Posted by: sean | June 28, 2007

China in Africa

The London Review has a summary piece about China’s new love affair with Africa. If you’ve been keeping up with Chinese affairs on the continent, there probably won’t be much new information in this piece, but it’s a nice summary, and it’s helpful to have it all in one piece. It’s a subscription only article, but the main gist is summed up here:

In all likelihood China will be neither a saviour nor a destroyer. Some African opinion leaders have realised that it does not really stand for a different model. ‘Non-interference’ is not a value so much as a thin shield for old-fashioned realpolitik. China, like any other major power, generally puts its own strategic interests first. If its clients prove too embarrassing, it will restrain them, just as the United States once dumped Mobutu Sese Seko, when his taste for champagne, diamonds and bloodshed proved too embarrassing. Yet if China’s interests are better served by protecting rogues, it will protect them. If Chinese companies can get away with destroying Africa’s environment and paying little attention to its workers, they probably will. If they cannot – because local activists or consumers call them on it, or because it affects their sales in Africa and the West – perhaps they won’t.

Like the Western powers, China seems set to traffic in whatever images of Africa suit it: before the 2006 China-Africa summit in Beijing, Chinese officials plastered the city with posters of tribal warriors and lions that might have been taken from the National Geographic fifty years ago. Like the colonial powers, China will buy Africa’s resources and sell it manufactured products, regardless of whether Africa manages to produce anything that China wants to buy or succeeds in using China’s largesse to upgrade its own industries. ‘The key must be mutual benefit,’ Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, told a group of Chinese officials. ‘Otherwise we might end up with a few holes in the ground where the resources have been extracted, and all the added value will be in China.’

Last summer, when the main opposition leader in Zambia, infuriated by the deaths in the explosives factory, made Chinese investment an issue in the presidential election, the Chinese Embassy threatened to break off relations with Zambia if he was elected. Hardly a model of non-interference.



  1. interesting angle..

  2. Interesting but highly problematic.

    The biggest error is, of course, the title: “China’s New Love Affair with Africa”. Let’s set aside the culturally arrogant undertones and stylistic silliness and just focus on the erasure of basic history.

    Let’s get one thing straight here: China’s relationship with Africa is not a simple one night stand. The affair has spanned many decades. China did not seduce Africa on one fine night at her club with a fancy Swiss watch, true Prada suit, and good teeth, all of which Africa reciprocated with the secret agreement to take the beauty at the local love hotel. Nor did Africa one day find that her purse was stolen after the initiation. And it’s not simply the case that Africa went around to her friends confiding to them “don’t tell anyone” because if they did, Miss Africa would look really goddamn stupid, but of course, we know that gossip works in such strange and unpredictable ways.

    This kind of narrative shit we hear about in our day to day twenty-something western metropolitan life is not that dissimilar to the basic structural and presentation of the London Review of Books article; perhaps it’s a customary practice in London, because it’s annoyingly familiar to me in New York (New York Review of Books of Other Books), and perhaps to you in Paris (The Diplomatic World). But such articles are stupidly dangerous because it borders on a reactionary mindset which always deny history, and therefore ruins any possibility of productive worthy discourse. I just don’t want to hear it because I’m young and tired.

    The relationship spans even *before* Nixon’s visit which more or less stabilized or normalized relations between the US and China. One of the issues discussed back then, which was way exploded, was the issue regarding China’s threat as a “model Third World Nation, one that departs from the Soviet Union and the United States. What China offered then was a model of an impoverished nation which not only achieved stabilization but managed to protect itself with enormous state capacity (even today, China is perhaps the only nation capable of controlling the internet), a developmental combination that Chinese communism offered, and was yet not so seemingly involved with international security matters. What was especially a significant issue at that time was China’s *economic* relationship with the uncertain “weak states”; the practice was considered immoral, exploitative, and not to mention threatening. The fear was that China would become the third party to the third world. Yet, somehow, international historiography missed out on the implications of this aspect, a shame, especially since China seems now like such a new and exotifed subject in our current discourse of things. Let’s move further into history.

    Prior to the China’s entry into the WTO in the 90s, guess where most of China’s outsourcing of cheap goods went?

    That’s right. Africa. The one place where the costs of labor were far cheaper than a population that is and was essentially an agrarian-society. In fact, if you talk to any older African gentlemen about manufactured Chinese goods in their countries, from just say Sudan, Libya, Zimbabwe, Senegal, then they will fondly recall all of the broken down “Chinese cheap shit” floating around everywhere like Hersey bars and Fruit of the Loom underwear. Now the opposite is happening.

    Why was this very fundamental aspect missed when the past economic relations actually seems like a new political affair with this continent? Part of the explanation is that economic transfers meant peanuts compared to the mammoth trillion dollars of capital transfers from the developed world, and it was an aspect that even the UN missed.

    The fact is that globalization (but without the privatization and neo-liberal nonsense) between China and Africa had arrived decades earlier. In fact, some economists are thinking twice about the one-night-stand assumption.

    Articles like these are usually full of arrogant reactionary shit. I’m not surprised it came from the LROB either.

    If we look over our previous discussions, I mentioned that although Political and Economic relations are always interwoven in principle and in reality, that’s not the case according to China. There are reasons for this.

    Still, I suppose the overall implication works on this piece, which strikes me as kind of Immanuel Wallerstein like (an Orthodox Marxian, a someone that the LROB is quite fond of) : we’re witnessing the transformation of a semi-peripheral nation gaining status as a Core one as reflected by its exploitation of underclass nations. How interesting.

    That’s all. I know you like to taunt but sometimes I feel like you like to join the crowd and talk about the complexities of one-night stands. I respect you of course, but not when you appreciate the finer things of club-hipster talk.


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