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Africans and Chinese find their own voices

talkingA collection of experts’ essays explores the complexities of China’s ties with Africa

By Bob Wekesa (originally published in China Daily)

One of the observations made by Deborah Brautigam in her impressive 2009 best-selling book The Dragon’s Gift is about the paucity of resources for Chinese and, by extension, African scholars to do research work.

The jury is still out on whether resources available to the research community from Chinese sources have improved since 2009. The less said about African governments’ allocations to research the better. However, the inclusion of an academic agenda in the overarching Forum on China Africa Cooperation in 2009 seems to have somehow responded to this lacuna.

China-Africa relations have attracted a flood of commentary, be they journalistic or scholarly, but the problem is that Chinese and African perspectives have been somewhat muted in comparison to Western ones. The point of departure is that increasingly, Chinese and African scholarly works are catching up and this presents an interesting scenario in the battle of minds on the whys and wherefores of Sino-Africa dynamics.

Two recent activities are worthy of note. One is a collaborative conference by Zhejiang Normal University and Addis Ababa University on China-Africa peace and security. This was held in late 2012 in Ethiopia and China-Africa scholars must still be ruminating on its report. The second major activity – and the subject of this review – is a conference themed: China-Africa Partnership: The quest for a win-win relationship, held in Nairobi in July 2012. The result is an edited volume of the same title that rolled off the press in May.

The book is the culmination of a forum organized by a prolific Kenyan think tank, the Inter Region Economic Network, with support from the Chinese embassy in Nairobi under the China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Program. Reading through the 26 articles, it is apparent that the title could be misleading, as “partnership” and “win-win” suggest a “see-no-evil-say-no-evil” regurgitation of the official Chinese and African line. Setting the stage for the frank discussions, Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Liu Guangyuan draws on the Chinese sayings “gossip can ruin a person” and “three people fabricate a tiger”.

While returning a forward-looking verdict on China-Africa relations, many of the authors constructively troubleshoot in areas that could do with recalibration. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor He Wenping is all for the role of China in infrastructure development in Africa, but she is unconvinced that projects such as “grandiose” presidential palaces for African leaders represent best value for money to African communities. With a turn for the metaphorical, she damps down concerns that Chinese loans may increase African countries’ indebtedness. “Stopping eating is certainly not the right recipe for curing the digestion problem, stopping aid and loans to Africa is not the right prescription to avoid a new round of debt crisis,” she writes.

The West, particularly the United States, comes in for a flogging with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s charge that China is pursuing a neo-colonial project in Africa and touching off ideological, historic, cultural and economic push-backs. If, as the volume’s editor James Shikwati points out, “Africans view China’s renewed interest and influence in Africa with both admiration and fear”, the consensus is that Africans view the US and Europe as overly patronizing and proselytizing.

One of the book’s omissions is that virtually no representation of a Western perspective seems to have been present at the conference to answer to charges of treating Africa as a taken-for-granted backyard. Nonetheless, most of the papers make the case that the ratcheting up of China-Africa relations has set off a rediscovery of Africa by the West and that the ensuing China-West competition portends economic alternatives for hitherto neglected African countries.

One of the most thoughtful and sophisticated analyses of Africa’s often floundering desire to integrate her 54 disparate economies is by Tang Xiao of China Foreign Affairs University. His paper has a whiff of fresh breath about it precisely because the push for Africa’s regional integration has not only climbed up the African Union agenda, but it has also become a key FOCAC action plan.

Throughout the book, various authors cite numerous examples to demonstrate the deliberate and unintended roles China has played at the African Union and at the regional economic community level on the continent. However, the challenge for Africa in overcoming the legacy of colonial boundaries and forging more intrastate engagements comes across as a herculean task. The Chinese have also been caught in this complex mess. Tang reckons the Chinese State and companies are bewildered by “the complexities accruing from multilateral cooperation”.

The complexities of African integration are seen as not being limited to matters of trade and economics. The essay by Shanghai Institute for International Studies researcher Zhang Chun is easily the most coherent paper, providing pointers to shifting Chinese foreign policy toward Africa. A notable case is where China has not only stepped up peacekeeping missions in Africa’s many troublespots, but has also increasingly weighed in via its United Nations Security Council seat or through back-channel diplomacy to influence feuding African combatants. This is seen as a shift from the straightjacket version of non-interference to a more liberal interpretation of the same.

To the credit of some of the authors, such momentous claims of Chinese diplomatic transitions are backed by recent and continuing cases. It is therefore not a stretch to suppose that China has changed Africa as much as Africa has changed China. Lloyd Amoa, a professor at Ghana’s Ashehi University, robustly argues this case in a paper replete with anecdotes from his days as a doctoral student at Wuhan University. In a probably cheeky reversal, Amoa maintains an “Africa-China”, rather than a “China-Africa” world order throughout a paper spiced with exhilarating comments. One such is an account of a Western scholar who “exaggerated” that China was involved in a land grab in Mozambique. When “she was (cornered) to produce evidence in the form of notes or source materials, she claimed to have lost them!” he writes.

From a comparative viewpoint, Osei-Hwedie, of the University of Botswana, and Paul Odhiambo, a policy analyst with the Kenya Institute for Policy Research and Analysis, point out that China’s peacekeeping and peace-building operations are geared toward such things as providing medics to treat the infirm and engineers to revamp collapsed infrastructure in war-ravaged regions. On the other hand, Western peace building hinges on neo-liberal democratic ideals.

Overall, the chapter on peace and security paints a grim picture of Africa’s fragility. Papers focusing on the Arab Spring put figures to the cost of the insurrections in all the Arab Maghreb countries, except Morocco. The evacuation of Chinese nationals and cessation of corporate activities has clearly taken a toll on the region.

If the papers on peace and security are disheartening to the extent that they detail huge challenges to the benefits that could accrue from peace, the chapter on people-to-people exchanges is a welcome relief. Noted Peking University scholar Li Anshan’s paper provides a philosophical wellspring of China-Africa relations, pointing out cultural similarities and differences. He appropriates Charles Dickens to encapsulate the relations along “the best of times, the worst of times” continuum.

This book is a welcome addition to the China-Africa field, more so because it provides an exclusively Sino-African window of view, notwithstanding the challenges inherent in such exclusivity. However, there are areas for improvement in publications arising out of China-Africa conferences. These include thematic and statistical fidelity, and editorial coherence and variety.

The author is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China and visiting researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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