practices of the West, to inherit its technological amenities, and too many, THAT... is modernization; THAT… is progress. I recently saw a funny comic strip that uses humor to jab at this idea. The cartoon portrays an African village with kids running around smiling with sticks and wooden wheeled rings that they whack to keep rolling. A white man in a business suit is looking on at this activity and deplores the primitive conditions that the kids are playing in and takes it upon himself to do something. The next square shows the same village scene, but this time with all the kids playing on laptops, and you see some fighting over whose turn it is, while others are incapable of drawing themselves away from their new toy, because they want to play just one more game. The cartoon accurately portrays that Westernization may not be as good as we often assume it to be, all we can say, with confidence, is that it is just different, not better, not worse, just different. Thus it is wrong for nations to impose their cultural system on other people, through their policies or by other means, because they think that their culture is more advanced and more robust than the culture of the people they are working with. Whether or not that is objectively true is irrelevant, because it is up to the people of that culture to decide, not for us to impose. That’s the point I am trying to make.

I’d like to briefly elaborate on an idea I touched upon earlier, because I think it is an important one. Often indigenous systems are vastly superior and more effective than outside imposed ones. As Eugenia Shanklin in her chapter Family and Kinship illustrates when she briefly shares a story of how she suggested using indigenous systems, instead of western ones, and not surprisingly it was much more effective:

"A number of years ago, while chairing a session at a UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference (the conference was on a Cameroon disaster that killed nearly 2,000 people and left more than 5,000 homeless, including more than 2,000 orphans), I remarked that Western solutions to such problems--psychiatrists and boarding schools--were being offered for African orphans. I added that, since humans had evolved in Africa, it was likely that during eons of evolutionary history, Africans had come up with their own solutions to human problems. The African solution I heard mentioned most often in conference corridors was "family." As it worked out, the best solution to the problems of the orphaned children (and even adult) survivors was to put them into fictive (that is, made-up) families" (Shanklin et al., 2001).

It is solutions such as this, applying local solutions to local problems that need to be capitalized on and used by outside developmental agencies, because they are so much more effective and cheaper to impose, as they already exist and are practiced. Whether to political, social, or economic problems, the solutions are already in place and in practice, they just have to be slightly tweaked to the changing global system that they are entering in to.

To return to the question of China’s policy towards Africa, it is hard to tell what cultural biases they are bringing into the mix, mostly because I am not an expert on Chinese culture, but if non-interference and building relationships for the communal good instead of the individual good are common themes in Chinese culture, then I would say that China has a very high chance of being a successful partner of and beneficial friend to Africa. However as always whenever a major power (in the Realists’ state sense) comes rolling into town looking to satisfy its material interests negative results will occur. These however are all being addressed within African communities and within China itself. Questions concerning fair and equal labor rights, human rights in general, detrimental effects of industry on the environment, political corruption, etc. are all issues that people in both country and continent are addressing and questioning. The important thing to watch is whether or not their voices become loud enough for the powers that be (usually governments) to listen to their concerns and demands. China has an awkward history in this regard, but it consistently shows that it no longer ignores these concerns and is, perhaps grudgingly, but still undeniably, addressing them as they emerge, first usually on the grassroots level, but especially when they bubble up into the general public or civil society level, and as more people demand these rights and protections for the environment, the government usually has to respond in one way or another, and history shows that the successful governments were the ones that catered to its people.

With the upcoming Olympics in Beijing approaching, China is obviously making an enormous effort to shine in front of the international community, impressing not only them, but their own citizens, and making them feel proud. As China’s economy and state status in the international community continues to grow, all eyes will be transfixed on the policies that China adopts, the actions it takes, and the effects that they make. I doubt the world’s attention will be as focused on Africa as it will be on China, but Africa will also be profoundly changed by its relationship with China. The differences amongst African nations are often exalted by Africanists and deeply protected (identity to Afriacanists is what tradition is to traditionalists), and the particular identities of each people are always being wrestled over in an effort to define.[15] But if African nations hope to be prosperous in the future, they will HAVE to settle these differences and historical scores, and unite together in organizations such as the African Union, in order to compete successfully in the new and ever growing globalized world. If they continue to argue and fight amongst themselves about inner issues and concerns they will continue to be taken advantage of by outside forces who are working more collectively and therefore effectively. Whether Africa redivides itself into ethnic based states of territory or whether it will keep the lines that the occupiers assigned is a question for Africans to decide, but I think the most successful route is to keep the state system already imposed and more or less adopted, and organize and establish more multilateral institutes like the AU, so that when they do work collectively, they can, collectively, achieve and benefit from their goals on a more frequent basis than if they go at it alone.

