“Why China Is in Africa” is a question Trevor Noah took up last month for Comedy Central‘s Daily Show. As with many of the topics taken up by the Daily Show, the issue is no joke: China has a large and growing economic presence in many African countries. The China/Africa deals cry out for analysis: Are they different from the deals on offer from Western countries like the US, Britain or France?
By Justin Podur
Published on FAIR, Jan 31, 2022
“Why China Is in Africa” (12/16/21) is a question Trevor Noah took up last month for Comedy Central‘s Daily Show. As with many of the topics taken up by the Daily Show, the issue is no joke: China has a large and growing economic presence in many African countries. The China/Africa deals cry out for analysis: Are they different from the deals on offer from Western countries like the US, Britain or France?
Post-independence Africa’s economic relationship with the West has been mediated through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Funding for projects comes with a range of conditionalities; when Western loans come due, the IMF demands painful cuts to health and education programs as the price of refinancing. In the past, the IMF has taken outright control of African governments. At other times, the US has sponsored coups, assassinated leaders and fomented civil wars on the continent.
China, meanwhile, does not attach political strings to its loans. China is known as a “patient” investor, making deals that take decades to pay off. When the Chinese loans come due, China reschedules or restructures debt payments. Ex-Minister for Public Works for Liberia, Gyude Moore, cited 87 cases of restructuring or rescheduling of such loans between 2000–19.
Which of these two approaches sounds like neocolonialism, and which like economic development?
China offers Africa terms that the West isn’t interested in matching. Instead of improving its own offers, the West presents scary tales to try to infantilize Africans and frighten them away from doing business with China. Examples of these scare stories abound, from Mike Pence (USA Today, 11/17/18) and John Bolton (Guardian, 12/13/18) to Foreign Policy(4/25/19) and Al Jazeera (5/17/17).
But even in the Wall Street Journal (5/2/19), readers can learn that “the real political purpose” of China’s deals “isn’t a debt trap but building goodwill and high-level relationships.” The New York Times (4/26/19) published an opinion in 2019 that “the idea that the Chinese government is doling out debt strategically, for its benefit, isn’t supported by the facts.”
The format of the Daily Show and comparable shows (e.g., Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) makes it possible to deliver political commentary and news with plausible deniability about political viewpoints (“it’s only comedy”). Noah, a New York-based comedian who grew up in South Africa, did his best to spin Chinese investment in Africa into neo-colonialism—regardless of the underlying reality.
‘With the stroke of a pen’
“Back in the day,” Noah begins,
when one country wanted to take over another country, they had to beat them in a war…. But now it looks like a country might have found a way to take over another country with the stroke of a pen.
Noah presents a clip from BBC World News (11/30/21), in turn quoting the London Times(11/30/21): “China has recently been accused of trying to take over Uganda’s sole international airport if the East African country fails to pay a $200 million loan for the expansion of the site.”
Debunked in Asia Times (12/8/21), the “Uganda airport takeover” story was based on a tendentious reading of a 2015 loan agreement between the government of Uganda and the Exim Bank of China. The grace period for the loan ends in December 2022, at the end of which, if 87 previous examples over the past 20 years are indicative, China and Uganda will presumably renegotiate the terms.
Noah quotes the Chinese embassy’s statement: “Not a single project in Africa has ever been ‘confiscated’ by China because of failing to pay Chinese loans.” But Noah does not find this reassuring, saying: “‘We have never confiscated an airport’ is very different from ‘we are never going to confiscate an airport.’”
In fact, past behavior is a pretty good indicator of future behavior. The Western record in Africa—an indicator of future behavior there—is appalling.
The simplest Western strategy of all is to withhold investment until African countries are ready to accept terrible conditions—including demands to privatize national industries that amount to across-the-board confiscation by Western corporations. The strategy has worked in the past because, as Noah says, Africa needs financing:
Ever since the age of colonialism ended, Africa has been working hard to modernize its economies and catch up with the rest of the world. But to do that it needs lots of new infrastructure: roads, railways, ports, dams…. You name it, Africa needs to build it. The problem is, that stuff all costs money. Money that most African countries don’t have. But in recent years, many African countries have found themselves a new sugar daddy: China.
