Is China good for Africa?

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Is China good for Africa?

NO - Firoze Manji is Kenyan and started up Pambazuka News. He is Visiting Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford University, and editor of a number of books on China in Africa including African Perspectives on China in Africa (Pambazuka Press).


I don’t think we can simply talk about “goodies” and “baddies”, like in children’s stories. It is more complicated. There are positive things about it eg. China broke the power of the West over Africa after international banks stopped investment in Africa in the early 1980s. Now Africa can trade with others, not just capitalist countries. But we have to look at other things, too. China has not helped the political situation in Africa. China has not challenged the agreements leading to privatization. On the contrary, China has benefited from this. The most important question is who has benefited from China moving into Africa? If we do not look very deeply, it seems that Africa has benefited. In Angola, for example, Chinese investment in oil has helped the economy. Most people in Angola, however, have not seen this money. Why? Because the government kept most of the money. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

YES - Stephen Chan is the winner of the 2010 International Studies Association award, Eminent Scholar in Global Development. His new book is Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits (Yale University Press).


I agree that we should now look at all these questions. The countries who have always benefited from Africa have been complaining about China as if no-one new is allowed to come to Africa. But China is not a new country. China has supported freedom movements for a long time, but sometimes people judge it wrongly. Sometimes it sounds like the West is complaining about China now in a similar way to the “yellow peril” propaganda, during the colonization of Africa. I also agree that China is not challenging neoliberalism, which is not good. But it is good that China is breaking up Western power over the finance of the future.

You talked about Angola. A small group of powerful people control the money of the country. China has not changed that. Only the Angolan people can change that. Before China came to Angola, public finance was very corrupt. China did not want their money to be stolen, and they always want value for money. So the Chinese have forced Angolan public finance to be more open. It is not yet honest, but it is clearer.

I am not worried about Chinese investment in Africa, the trade, the aid projects or building. But I am worried about racism and dishonesty in many private Chinese companies. China should be ashamed of them.

NO - Firoze I agree that we need to look closely at private companies from China in Africa. But we also need to look closely at all big companies working in Africa. People talk a lot about China in Africa, but there are a lot more Western companies working there. When people talk about American or European companies working in Africa, they talk about the companies by name eg. Anglo-American, Unilever, Shell, BP, Chevron. But when they talk about Chinese companies, they just say “the Chinese”. Many big private companies, both Western and Chinese, are supported with public money, so we should blame them all.

You are right to say that only the people can change things. That is true of all our countries. If Chinese companies (or any other international companies) exploit African workers, we should blame governments in Africa that make this possible. Is it better for private Chinese companies to exploit people than for Western international companies to exploit them? Both of these benefit from cheap workers and from making women, especially simple farmers, responsible for looking after the workers. People do not often talk about how we can make our societies and economies more democratic. We need most people to benefit, not just a few. Is China helping make democracy more possible? No.

YES - Stephen I don’t think companies from any country should exploit others. And there are other countries too, not just the West and China. Some Indian business is not good. But often, these companies do the same thing in their country, and treat their own people badly. There is a real global problem of exploitation. But we must not only blame the Chinese.

The bigger Chinese companies have government support, but there is more exploitation from the smaller companies. Many African companies eg. in Zambia, have very good work laws. Zambia is now making sure all these laws are followed, including laws of local ownership.

China’s population is very large and there are many generations of Chinese people in Africa. In South Africa, it was the local Chinese food sellers who fed the people fighting against apartheid in Kliptown, Soweto. When I went to Kliptown recently, the old people still remembered this. The Chinese have been in Africa for a long time and they have done many different things.


China and Africa 'hand in hand' - but who is benefiting? Nir Relias/Reuters

NO - Firoze I cannot find more information about the “small” Chinese companies who exploit most. But, let’s return to the main question: is China good for Africa? We need to understand the question better: are Chinese companies good for African people? If they are, which people? Most Africans have had no direct benefit, and no-one knows what the indirect benefits might be. Maybe we can discuss the word “good”. Can “good” mean: making African people more able to decide their own future; more democracy; fighting against the power of big business, banks and international financial organisations; and making people’s groups stronger eg. groups of workers and social movements. Or “good” could mean even more than this.

If you think of these things, I cannot see much evidence that China is “good” for the people of Africa. It is true that other powerful countries are no better. But that doesn’t mean that China is good.

YES - Stephen You are right, of course. But if no foreign power is “good” for Africa, that means that Africa is powerless when it deals with all other powers from outside, or that the leaders in Africa do not care for their people. I think we shouldn’t say one Western or Eastern power is “good” or “bad”. We should, instead, ask about how African governments can be more skilful in their business with other countries. Now, for example, there is a big problem about Middle Eastern companies buying Maasai land in Tanzania. They are taking away land from local people for hunting big game animals.

Chinese people have been coming to Africa for a long time, and other generations have integrated very well. Jean Ping, Chair of the African Union, is half-Chinese; Fay Chung, who was a minister in the Zimbabwe government and helped fight for liberation, is Chinese; there are huge Chinese populations in Madagascar and Mauritius.

But I do not agree that we should say it is only the Chinese who are not good. This is a Western trick, to try to turn one ex-empire against another.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: