Signs of a heart break?

Brand new and modern transport infrastructure, communication networks, power plants, schools, hospitals, and industrial parks are the hallmarks of China’s involvement in Africa. These mega-projects, largely funded and executed by China, are rapidly transforming the urban and rural landscapes of many countries and regions across the continent.

The most iconic example of China’s signature undertakings is embodied within the recent and distinctive architecture that houses the African Union headquarters, a US$ 200 million gift of the Chinese government to the African continent.

In a similar vein, China’s engagement in Africa brought in much-needed financing to the cash-strapped economies of the continent.  The “few strings attached” and less stringent conditions of Chinese money held a strong appeal for African countries, which are increasingly turning to China for their financing requirements.

China’s position as Africa’s financier of choice was further consolidated in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, as evidenced by China’s impressive capacity to bail out ailing economies of the West.

These particular features of China’s approach to Africa attest to a charm strategy at play, a strategy that China deployed in a bid to win the hearts and minds of African citizens and their leaders.

How successful has the charm strategy been?

From China’s perspective, the blend of pragmatic and “soft” approach has clearly been a winning formula.  China was not only able to get its foot in the door of many African countries, but it also managed to get those doors to open.

The pay-offs of this carefully calibrated approach are substantial: China scored big in terms of diplomatic, economic and commercial gains. Its ties with the African continent were boosted, with China becoming the number one trading partner of several African countries.

Looking at it from Africa’s perspective, the answer to the above question is not as clear cut.

During the courtship period, African countries were seduced by China’s swift and concrete response to their pressing needs and priorities, a response which stands in sharp contrast to the West’s apathy and rhetoric-based approach to Africa’s developmental challenges.

Right from the onset, China’s engagement in Africa translated into tangible results in the form of readily available credit lines, and basic and vital infrastructure development projects – an area that the West has repeatedly shied away from. China’s willingness to invest in infrastructure development, a prerequisite for accelerating Africa’s socio-economic transformation, was perceived as a welcome change to decades of neglect and destruction that have severely hindered the continent’s progress.

Many African citizens are appreciative of China’s significant contribution to the infrastructure roll-out both at the national and regional level. In some instances, this charm tactic was decisive in tilting the relationship balance in favour of China. Furthermore, African countries, especially those that have fallen out of favour with the West as well as those in search of new avenues, opted to ‘look East’ to China, which they considered as a better alternative to the West’s stifling and unfavorable partnership arrangements.

It is fair, therefore, to say that China’s charm tactics were indeed successful in that they triggered a positive reaction from the African side, at least in the early stages of the Africa-China relations.

However, it was not long before ripples started to form on the tranquil waters on which the Africa-China relations seemed to glide. Cracks have started to form in the foundations of this burgeoning relationship, just as they have formed literally on some of the newly-built structures or on some of the newly completed roads laid by Chinese contractors.

These are signs that the relationship is being tested now that the honeymoon period has drawn to a close. Africa’s “romanticized” view of China has begun to fade and sour in light of shattered dreams and hopes.

Is Africa heading for a heart break?

Despite its initial success, the relationship is starting to reveal serious shortcomings. Some would argue that Africa’s unrealistic expectations and hopes it pinned on China and the failure of the continent to meet its partner halfway are to be blamed for Africa’s heartbreak. However, the blame should not rest on one side alone, and both parties have the shared responsibility of mending the cracks.

One thing is certain. Africa’s perception of China’s involvement on the continent has changed.

Growing discontent and frustrations over unmet expectations are being heard from various quarters across Africa, from the top government officials and prominent business people down to the ordinary citizens.

In particular, African citizens are disillusioned by the Africa-China partnership which, in their eyes, has failed to deliver on its promises. Among the complaints and criticisms voiced by African citizens, the fact that the relationship suffers from glaring and persistent imbalances, which are harming African countries, is the most common one.

If we look closely at the partnership arrangement, we realize that the essence of this partnership is basically similar to all the other partnership arrangements that Africa entertains with the rest of the world.

