China and Africa: Mutual cooperation, not neocolonialism − a WW commentary

By Ernie Hamer

Based on a talk given at a Workers World Party meeting in Buffalo, N.Y., Workers World Party on April 27, 2021.

With the People’s Republic of China on the rise, the forces of U.S. imperialism are beginning to panic as the global tides gradually shift against them. The Communist Party of China has reached its hundredth year, celebrating the immense progress made by their socialist system. At the same time, the U.S. media has seen a major uptick in anti-China rhetoric aimed at downplaying the achievements of Peoples’ China and painting a picture of China that simply isn’t congruent with reality. One of the false narratives being spun about China is that it is itself an “imperialist” power, regularly citing the relationships that China has built within Africa.

Africa is a continent extremely rich in resources but lacking needed infrastructure to extract and utilize them. As such, African governments often look outward to find funding for their countries’ infrastructural projects. 

In total, Africa has outstanding debts of over $350 billion dollars and of that, at least 21% is held by China, making them the largest creditor. (aiddata.org, March 31)

Between the years of 2000 and 2019, China provided $153 billion in loan commitments to Africa, with top loan commitments from Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Kenya. (chinaafricaloandebt.bu.edu) 

These Chinese loans are being used primarily to finance Africa’s infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40% of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30% went to modernizing Africa’s transportation infrastructure.

At a 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in Beijing with African leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated, “We follow a ‘five-no’ approach in our relations with Africa: No interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.” (focac.org, Sept. 3, 2018)

What is laid out in that approach differs vastly from that of the U.S. and of the West. Still, despite this, China is constantly painted as an imperialist nation taking advantage of Africa and its people.

False narratives on China

China’s loan practices are often under scrutiny, being called exploitative of the nations of Africa. Regarding China’s expanding presence in Africa, the former South African minister of trade and industry, Rob Davies, said, it “can only be a good thing . . . because it means that we don’t have to sign on the dotted line whatever is shoved under our noses any longer. . . . We now have alternatives and that’s to our benefit.” (Financial Times, Aug. 24, 2010) 

Over and over again, the lending practices of China with Africa have been shown to be not only nonexploitative, but beneficial. Researchers have shown “No evidence of asset seizures in lieu of loan payments in Africa, or indeed, anywhere among Chinese borrowers in debt difficulties,” according to Deborah Bräutigan’s article [in The Diplomat]: “Chinese Debt Relief: Fact and Fiction.” (tinyurl.com/jmv6n7k)

Between 2000 and 2018, China had written off $9.8 billion in debt to other countries including Cuba and over 20 African nations on the receiving end of Chinese government loans. (forbes.com, May 29, 2019)

Another prevalent false narrative states that Chinese companies in Africa will solely employ and benefit Chinese workers. In reality, “Surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.” (Washington Post, April 12, 2018)

Even beyond employment practices, China has spearheaded academic research to help improve the overall well-being of the African people. The Chinese Academy of Sciences is heavily involved in supporting research projects in Africa, including agronomic research aimed at ending food shortages. (Nature.com, May 14, 2019)  

According to the annual Global Education Monitoring Report as of June 2020, China was set to offer 12,000 scholarships to African students in the coming academic year, largely to support study at Chinese universities — representing more university scholarships than from all the leading Western governments combined.

Another falsehood is that China is regularly accused of land grabbing, the act of large-scale land acquisitions for their own financial benefit. Researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute “collected a database of 57 cases where Chinese firms (or the government) were alleged to have acquired or negotiated large (over 500 hectares) amounts of African farmland,” which was published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“If all of these media reports had been real news, this would have amounted to a very alarming 6 million hectares — 1% of all the farmland in Africa. We spent three years tracking down every single case. . . . We confirmed that nearly a third of these stories . . . were literally false. In the remaining cases, we found real Chinese investments. But the total amount of land actually acquired by Chinese firms was only about 240,000 hectares: 4% of the reported amount.” (ifpri.org, March 2021)

Overall Chinese investments which are linked to their noninterventionist policy serve their goal of long-term economic development. Though in no way perfect, Chinese investments in African countries provide them with alternative and more mutually beneficial funding, which aids in improvement in living conditions for the people of these countries and also cuts the West off from the exploitation they have historically relied upon.

We need to understand and recognize that the relationship between China and Africa is starkly different than those between other Western nations and Africa. Failure to do so only serves to stoke dangerous anti-communist rhetoric when defending China against these attacks is most paramount. 

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