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China: colonist or comrade?

GoodallThis article by Megan Ellis was published in iAfrica  on 15 Mar 2014

Sino-African relations have been brought back into the headlines, with bilateral trade between SA and China increasing by a third in 2013 and an education deal which could see Mandarin taught in local schools.

However not everyone is celebrating China’s increasing ties with African countries.

Last month, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall likened China to a colonial power – pillaging Africa for resources at the expense of the environment and the local population.

In fact, a survey by the Ethic Institute of South Africa found that SA leads the continent in anti-Chinese sentiment.

However, are these views balanced or alarmist?

Polarised reporting

Brigitte Read, project coordinator at the China-Africa Reporting Project based at Wits, said that reporting on China is often polarised.

“China portrayed either as a predator or partner depending on the topic and often the position of the media,” said Read. “As a rising superpower challenging the established order, China can often be treated with suspicion and ignorance and not the balance and fairness good journalism requires.”

Commenting on Goodall’s comparison of China to colonialists, Read said: “There is no doubt that China is actively exploiting Africa’s resources but whether this constitutes colonialism depends on your definition of the term.”

“China is not coming in as a conqueror and is generally dealing with willing government and business partners who often seek out Chinese investment.”

Business equals

This was reflected in President Jacob Zuma’s defence of China’s business relations with South Africa.

“The countries that have been dealing with us before, particularly old economies, they’ve dealt with us as former subjects, as former colonial subjects,” Zuma said in an interview with CNBC Africa.

“The Chinese don’t deal with us from that point of view. They deal with us as people that you must do business (with), at an equal level so to speak,” he said.

Hysteria and hypocrisy

Dr Daouda Cissé, research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, echoes this idea.

When some talk about China as colonial power, we should look at the type of relations African countries had with former colonial powers,” he said. “There was an exploitation of resources, military conquest, and economic expansion done without partnership negotiations.”

“Today we are talking about economic globalisation and sovereign African countries establishing political, diplomatic and economic ties with the rest of the world; be it the Chinese, the Korean, the Japanese, the Europeans or the Americans.”

Cissé published a commentary piece entitled ‘Hypocrisy and hysteria in Western criticism of China’s engagement in Africa’, in which he said there is hardly any positive coverage of the nature of Sino-African relations.

He said that Europe or the United States’ engagement with the continent was not perfect either – potentially having more negative than positive aspects.

He also pointed out that China invests more in Europe, USA and Australia than it does in Africa.

Africa’s independent countries operate in the era of globalisation just like anyone else; they are not in a Western backyard,” said the paper.

In an interview with iafrica.com, Cissé said that China’s presence in South Africa could help diversify the economy and provides investment opportunities.

“If well managed, Chinese investments in resources sector for instance could contribute to employment, skills and technology transfer and to bridge the gap between sectors in South Africa,” he said.

“As South Africa is endowed with resources, particularly mineral products, the surge in the global commodities’ prices could contribute to South African economic growth.”

Engagement with China could also provide a boost to the manufacturing sector.

“The case of Hisense in Atlantis in the Western Cape is an example to look at,” said Cissé.

“Hisense managed to hire locals in an area where the unemployment rate is still high and contributed to skills and technology transfer as the whole manufacturing process of household equipments take place in Atlantis.”

However, there are also negative aspects of China’s involvement in Africa.

“China’s involvement in South Africa comes with challenges to policymakers, businesses and entrepreneurs,” he said.

“Competition for domestic market share as well as regional market share in some areas (textile industry, manufacturing…) happened and could happen in the long run particularly in new sectors where the Chinese are more and more involved: telecommunications, finance, tourism and infrastructure building.”

Cissé also said that there are also environmental sustainability issues if one considers the Chinese investments in the mining sector.

However, he said that much of the anti-Chinese sentiment surrounded issues of ignorance and prejudice.

“In the case of South Africa, xenophobia in particular and racism and discrimination in general add to public sentiment among South Africans about Chinese involvement in South Africa.”

So while there are both negative and positive effects of China’s involvement in Africa, much of the reporting and sentiment regarding these relations is biased.

“Journalistic knowledge could help deal with stereotypes and prejudices often used in many China-Africa media coverage,” said Cissé. “Media experts need to go beyond that rhetoric and come up with broader perspectives.”

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