Kenyan tech reporter Mathew Otieno warns that, as Africa goes high-tech, it is mainly on totalitarian China’s terms. He doesn’t spare feelings: “A combination of arrogance and indifference is proving fatal to Western interests”
Most of Africa’s signature modern infrastructure projects, from railways and roads to dams and ports, have been, or are being, built or upgraded by Chinese firms, many of them state-owned, with funding from Chinese loans and grants.
Even the building currently housing the headquarters of the African Union was a wholesale Chinese gift, from foundations to rafters.Mathew Otieno, “The West is letting Africa slide into China’s orbit. It doesn’t have to” at MercatorNet (August 31, 2022)
Some of these fears are exaggerated. In March, for example, Bloomberg ran a YouTube video debunking the fears of a debt-trap, echoing an earlier critique by the creator behind PolyMatter, a popular YouTube channel. Chinese debt, according to Reuters, accounts for a relatively small portion of Africa’s total, much of which is still owed to Western institutional and private lenders – and their interest rates and terms are much worse.Mathew Otieno, “The West is letting Africa slide into China’s orbit. It doesn’t have to” at MercatorNet (August 31, 2022)
He sees the West’s relationship with Africa in development and tech issues as that of a toxic mother, sometimes helping, sometimes meddling, sometimes destructive. Then China, with little history in Africa, came along …
China didn’t take long to slide into the space left by the Soviet Union, and then to steadily outgrow it. It positioned itself as a neutral and equal economic partner to the continent, rather than as a benevolent but superior helper (like Europe) or as a co-revolutionary (like the USSR).
Earlier, China had portrayed itself as another victim of Western colonial powers; now it portrayed itself as a leader and a model. It was not so much on an evangelising mission (yes, it tried to spread Maoism during the Cold War, quickly recognised its failure and promptly de-emphasised the effort) as a recognition of brotherhood.
And it worked like a charm.
China is helping African countries develop infrastructure that the West should have seen to. It’s cooperating with African leaders who are considered pariahs in the West, leaving the matter of ousting or keeping such leaders to Africans. It pursues no alliances pitting African countries against each another. And, in the process, it has firmly established itself as a more reliable partner to African countries than the finicky and agenda-driven West.Mathew Otieno, “The West is letting Africa slide into China’s orbit. It doesn’t have to” at MercatorNet (August 31, 2022)
That last point amounts to saying that China tolerates corrupt dictators who play by its rules more easily than the West does. Such issues pose a dilemma for the West; not for China. Ironically,
Despite their growing closeness with China, no African regime wants to copy its model of governance. If anything, the continent has only become more democratic since the blitz of Chinese engagement began. When things have become worse, it has not been due to China’s malign influence.Mathew Otieno, “The West is letting Africa slide into China’s orbit. It doesn’t have to” at MercatorNet (August 31, 2022)
China, of course, sees itself as uniquely benevolent, as China Daily tells us:
Over the past two decades, the China-Africa partnership has made remarkable achievements on the road to sustainable development and improved the living conditions of the people in Africa. In many areas, including in economic and political cooperation, this partnership has delivered concrete results beneficial to both Africa and China. As a development partner, no other country has such an extensive commitment to Africa, for China has funded and developed (and is operating) more than two dozen big African ports and thousands of miles of roads and railways.
As a result of such dynamics, African elites generally welcome Chinese trade and investment, as they see them as beneficial to African countries. Thanks to China’s economic involvement in Africa, the African people have seen arguably the most momentous development on the continent since the end of the Cold War.Ehizuelen Michael, “China helps Africa realize its potential” at Global China Daily (August 19, 2022)
And China plays its handf skilfully. For example, in the matter of waiving African debt, we learn,:
Such “debt traps” are deliberately being created so China can force poor African states to vote with it in the UN General Assembly, support its positions on Taiwan or acquire valuable real estate in Africa that can be converted into military bases.Harry Verhoeven, “China has waived the debt of some African countries. But it’s not about refinancing” at The Conversation (August 31, 2022)
At The Diplomat, socioeconomist and sinologist Thierry Pairault, agrees, noting,
Simply put, by supporting African countries economically and financially, China is building a client base of countries that will enable it to organize the rebirth of a strong and powerful China. Anne Cheng, a professor at the College de France, writes that “For more than two millennia, ‘China’ has had the particularity not only of considering itself as the center of the world […], but of being the world [and] willingly referred to itself as ‘all that is under Heaven’ (tianxia).” So, when Xi Jinping proclaims that “the New Silk Roads are designed to establish harmony among ‘all that is under heaven,’” we understand that the globalization orchestrated by China is first and foremost a political project – whether it passes through Africa or elsewhere.Thierry Pairault, “China’s Presence in Africa Is at Heart Political” at The Diplomat (August 11, 2021)
Thus, China wants a loyalty commensurate with its view of itself:
In 2019 Yaw Osafo Maafo, a Ghanaian minister, spoke in Washington, dc, to his countrymen abroad. He was asked why a Chinese woman arrested for illegal gold-mining was sent back to China instead of being prosecuted. His answer became a national scandal. “We have a very good relationship with China,” he said. “So when there are these kinds of arrangements, there are other things behind the scenes. Putting that lady in jail in Ghana is not going to solve your economic problems.”“The price of friendship” at The Economist (May 20, 2022)
It appears that China is at least more honest than American Big Tech about its efforts to dominate hearts and minds.
You may also wish to read: COVID-19 response exposes racism in China, amid harmony claims. The lid blew off when African leaders broke the accustomed silence imposed by their dependence on Chinese high-tech loans. Many African residents of Guangzhou feel they are targeted so that Chinese authorities can blame new cases of the virus on the African population. (Heather Zeiger)