The relationship between the two sides focuses almost exclusively on government-to-government relations, thereby effectively excluding entire sections of African societies, including the private sector, the civil society, and the ordinary citizens. These sections lack an adequate platform to get involved and participate in consultations and decisions that matter to them.

More often than not, they are not made privy of economic deals and packages agreed between their countries and China owing to the opacity of information and the secretive nature of the negotiations, thus providing a fertile ground for corrupt and fraudulent practices and room for speculations.

The primary complaint of African citizens is that the Africa-China relationship lacks inclusiveness and their call – similar to the call for a partnership that is inclusive of the African private sector made by the prominent Nigerian businessman, Tony Elumelu (@TonyOElumelu) – is for a relationship that embraces the larger sections of the African societies, and one that ensures their effective integration and participation in the continent’s transformation process.

On the economic front, African citizens are disappointed by the fact that China’s economic involvement in Africa has not brought about the socio-economic transformation in the scale and pace that they were hoping for.

If we examine Africa-China trade relations, we note considerable imbalances both in terms of trade structure and earnings. African exports to China are still predominantly resource-based commodities, whilst the continent remains a net importer of manufactured goods and machineries from China, a situation which goes against Africa’s efforts of economic diversification and industrialization. Also, most African countries trading with China, with the exception of oil-producing economies, incur large trade deficits that are hurting their economies.

It goes without saying that China comes out as a clear winner of its trade relations with the African continent.

Additionally, while it is too early to assess the impact of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that are being set up in selected African countries in the likes of Shenzhen in China, the fear is that these SEZs would only serve as hubs for re-export for Chinese companies operating in Africa, without creating the synergies or linkages with the local economies, ensuring the skills and knowledge transfer to locals, or even generating the revenues these countries expect to derive.

In terms of the much-awaited opportunities that the Africa-China relations promised to provide, China’s investments flowing to Africa have failed to create the employment and business prospects that the continent desperately needed.

The gigantic construction and infrastructure projects underway on the continent are mostly undertaken by Chinese contractors, using Chinese money, Chinese procurement and Chinese labour.

This is not, of course, unique to China, as it is symptomatic to donor-recipient relationships, where the lines between aid and economic interests are often blurred.

However, the sourcing of Chinese workers at a time when the continent is overwhelmed with soaring youth unemployment levels has caused much resentment among African citizens. Even in cases where local employment was generated, the number of jobs created is still less than adequate to make a dent in the persistently high unemployment, whereas the types of jobs created are mostly geared towards the low-skilled labor.

Similarly, Chinese start-ups and companies that are sprouting up across the continent are benefitting from the strong financial backing provided by Chinese banks and the attractive investment packages offered by African countries.

Scores of Chinese companies that have entered the African market have operations in a range of economic sectors, and rarely do they forge joint-ventures or partnerships with the African private sector. Instead, they have become tough competitors to the local African businesses, whose very existence is currently under serious threat.

Furthermore, much to the dismay of African citizens, Chinese companies in Africa, far from the scrutiny of the Chinese government, are less inclined to respect and abide by the rules and the regulations of African countries and to deliver quality work.

When news of tensions between African citizens and members of the Chinese communities living in Africa make the headlines, such as the violent incidents in Zambia’s copper mines (China’s Bloody Frontier in Zambia), we should look beyond the immediate causes to uncover the underlying reasons.

In my view, the above mentioned frustrations are at the heart of the simmering tensions and frictions. The Chinese government is making efforts to resolve these issues through diplomatic channels.

But it is not enough. African citizens’ call for adjustments and changes in the Africa-China partnership should be heeded by both parties.  Unless urgent actions are taken, the cracks have the potential of becoming a destabilizing factor for the Africa-China relations, especially as the partnership is entering a new phase.

The question is how far is Africa willing to go to mend the cracks? After all, the onus is on us, African countries’ leadership and citizens, to redress the relationship imbalances and ensure a more favorable partnership arrangement for the continent.

(30 December 2013)


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