“It’s not colonialism” (2)

In the conclusion of Ning Er’s interview with Li Anshan, the international-relations professor argues that opposition to China’s role in Africa is a hangover from western imperialism – and should be ignored.

Ning Er: Dambisa Moyo takes the view that western aid has massively increased the incidences of corruption among African governments. And according to Deborah Brautigam, professor at American University, Washington DC, and author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of Africa in China, China’s model of aid and commercial investment actually limits corruption because, unlike money from the World Bank and other donors, Chinese finance rarely reaches government hands. Once a project is agreed, the money goes directly from a Chinese bank to the Chinese firm responsible for construction – limiting the opportunities for corruption available to government officials.

However, many reports – both in China and overseas – would make people think that the west has brought human rights and transparency to Africa, while China is harming those efforts and increasing corruption.

Li Anshan: Brautigam is an expert on development issues and has worked on China’s agricultural assistance to Africa since the 1990s, so she has a sound academic background in the area. Her view is the more accurate one. The west has always offered financial aid, and those sums always include a 10% allocation for administration – an ideal opportunity for official corruption. The Chinese government works differently: it builds a road or a school or a hospital – things you can actually see and use and that make life easier for both the locals and other investors. That leads to a very different outcome.

Some western politicians are uncomfortable with the speed at which China-Africa cooperation has developed and like to focus on isolated incidents or even make groundless accusations. The public’s lack of awareness of the actual situation and the bias which exists in the media worsen the spread of these incorrect views. In Francophone parts of Africa, most broadcast media are sourced from France, and some reports have not been in accordance with the facts. Moyo has a chapter in her book dedicated to China, and she is supportive of China’s aid and cooperation with Africa. Of course, there are also issues in the investment process that we need to look at.

NE: You mentioned that Chinese firms bring employment opportunities to Africa. But there has been criticism surrounding the number of Chinese workers on these projects, with complaints that the number of local workers is kept to a minimum. This has led to an outcry in some places.

LA: In 2008, the Centre for Chinese Studies at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University received support from the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development to carry out a study of Chinese construction projects in Africa. They did case studies of projects in several countries, including Mozambique. And they found it was impossible for Chinese firms to use only Chinese workers, because the costs were far too high.

The president of one large company operating in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco told me that the average monthly cost of employing a Chinese worker would be 6,000 yuan [US$901], compared to 2,000 yuan [US$300] for a local. And so, where possible, Chinese firms obviously favour local workers.

But, in reality, there are issues. Some types of work need a certain degree of knowledge and technical ability and there is a lack of those technicians in Africa. So Chinese workers have to be used. Chinese managers don’t speak the same language as African workers, and this also reduces the percentage of African employees. There are cultural differences, and this was apparent at the Merowe Dam in Sudan – Muslims need to pray five times a day, some of which are during working hours. Chinese firms in Africa need to deal with a range of situations, and that requires a long process of understanding and accommodation.

NE: If China’s presence in Africa is as positive as Moyo and Brautigam say in their books, why the criticism?

LA: Criticism is normal. It is levelled at any rising nation. In a report for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we made a point of saying that there are many questions we need to look at and resolve, but that we shouldn’t worry too much about our critics. Some French academics have said that it’s not just their government that’s concerned: even ordinary people are really worried – what does this Chinese expansion in Africa mean for France? Those fears are a consequence of deep-rooted colonialism; they feel something that belongs to them is being taken by China. I’ve got data on sources of investment for projects in Africa between 2003 and 2009 from [research group] Africa Investor. The United States comes first, with 411 projects, while China is tenth place, with 86 – behind even India and South Africa. Yet we come in for the most criticism.

NE: Non-interference in internal affairs is one of the core principles of Chinese diplomacy. China’s actions in Africa, in particular close relationships with what the west regards as dictatorships, are seen by some commentators as evidence China is concerned only with profit. They also think that the policy of non-interference has become an excuse for China to shirk the duties of a major power.

LA: I don’t think that’s the case. Whether it’s China or the African nations, any country with a history of being colonised is going to be very sensitive about sovereignty. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of African independence [1960 marked a significant turning point for Africa, as17 nations broke free from European colonial rule] and any nation that wins its independence will believe it should be in control of its own sovereignty. That is very deep-rooted.

Under these circumstances, we can’t directly criticise or get involved with sovereign matters. That doesn’t mean our policies towards African nations are unprincipled. We make decisions in accordance with the stance of the African Union. We cannot claim to understand things better than the African Union, so that stance is given primacy. Of course, we also respect United Nations resolutions.

On March 30, 2008, I was at a meeting in Berlin and I saw a Sky TV report from Zimbabwe, which I still remember. There was a lot of disorder there at the time and [Robert] Mugabe had placed opposition leaders under house arrest and was implementing harsh measures, which led to a strong reaction from the international community. Against that background, Sky interviewed a Zimbabwean political analyst and asked what Mugabe should do. The analyst responded by asking what business it was of London or Washington: you’ve wanted him to do this, to do that, and what’s the result? Mugabe said he wouldn’t stand for president again, and now he is doing just that – it was you who pushed him to do that, you!

Not interfering in internal affairs doesn’t mean you are unconcerned, but simply that you use different methods – definitely not direct accusations or sanctions. Why did the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir ultimately accept the peacekeeping force from the United Nations and African Union in Darfur? The decision was directly linked to private communications with the Chinese government. We can privately provide opinions as friends – and that’s a method they can accept.


Ning Er is a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily.

Li Anshan is a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies and head of its Center for African Studies. He is participating in a project to evaluate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ projects in Africa.

An earlier version of this article was published in Southern Metropolis Daily.

Part one: Building infrastructure in Africa 

Homepage image from the Chinese government shows senior Chinese official Zhou Yongkang with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir