China and Africa – a long history of developing relations
China’s emerging role in Africa has been a subject of some controversy for the past few years. Earlier claims that Sino-Africa relations were a “˜little noticed trend’ would hardly hold water now. Having caught the imagination of the mainstream media, much of the academic debate necessary to develop this field of study has been obfuscated by its treatment in the popular press. A lack of access to empirical data has also caused academic literature to leaning heavily on journalism, exacerbating this problem.
A bit of historical context would not go amiss here. One of the earliest books attempting to investigate China’s emerging contemporary role in Africa is Snow’s The Star Raft (1988). What is striking about his analysis of Chinese contact with the African continent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are the many parallels in the fears evinced by Western observers of this dynamic then, and those voiced now. Interestingly, there was a fixation on the crafty Celestial corrupting the essentially pure nature of the African “˜noble savage’. The problematic nature of this theme, quite aside from its racist undertones, occurs with tedious regularity in contemporary China-Africa discourse, assuming passivity on the part of African actors. Consequently, 20 years later, a substantial portion of commentary on China’s role in Africa has changed little.
Debates regarding the Chinese traders that were infiltrating even the remotest African villages to sell cheap goods occurred as far back as 1886. Newspapers carried headlines warning that China would “˜drive the white man from the Continent’, such fears having emerged as early as the 1920’s. This refers particularly to the misgivings of Sir William Butler, among many Europeans who feared that Johannesburg, after having receipts Chinese indentured labour to work in the gold mines, would become a giant China town. Rather bizarrely he voiced the fear that the city’s principal language would become Chinese!
The irony to note here is that these Chinese traders came to Africa in the wake of Chinese indentured labour brought to Africa in a European colonial attempt to engrain the “˜Chinese work ethic’ into the African populations of their colonies. The contemporary influx of Chinese traders to Africa have also come in the wake of Chinese labourers coming to Africa, but this time the former are working largely on state-sponsored infrastructural projects.
That Chinese traders in Africa are not a new phenomenon does not seem to detract from the sensationalist headlines. To be fair, Chinese commercial interests in Africa, especially on small and medium enterprises have increased. Indeed, it is likely to be an increasingly volatile flashpoint vis-í -vis local employment issues.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s latest indigenisation laws, passed just a few weeks previously, apparently bar foreigners from owning small retail stores. This would be a big blow to Chinese traders in the Southern African country, if it were applied to them. However, given that Mugabe has successfully alienated all other foreign partners other than China, it appears that he is wary of applying his laws to Chinese nationals in Zimbabwe for fear of annoying Beijing.
Further afield in Angola, where the Angolan government’s national reconstruction programme is being financed extensively by China Exim Bank ,to the tune of a possible, US$ 10.5 billion, it was negotiated that 30 percent (in value) of the infrastructure contracts subcontracted to Angolan firms. However, sloppy implementation has ensured that these regulations are not enforced, angering local Angolan entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the small and medium Chinese entrepreneurs arriving in Angola are not only servicing the large Chinese companies, but winning market share from their local counterparts. Such tensions between Chinese and African nationals are likely to continue, particularly where nothing is being done to address issues or where local policies actually fan the flames of discontent. Given the political climate sweeping the continent following recent events in Libya and Egypt, it is not something that African governments should take lightly.