How China/Africa deals work
But what went wrong with Africa’s old “sugar daddy”? How did China end up financing projects in Africa, once a Western monopoly? In Rhys Owen Jenkins’ 2018 book, How China Is Reshaping the Global Economy: Development Impacts in Africa and Latin America, the author tells an illustrative story. Oil-rich Angola, whose infrastructure was devastated after surviving a (US-sponsored) civil war, approached the IMF in 2001. But the IMF demanded cuts to public spending as a condition of giving Angola any money—and a shaky regime coming fresh off of a brutal civil war can ill-afford to alienate the people with an austerity program.
So Angola approached China in 2002, and the relationship has expanded since. Angola and China trade directly in oil. While most oil deals in the global economy are transacted in US dollars, China often makes “infrastructure for resources” deals, circumventing the US dollar altogether.
Fantu Cheru and Cyril Obi present other examples in their 2010 book The Rise of China and India in Africa. In the DR Congo, Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment Corporation (ZTE) built a mobile phone network and sold phones in hopes of “capturing a market niche primarily focused on the millions of African poor who now constitute the largest potential consumers.” In Kenya, Tianpu Xianxing partnered with Electrogen Technologies to establish a solar panel factory, seeing an opportunity in Kenya’s policy of using solar power to extend electrification.
But it isn’t all happy win/win deals. Elsewhere in the book, the authors present Zambia as a case where Chinese investors entered an economy already devastated by IMF-imposed structural adjustment, such that workers in all sectors—including those with heavy Chinese investment—are indeed exploited. China didn’t create those conditions, but nonetheless benefits from exploitation. How should that be addressed? A complex analysis is called for, comprehending the overall impact of Chinese and Western investment and the competition between them, the pre-investment condition of a given African economy and its bargaining power. But summarizing it all as a form of Chinese colonialism is misleading.
China as ‘cool mom’
China’s approach of offering financing without political strings makes it the “cool mom of international finance,” Noah says, adding a joke in which (as usual) Africans are the children and others are the grownups. “Oh, you and your friends want to come party…. Come do it in our basement with your child soldiers, we won’t hear a thing!” (The implication is that the US is a “strict mom” that forbids its partners from making use of child soldiers. In fact, after the US State Department in 2020 identified14 countries as being responsible for recruiting or using child soldiers, President Joe Biden signed a waiver allowing the US to continue providing security aid to eight of those countries, five of which are in Africa.)
Despite China’s assertion that there are no strings, Noah suggests that China’s deals do indeed have a political agenda: Countries that do more business with China also tend to vote with China about Taiwan at the United Nations. This observation may have the causality backwards, however: Countries that vote with China are voting against the US—something that a country can only do if it is in a position to protect itself from US economic retaliation.
Yemen had no such protection in 1990 when it voted against the US invasion of Iraq. US diplomats told their Yemeni counterparts, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast,” and the US withdrew $70 million in foreign aid to the country. Today, African countries have a second option.
Noah then points to Eswatini as the only African country that does recognize Taiwan, and follows this up with the most demeaning insult in the entire piece—predictably, perhaps, towards Africans. Noah says:
That’s the power of money right there. Enough of it can make you switch allegiances, change your principles, do anything. For enough money, you could get Africans to start saying that Africa is just one country.
He then asks for money in an “African” accent, joking that Eswatini will change its tune upon realizing that China is “giving out money.”
Eswatini, called Swaziland until 2018, was picked up in 1906 by the British as a protectorate after the Boer War. Britain’s South Africa colonies had planned to make Swaziland part of the Union of South Africa, but plans changed; the country gained independence only in 1968. Eswatini, with a population of about a million, is currently ruled as an absolute monarchy. Its huge neighbor, Noah’s native South Africa, exerts immense political influence. At the moment, the monarchy is being challenged by a pro-democracymovement. It is dubious to hold up the decision of Eswatini’s monarchy as an example of an African state freely choosing principle over money.
‘Jobs are going to China’
Noah’s next point is about employment: “You might say subordinating your foreign policy to another country is worth it if it means getting all this investment… and it is true, these projects do create jobs. It’s just that many of those jobs are going to China!”
A news clip continues the argument: “The country’s been accused of unfair labor practices in Africa including bringing its own workers instead of hiring locally.” Noah presents no hard data on this point.
But there are studies on China/Africa workforce development; a 2018 paper presented a number of interesting figures about the topic. There were 10,000 Chinese-funded companies, 90% of which were private companies. Surveys cited in the paper showed that local workers hired by Chinese firms were around 78% of the workforce overall, 85% in Nigeria, 90% in Kenya. Another survey cited in the paper pointed to an issue with the quality of those jobs: Only 44% of managerial positions were held by Africans. But a study in Ethiopia found 75% of Chinese firms invested in worker training, compared to 27% of Ethiopian firms. The study reported:
In firms engaged in construction and manufacturing, where skilled labor is a necessity, half provide apprenticeship training, while experienced Chinese workers teach new African hires to begin work through hands-on teaching and gradually improve the new workers’ skills through daily operation.
