Deconstructing western perceptions of China in Africa
The London-based Economist magazine is an unabashed establishment Anglo-American mouthpiece, cheerleading the invasion of, and “regime change” in, Iraq in 2003.
It is totally unapologetic about its eurocentrism and white privilege. Its notorious May 2000 cover depicting Africa as “The Hopeless Continent,” and the equally odious accompanying essay by its then Africa editor, Richard Dowden, cemented the magazine’s reputation for prejudiced analyses about the non-Western world.
Crouching Tiger Meets “Hopeless Continent”
The special report on “China in Africa” (the Economist, 28 May – 3 June 2022) by Gady Epstein, the Economist’s China affairs editor, and John McDermott, its Johannesburg-based Africa editor, though not quite as Afrophobic as Dowden’s jaundiced piece and certainly more nuanced, reveals a similar approach of viewing the global South through parochial Western lenses, stoking fears about the Chinese presence in Africa. Beijing is thus simultaneously portrayed as a paternal panda and a dangerous dragon.
The research on which this piece is based is overwhelmingly Western. Only one England-based African scholar’s published work is cited, and no Chinese sources are cited. If Chinese journalists had written such a piece on “The West in Africa” with overwhelmingly Chinese sources, would Western readers have taken it seriously? As bad as Chinese illegal gold-mining, maltreatment of African workers, polluting of rivers, and overfishing in the Gulf of Guinea identified in this piece are, these surely pale in significance to five centuries of Western slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism in Africa involving massacres and atrocities, and more recently, the sexual abuse of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Despite the authors’ own opinion polls showing that most Africans want Chinese money and trade, but not its autocratic political system – and many Africans rightly condemn widespread abuses against Uyghurs and the harassment of China-based African students – the authors sometimes appear to be fishing for negative views from the Africans interviewed in the piece to confirm their own biases about the Chinese role. Pushed for a response on China encouraging corruption, Kenyan economist, David Ndii, instead blames the choices made by Kenyan politicians. Immediately after this quote, the authors cite a Western diplomat – the faceless font of all knowledge on Africa – saying that Beijing has caused “institutional degradation.”
The authors continue to insist that Chinese building of roads win elections in Africa, with no convincing evidence provided. They argue that Chinese aid comes with no political strings as if the West tries its own aid to the observance of human rights in autocratic Uganda, Rwanda, or Chad. Despite their own polling showing that Africans still overwhelmingly watch the government-funded BBC and France 24, the authors portray Chinese state-funded CGTN as a threat to media freedom in Africa. African politicians are depicted as lacking the intelligence to make autonomous choices which benefit their countries. Some of the examples Epstein and McDermott cite like Kenya and Ethiopia, however, reveal rational leaders pursuing sensible national interest-driven policies of simultaneously seeking Chinese infrastructure and Western investment, particularly in an era in which Western governments and the World Bank have drastically reduced their support for infrastructure projects.
The authors do provide valuable information that shatters some Western myths about China’s role in Africa. However, they fall into some of the same cultural tropes they seek to avoid, seemingly unable to escape their Western mindsets. They tell us that China is Africa’s largest trading partner at $254 billion; has lent African governments $160 billion over the last two decades, with two-thirds ploughed into infrastructure; and that Beijing accounts for 20% of Africa’s industrial output.
The authors also do well to highlight Western concerns about China having established a foothold in Africa through initiatives like the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative which has built roads, bridges, and railways, typically in 2.8 years, compared to the World Bank’s nine years. Epstein and McDermott observe, in contrast, that the US Build Back Better World and the European Union’s Global Gateway infrastructure projects remain unimplemented wish lists.
Contrary to widespread beliefs among many Western scholars that Chinese workers are displacing African ones, the authors highlight that 75-90% of labourers in Beijing’s projects on the continent are African. They note that 70% of 4G infrastructure in Africa has been built by Chinese firm, Huawei. They point out that the average Chinese project increases African growth by 0.41-1.49% after two years, and that widespread Western complaints about Beijing entrapping African countries in crippling debts are untrue, as only a quarter of public debt in 7 of 22 “debt distressed” African countries are Chinese.
But despite providing useful information and shattering several myths about the Chinese role in Africa, the authors themselves do not question their own Western prejudices in blaming China for behaving in ways similar to powerful Western countries. Such governments are instead assumed to be promoting democracy in Africa and not engaged in the same self-serving political arm-twisting and military expansionism as Beijing. China is criticised for insisting that Africans repay their loans as if Western governments have not done the same for four decades, despite modest palliatives of debt relief rather than debt annulment.
We are also told that China has cornered cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), without being informed about the decades-long monopolies of strategic minerals that France has maintained in its former colonies. Beijing is said to prop up autocracy and foster corruption without any historical context being provided of US support of kleptocratic Cold War clients such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Somalia’s Siad Barre, or Liberia’s Samuel Doe. Today, autocratic American clients have proliferated in Egypt, Morocco, and Equatorial Guinea. France’s notorious six-decade system of Françafrique has also been a corrupt and cosy arrangement that has kept autocrats in power in Togo, Gabon, and Cameroon. China is, however, singled out for using aid to secure African support at the UN, as if this were a novel revelation. African diplomats have consistently narrated tales of blackmail and blandishments from powerful Western countries for votes considered critical to their interests at the UN.
The most hypocritical charge against Beijing is the negative portrayal of its establishment of a 2,000-strong military base in Djibouti (half the number of US troops in the country), which is contrasted with America’s supposedly benevolent help to African countries fighting terrorists. The 6,000 US troops and contractors; American military presence in a reported 20 African countries by 2015; and drone bases in Niger, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Seychelles, are totally ignored. Instead, we are told that Washington has only one military base in Djibouti. Also ignored is the fact that France intervened over 50 times in post-colonial Africa to prop up or depose assorted autocrats, and still has about 4,000 troops in the Sahel, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, and Gabon. Despite the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) citing the US (37%), Russia (20%), France (8.2%), and Germany (5.5%) being the four largest arms exporters to Africa between 2016 and 2020 – with China fifth at 5.2% – the authors disingenuously exclude North Africa from these figures in order to single out China and Russia, putting US exports at just 5%. This distorted analysis is the clearest sign of the blinkered lenses through which many Western analysts view Sino-African relations.
Professor Adebajo is a senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.