Chinese investment in Africa: exploitation or partnership?
By Prof. Maurice N. Amutabi
Many articles have recently been written on the role of China in Africa, many of which have been alarming and tend to misrepresent basic facts and truths. What is interesting is that many of the articles have been churned out by western researchers, and very few by African authors. Very few of these articles are based on any empirical research. There is a sense in which Chinese investment in Africa has come at a very opportune time, when western investment and loans are running low. The aid is coming at a time when Europe which has been the leading donor to Africa is currently facing acute financial difficulties, trying to rescue Greece and other endangered economies in Europe. It is also a time the United States is dealing with its own domestic financial meltdown and humongous deficits which has forced to borrow heavily from China. In fact some western investors are hurriedly closing shop in Africa, where direct foreign investment has dwindled to very low and alarming levels. It is therefore logical that someone else should step into the mantle.
There are many reasons why China’s passion for Africa is being interrogated by Western scholars, many of whom are doing the bidding for their governments. There are some good reasons why China is being put under scrutiny, and some are of them legitimate, while others are clearly biased and objectionable. Sample this from a European periodical: “Africa should be careful with its dealings with China, because China is not necessarily interested in their welfare but in the exploitation of their resources.” How hypocritical! Is Africa a child that needs to be advised on how to deal with its friends? And yet these are the type of cautionary tales that one comes across most of the time.
In 1980s, I was an undergraduate at the University of Nairobi when Chinese workers started the construction of the Moi International Sports Centre, the largest sports complex in Kenya to date. We were fascinated by stories circulating in Nairobi that if you delivered a dog to the Chinese workers in Kasarani, they would fete you, because dogs were a delicacy in China. A group of us went there with a dog and we discovered that the stories were exaggerated. They were amused that such a big group would be interested in bringing just one dog for sale. Of course they did not realize that our interest was not in the sale of the dog but whether indeed they bought dogs, which we were told they ate with abandon. They bought our dog which was one of the stray dogs we had befriended around campus. There was no much excitement on the faces of the Chinese men, and they offered us what one would regard as a normal price. We asked them if we could look around because we had been told that they were building the using ordinary soil and not cement. We found out that the stories were told were lies, for the Chinese were using cement and sand and not soil as we had been told. We were surprised when few years later, in 1987 when were used the stadium as the main venue for the All Africa Games which Kenya hosted. From then on, my idea of Chinese architecture and workmanship changed, from the negative images that I had read and been told about.
In 1994 when China started the construction of the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital buildings in Eldoret, I was teaching at Moi University at the time and we were told all sorts of things by our European and American colleagues at the university. We were told about the dangers of Chinese aid and their shoddy workmanship. We were told that when completed the hospital would begin to crumble because of poor Chinese technology. We were told that huge cracks would start to appear because the Chinese use substandard material in their construction and that is why they are cheap. Almost twenty years later, I have been going to the same hospital and I am yet to see a single crack on these many quality buildings that currently house the referral hospital and the Moi University’s health sciences faculty. we were also told that we should be ready for influx of Chinese following the completion of the hospital. What I have noticed is normal exchange scholars arriving from China similar in number to those we have received from Europe and North America over the years. More recently, during the construction of the Emusutswi-Kima road in 20001, and which passes through my village, I heard similar stories by some European friends who told us to watch out for the shoddy and poor workmanship by Chinese companies. The road is now four years old and there are no major structural weaknesses apart from the normal tears that one would expect on a busy road, which despite taking extra traffic because of the poor state of the Kakamega – Kisumu road at the time, still remains intact and strong. The refrain continues in newspaper commentaries, blogs and even in conversations – you Africans, be careful with Chinese. These are different people, they are not your ordinary friends and investors, these are ‘other’ people.
