What are the Chinese up to in Africa? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this question being asked.
A few weeks ago, a Europe-based relative who brings friends along each year when he is coming to spend some time at home, told me that one of the friends accompanying him this year was looking forward to discussing a number of topics, including what I thought China was up to in Africa.
The young man looking forward to this discussion would be heading to China after what was his maiden visit to Africa, for a year of graduate study.
Thereafter, he wanted to pursue a career in “development.” We did discuss “China in Africa.”
His views sounded familiar: The Chinese are interested only in Africa’s natural resources. Poor Africans were facing a new era of exploitation that would dwarf colonial and post-colonial exploitation by Europeans.
There are almost as many Africans saying these things, as there are Europeans or Westerners. I always listen to expressions of concern by Westerners about Chinese exploitation of Africa with a sense of amusement.
It is as if they are saying, “It is a pity the Chinese want to emulate us; do not allow them to do so.”
I find the same complaints coming from fellow Africans, on the other hand, to be quite irritating and wonder whether they genuinely feel that strongly about the issue, or whether they are simply repeating what they have read in some publication or heard others say. It is as if they are saying, “The Chinese are here to loot us and we Africans cannot do anything about it.”
Of course, Westerners have been at it for ages. This is one of the things children in schools across Africa learn about in their history lessons. Despite that, we have done nothing serious about stopping the exploitation.
The fear implied in complaints by Africans about the Chinese simply confirms that we have learnt nothing and that we are still unable to figure out what to do to protect ourselves from exploitation by outsiders. If we can’t figure out what to do, then we really deserve the exploitation; don’t we?
Be that as it may, to what extent are fears that the Chinese are out to exploit Africa and, as someone wrote recently, “squeeze it for everything it is worth” justified?
Let’s first look at some statistics. According to reports, there are more than 10,000 Chinese firms active in Africa.
The number is not unrelated to the fact that Africa has a substantial portion of the world’s reserves of hydrocarbons, high-value minerals, and timber, all of which China needs to drive its industrial expansion. In this, we have an explanation for why Chinese investments in Africa totalled more than $14 billion in 2016.
For China sceptics in Africa, these numbers conjure up frightening images of the continent being emptied of its valuable natural resources by an emerging power driven by colonialist aspirations.
This thinking, however, is too simple, as demonstrated by myth-bursting research by analysts at the UK’s largest private think tank, the Overseas Development Institute, only bits of which I will highlight.
Consider mining, arguably the main conduit through which Africa has enriched outsiders at its own expense. According to 2014/2015 figures, the biggest investor in mining in Africa is not China. It is not even the second or the third.
The biggest investor is the United States of America at 66 per cent of overall investment.
The UK comes in second at 55 per cent, and France third at 47 per cent. China lags far behind at 28 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Chinese are by far the leaders in construction, including roads and other infrastructure, at 27 per cent of total investments. No specific figures are given for the other three, suggesting they are either totally absent from the sector, or that their investments are so small as not to merit mention.
One of the sectors in which most of Africa does rather badly is manufacturing. Indeed, in many countries the contribution to GDP by manufacturing is dwarfed significantly by that of services and agriculture.
History shows that the pursuit of prosperity in any country will remain hamstrung as long as manufacturing remains underdeveloped. It therefore follows that investment in manufacturing is key to wealth creation.
The available figures show the Chinese leading the manufacturing drive in Africa at 13 per cent of total investment, with the French at 10 per cent, and the Americans at seven per cent.
Indeed, Ethiopia, one of Africa’s emerging manufacturing powerhouses, owes many of the advances it has made to Chinese capital, expertise and technology.
A key factor in China’s growing investment in manufacturing in Africa are rising wages back home. And here is another anti-China myth that collapses upon scrutiny.
Critics claim that Chinese firms bring large numbers of Chinese workers with them, meaning that they ultimately create few jobs for locals wherever they set up.
However, evidence shows that, for the most part, Chinese investors employ far larger numbers of locals than expatriates, the latter being workers with much-needed specialised skills.
Some Chinese investors do some harm, of course. Nevertheless, much of today’s anti-China rhetoric is built on recycled myths.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]