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Ideas & Debate

Africa’s nuanced view on China

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping
President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during the opening of an expo in Shanghai, China, last year. PHOTO | PSCU 

Last week, Dr Lubinda Haabazoka, president of the Economics Association of Zambia, wrote an insightful article in Bloomberg reflecting on Zambia’s relationship with China.

He made several interesting points, the first of which addressed the asset seizure narrative that Europe and North America have espoused with regards to China’s activities in Zambia. This narrative argues that the Chinese government deliberately traps African governments with unsustainable debt to seize their national assets such as strategic infrastructure.

He reiterated what the Zambian government had already stated numerous times — that Zambia has not offered any State-owned enterprise to any lender as collateral for any borrowing, nor does it ever have plans to do so. He also went on to point out that Chinese firms have acquired stakes in eight maritime ports in Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain.

The main point he was making, as many Africans have made in the past, is that it is, “patronising to act as though Zambia is either victim or reckless in allowing Chinese investment”. He went on to say that Zambia has made a strategic decision, that to secure a stable economy that provides world class services and infrastructure, they are going to have the Chinese invest in their country and that they were not tricked into it.

His position reflects the nuanced view many Africans have on China. The simplistic binary ‘good vs bad’ thinking that some encourage Africa to take with regards to China is simply not practical. There are pros and cons to working with the Chinese and any other lender in the world including Europe and North America, the latter of whom position themselves as the good guys in Africa and the Chinese as the bad guys. Africa has been stating for years that it is not that simple and such simplistic thinking is not useful.

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While the continent values the support it gets from Europe and North America, their funding focus and style has left serious gaps, particularly in infrastructure financing, that China is filling. Now, there have been fair questions as to the transparency of the deals made between African and the Chinese governments.

Fiscal opacity tends to be the norm in most Sino-African deals. This is not healthy and has to change for the sake of both the Chinese and Africans, particularly given the push back African publics are exerting in the spirit of demanding accountability from their governments. But that in itself does not automatically make Chinese financing evil. It is simply a problem that has to be fixed.

A key factor in this conversation has been the capacity of African governments to negotiate fair deals with the Chinese. And this is where it gets complex because there are two key factors that inform the extent to which African governments get reasonable deals from the Chinese.

These factors are capacity and corruption and operate almost on a sliding scale. In some African governments, capacity gaps preponderate and compromise the ability of the government to effectively negotiate. With others, corruption is the issue and the moral bankruptcy of some government officials leads them to deliberately negotiate subpar deals for their countries because of the kickbacks they get that have been built into the deals they make.

The point is that Africans are multidimensional and complex and this is reflected in how they interact with the Chinese and all other powers in the world.

Let no one be under the impression that relationships between sovereign nations are simple and can be condensed into a good/bad model.

The reality is far more nuanced.

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