If such biased and condescending observation came from an African scholar, one would pay attention but coming from European and American scholars, it is hypocrisy of the highest order, because European powers occupied Africa for almost 100 years and recklessly exploited its resources. Africans were taken into slavery and dehumanized in the Americas where some still live under subhuman conditions in inner cities and crime infested ghettoes like Harlem. China is not enslaving any African and much of their investments are based on negations and terms that even western economists have noted are too generous. In Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, Europeans took over African land in which they settled white people and pushed Africans into marginal places they called reserves. China is not doing this to Africans.
During the colonial period, Africa’s virgin forests were plundered of their best timber which went into manufacture of ships and construction in Europe. Although China has imported timber from places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they are not doing it on scale on which Europeans did. Furthermore, they are doing it with explicit permission of Africans. It is willing buyer and willing seller kind of transaction.
Of course China has interests in minerals in Africa, such as uranium, titanium, colten and other strategic minerals, just like Europeans and Americans. How come no one is discussing the fact that European colonial accumulation of gold from Africa today forms the bulwark of gold reserves in European capitals? No European or American power is ever comfortable to discuss reparations which need to be paid to Africa for economic crimes against the continent in the past.
China needs Africa just like Africa needs China. There is a new global realignment in which China and India are going to play a leading role and it is not a mistake for Africa to align itself with them. It is just common sense. We are moving into an era in which the major players would be those that control the markets and China is already doing it. It should also be noted that the same European powers that are warning Africa to be careful with China are the very same ones which have borrowed heavily from China for their stimulus package plans.
The war against China by the west is not honest. It is ideological, pure and simple! China has won the economic war and it is the reason why 40 per cent of manufactured products sold around the world between 2000 and 2010 were made in China. Today, China is the leading economy in the world, but Western economists are too racially prejudiced to admit it. They keep on advancing false notions of problems of per capita distribution to deny China the honour of being the number one economy in the world. They keep spreading the notion that China will take over as a leading economy in 2020, just delaying the inevitable, while hoping that something terrible happens to the Chinese economy. The fact that the US owes China $2 trillion while countries of the European Union owe China $3 trillion and the rest of the world about $1 trillion puts China’s economy ahead of any other economy.
China’s economy is solvent and China is looking for places to invest its surplus capital. Africa happens to be one such place. In Kenya for example, the largest sports complex, the Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani, Nairobi was built by Chinese aid. The Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, the second largest hospital in Kenya, was built by Chinese funds. These projects are there for everyone to see and verify that Chinese technology is good and comparable to any other. The Chinese companies have enjoyed a lot of premium because they are cheap and complete their projects on time. China has also built and invested in many roads in Kenya such as the ultra modern Thika superhighway, and the Chavakali-Buyangu Road and Emusutswi-Kima Road in Western Kenya. Many Kenyans regard Chinese investment as development partnership and not exploitation. Although China has been accused of complicity in the problems in the DRC and the tensions in Sudan, these remain mere allegations.
We should not pour scorn on aid from any corner. As a Fulbright Scholar, I am a beneficiary of American assistance and would not have a Ph.D today if I was not offered this generous American scholarship that allowed me to spend four years studying for this degree under the generosity of American tax payer and for which I am most grateful. I have also conducted research on the benefits of American aid through philanthropic organizations over the years in Africa. The simple truth is that all aid comes with some strings attached. There is always something that the donor gets in return. Like Western aid, Chinese aid has its pros and cons. Observers have admitted that Chinese companies do have low costs on many of their projects compared to western companies. Despite this, there have been claims that Chinese companies engage in deceitful bidding, pay Africans low wages, and hire contract workers in order to get around mandated labour benefits such as paid holidays, weekends, overtime and sick leave, for permanent staff. But the companies have been given a clean bill by labour officials in Kenya. Whether the Chinese aid to Kenya is a partnership or exploitation is neither here nor there. The sports men and women who use the Moi International Sports Complex or the sick who attend Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital do not care whether facilities were built by China or United Kingdom or the United States. What they want is service and intellectuals and elites should stop politicising aid, especially if it is given by people they do not agree with or do not like.
Prof. Amutabi teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Amutabi@yahoo.com