For nearly a decade, as China made a historic push for business opportunities and expanded influence in Africa, most of the continent’s leaders were so thrilled at having a deep-pocketed partner willing to make big investments that they rarely paused to consider whether they were getting a sound deal, analyst Howard French writes for The New York Times:
China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but as Africans are beginning to fully recognize, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife. As a consequence, China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more skeptical phase.
But now Beijing confronts “skepticism from Africa’s own increasingly vibrant civil society, which is demanding to know what China’s billions of dollars in infrastructure building, mineral extraction and land acquisition mean for the daily lives and political rights of ordinary Africans,” notes French, the author of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa:
This represents a tricky and unfamiliar challenge for China’s authoritarian system, whose foreign policy has always focused heavily on state-to-state relations. China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic countries. Beijing is constitutionally uneasy about dealing with independent actors like advocacy groups, labor unions and independent journalists.
He cites an op-ed essay in The Financial Times by Lamido Sanusi, recently suspended as Nigeria’s central bank governor, who wrote: “In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labor imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”
The best way for Western democracies to respond is not by warning Africans about the advance of China — but rather, helping to strengthen African civil society and, thereby, governance, French contends:
Washington should also encourage China and other up-and-coming players in the international economy, from Brazil to Turkey to Vietnam, to abide by higher transparency standards — and to rigorously abide by them, too.
In the end, though, what will minimize any downsides of China’s involvement in Africa is the deepening of African democracy. Grass-roots activism and vibrant independent media are, everywhere, the ultimate check on corrupt legislators and on foreigners who get lucrative but unsound deals by handing over bags of cash.