Angola, Egypt, South Africa and other countries oblige Chinese companies to hire locals (as they should). This makes sense for other reasons: Chinese workers don’t want to leave their families to work far from home. As a consequence, while Chinese workers are often hired to start up projects, jobs and responsibility are gradually transferred to local talent (again, as they should be).
‘At least they were upfront’
Noah summarizes what he has presented about the non-conditional loans, African countries voting with China on Taiwan, and Chinese workers taking up jobs in China-Africa projects: “When you start to examine this relationship as a whole,” he says, “it actually starts to look a lot less like a loan, and a lot more like a new kind of colonialism.”
A few quick clips follow on this “new colonialism.” One from Al Jazeera calls it “debt colonialism.” The Voice of America (1/15/19) calls it “debt-trap diplomacy.” A PBS clip (9/27/19) says that Kenya “agreed to apply Chinese law inside Kenya” (presumably labor laws), and was in a position to get the port if Kenya couldn’t repay the loan (a repeat of the Uganda airport story). Noah’s segment descends from here into pure tasteless comedy, including Noah doing a Chinese accent.
“Say what you will about European colonizers,” Noah concludes, “but at least they were upfront about it.” Actually, they weren’t “upfront about it” at all. The history of European colonization is replete with covert operations and assassinations, mistranslated treaty clauses, broken promises and outright lies.
Western colonizers enslaved and killed millions of Africans over centuries (Williams, Capitalism and Slavery; Davidson, The African Slave Trade). They colonized the entire continent (Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa). They invented apartheid and imposed it on Africans (Magubane, The Making of a Racist State). They corralled Africans into death traps to be machine-gunned in one-sided battles, from Ulundi in 1879 to Omdurman in 1898 (Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa), and posed proudly for photographs with the corpses. They ran counterinsurgencies against independence movements in the 1950s that included torture, mass hanging and concentration camps (Elkins, Imperial Reckoning).
In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, they killed 10 million people between 1885-1906, cutting off people’s hands to coerce their families to work (Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost). They assassinated the most promising post-Independence leaders (notably Patrice Lumumba). They engineered the secession of Katanga, the wealthiest province of the country. They backed first a dictatorship (Mobutu) then an invasion and occupation (by Rwanda and Uganda). Millions of people died in post-independence wars sponsored by the US. (See Podur, America’s Wars on Democracy in Rwanda and the DR Congo; Epstein, Another Fine Mess; or Curtis, Unpeople, for details.)
Drawing a comparison between the horrors visited by Western countries on Africa and China’s infrastructure deals there can only serve to advance ignorance and racism.
The threat of a second offer
The Zimbabwe Herald (9/21/21) published an article, “US Plan to Discredit Chinese Investments Unmasked.” The article described a program, sponsored ultimately by the US embassy, “to fight the influence and growth of China in Zimbabwe through weaponizing anti-Chinese sentiments.” It stated that the US was offering $1,000 per pitch for media stories that fit the bill.
The money could be coming from special funds from the May 2021 Strategic Competition Act, which included $300 million per year for 2022 through 2026 “to counter the malign influence of the Chinese Communist Party globally.” One funded activity is to “support civil society and independent media to raise awareness of and increase transparency regarding the negative impact of activities related to the Belt and Road Initiative.” Expect much more of this type of news item and derivative comedy.
Why is so much venom directed at a series of infrastructure deals between other countries?
Every negotiator knows the dramatic effect of a second offer on a negotiation. If you have one, it’s no longer a monopoly situation. The second offer becomes the floor for a deal, and it becomes impossible to impose terms on you. Europe colonized the entire continent, and for decades after independence, Western countries have imposed the most humiliating terms on the African continent. Noah’s piece, despite its comedic form, is a vehicle for the rage of the imperialist West—a former monopolist who now has a competitor.
Let them fume. Africa was not colonized in the first place by clever propaganda, nor by last-minute clauses inserted into trade deals, but by brutal violence. Africa resisted and won its independence. Africa will never be colonized by China—but nor will it be recolonized by the West. This is the real source of the rage against China seething behind the Daily Show’s bit of comedy news.
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