The international system and the global economy is forcing groups of people to organize and form larger groups in order to compete on more or less equal footing, because those groups that stay divided usually end up fighting amongst one another over small local group interests, whereas collective entities or bodies representing big groups, compete over global interests, often playing these local conflicts of interests off of each other in order to attain their objectives. Thus I think the take home message that I would send to Africans, as they think about how they will deal with China and other foreign states in the future of their development, is the old, but true adage: ‘United [you] stand, but divided [you] fall’. We (outsiders) have learned a lot from Africa and Africans and I can only hope that they, too, can learn something from themselves and from us.


[1] People’s Daily Online < >
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] P. Chabal & J. Daloz (1999). Africa Works.
[5] N. Obiorah, (2006) ‘Who’s Afraid of China? Towards An African Civil Society Perspective on China-Africa Relations
[6] Embassy of China, ‘China’s Africa Policy’, January 2006.
[7] Cited in Chris Alden (2006), ‘Through African Eyes: Representations of China on the African continent.’
[8] The Economist (2006) ‘Never too late to scramble’, 26 Oct < >
[9] C Timberg. ‘Asian Giant's Appetite for Raw Materials, Markets Has Some Questioning Its Impact on Continent’. The Washington Post, 13 June 2006. < >
[10] L. Polgreen. ‘China’s Trade in Africa Carries a Pricetag.’ The New York Times, 21 August 2007. < >
[11] S. Sengupta. World Briefing. The New York Times, 10 October 2007. < >
[12] Fox News. <,2933,165695,00.html >
[13] BBC. ‘Is China Africa’s New Master’. Have Your Say. < >
[14] J. McCall. Social Organization in Africa.
[15] P. Chabal & J. Daloz (1999). Africa Works disorder as political instrument.


dj-jas said...

i liked this paper on an interesting topic! i don't really know anything about this but it has been discussed in a couple of my classes in the past. it seems well-researched too.

one tip: you could refer to the National Security Strategy ( when talking about the US's narrow view of modernization as " single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise".

and a couple thoughts....
do you think that the chinese government (or people, for that matter) views africa in a way that is any less demeaning? just referring to a single "african culture" (which i assume leaves out north africa) seems essentializing. so do you think china views africa positively (because it represents a new market/ally) but still wrongly?

do you think that the top-down style of modernization that china espouses is also appealing to certain african states because of an historical propensity towards "stong man"-type rule?

just wondering what you think about that... good luck with the paper!

AdamK said...

Well of course to ask the question does the chinese government or people perceive or conceive of Africa in a demeaning way, suggests that there is one homogenous view of Africa in China, which of course would be stereotyping the Chinese, but what is popularized and sold, which is usually a good clue of what most people think, is the exotic Africa. I had a really hard time interpreting the overall attitude towards Africa in China, because I, obviously, don't read chinese, so I can't really say with any confidence what the Chinese think.

As for you other question, I do think that the strong government approach to development has a lot of promising aspects, because many Chinese businesses have the financial backing and assurances of the government, which leads them to overcome the 'risk' of investment in Africa. Also the top-down approach seems to be proving itself effective, because the Chinese are building a growing reputation of 'getting the job done'. They have invested in and constructed infracstructure such as roads, dams, a promised savvy new building for the AU, and other things.

Africans often emphasize that they would rather see bread before they see democracy, meaning there are more important priorities on their plate, that they are concerned with and China is permitting these priorities to be met, because they do not have the condintionalities that I mentioned in the essay.

But I don't know if the appeal is due to a "Strong man" or big man or whatever you wanna call it typte goverment or rule. Its just the chinese policy offers a much more present and realizable satisfaction of immediate needs that the Africans perceive, that isn't at the expensive of long term goals of democracy and economic benchmarks. I think that's the main appeal.

Anyways glad you liked it. When are you flying home?