China in Africa — More Light, Less Heat, Please

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Much heat, but not enough light, is being generated by recent commentary on China’s economic and political drive into Africa. Here are 7 thoughts (maybe they add light, or just more heat — let us know):

1. China’s investment. Much needed: jobs and growth will flow. But also disquiet. Investment snapshots: China is now Zimbabwe’s biggest foreign investor (Mugabe has a friend); China has lent Gabon US$ 83 million for a hydro-electric dam (we await an environmental assessment); China is taking stakes in some of Africa’s biggest investors — Rio Tinto is the latest (hope this doesn’t weaken corporate social responsibility). Africa needs more investment, but China must act responsibly.

2. China is to get copper and cobalt in a loan deal with the DRC. Hmm, the murky world of foreign investment in the Congo — say no more. Plenty of western nations haven’t practiced what they preach in the DRC. Can China do better? Will countries that received debt relief from the OECD-DAC donors under the HIPC Initiative (and then the MDRI) again build unsustainable debt positions — this time with loans from China? Helmut Reisen over at the OECD Development Centre finds no evidence of ‘imprudent lending’ by China to debt relief beneficiaries — so far. But this is one to watch.

3. Aid. The World Bank has hitched its wagon to China — a real sign of the times. China helped replenish the World Bank’s soft-loan arm (the International Development Association) last year — the first time it has contributed to IDA. And World Bank President Robert Zoellick wants more joint project lending with China (and Justin Yifu Lin has been appointed as the Bank’s new chief economist). This is all good news. Now that China is a Bank partner its aid stands a chance of being more rigorously assessed. And this moves China closer to bringing its aid within the OECD-DAC framework (see Richard Manning). More transparency might result. But it’s early days still.

4. Human rights. Oh Dear. One positive: China watered down support for Mugabe last year (Mugabe has a fickle friend). A big negative: Darfur (Sudan has oil, Zimbabwe does not). China is a permanent UN Security Council member. It needs to live up to the associated responsibilities (not helped when the other members don’t, notably the present US administration — see John Bolton’s latest fulmination against the UN here — but only if you must).

5. The Chinese Development ‘Model’. African commentators have been talking up China as a model. Seems more appealing than the policies the western donors pushed for years. And who can ignore growth rates of 10% year on year (even if the numbers look a might suspect to us)? China has lifted the largest number of people out of poverty in history — and Africa could sure use a lot of that. But fans forget (i) China has an enormous internal market — so import substitution is a more viable strategy than in tiny African countries (Africa needs an EU-style free trade zone to get anywhere near the economies of scale that Chinese companies enjoy). (ii) China is very good at mobilizing public revenues from growth — and Africa’s tax systems are mostly awful (iii) China’s one party state can force its way through development blockages that Africa’s young democracies cannot — and woe betide any Chinese who protest too vigorously (most African government’s don’t monitor access to the Internet in the way China does: Mugabe excepted). (iv) China’s model has involved stupendous environmental damage — we don’t need any Three-Gorges style projects in Africa, thank you.

6. Authoritarian regimes can retain political power if they ride a vigorous private sector — delivering rising living standards to keep (most) people happy. This is China’s political model. It appeals to some African leaders (notably Ethiopia and Rwanda). But to succeed you have to limit your ‘take’ — not a lesson likely to find favour with Africa’s long-stranding authoritarians but one that Africa’s next generation of political leaders might note (hopefully democrats, but also new authoritarians overthrowing the old).

7. That ‘other China’ — Taiwan — offers a model of how to make a successful transition to democracy while retaining (and strengthening) a vigorous maket economy. Taiwan is one of development’s great poverty success stories — a point that gets lost amidst the clamour of praise for its big brother neighbour. Taiwan is also aiming to win African friends.

That’s my 7 points. A good source of information on China in Africa is the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch. They do a weekly briefing, where some of the news cited here comes from. For China itself go to the Centre for Chinese Studies at Manchester University. And remember what Chou En-lai said when asked about the effects of the French Revolution — “its too early to tell”. Maybe that’s the case for China in Africa.

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2 Responses to “China in Africa — More Light, Less Heat, Please”

  1. Owen Says:

    For three gorges style projects in Africa, albeit on a smaller scale, see the Meroe and Jonglei projects in Sudan. One aspect that might hinder Chinese investment in Africa in future is their approach of building their own cities and using only Chinese labour in various projects, which can or could lead to what Sen calls ‘plural-monoculturalism’ and fractured societies. One African resouce not often included is there space for more people!

  2. Owen Says:

    Apologies, that should read ‘Merowe’ dam. THere is also the Kajba Dam project in Northern state, which the UN Human Rights envoy was recently prevented from visiting. According to Reuters, protesters were shot there last year, though the NCP’s approach has resulted in worse atrocities such as the present Darfur crisis. I should add, there are always two sides to every story, and there are undoubtedly many fair individuals trying to help Sudan go forwards, but a coterie of power groups persistently puts short term interests ahead of long term goals.

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