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Ideas & Debate

Secret behind rise in Sino-Africa relations as Western grip wanes

From left-China Africa Correspondent Club chairman Liam Lee,
From left-China Africa Correspondent Club chairman Liam Lee, Chinese ambassador to Kenya Sun Baohong and Transport Cabinet secretary James Macharia during the China-Africa Infrastructure Cooperation in conference in Nairobi on June 25. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU 

Next week, African Heads of State and Dignitaries will gather in Beijing for the Forum on China Africa Cooperation.

Inaugurated in 2006, the forum has become a symbol of the strengthening ties between China and Africa. However, it should be asked how Sino-African relations got here in the first place.

Given that China is a relative newcomer in Africa in terms of sustained engagement, how did China get so big in Africa so quickly? There are three factors that have informed the rise of China in Africa.

The first is the lack of a negative legacy with the continent. Europe and the US have a fraught history with Africa.

The combination of slavery, colonialism, the post-independent era and structural adjustment programmes have fundamentally challenged the legitimacy of Euro-American engagement with the continent. China does not carry this sort of baggage.

In effect, the Chinese have come to Africa with a clean slate and no history of exploitation, savagery or utilitarian tendencies with the continent. This, in itself, has given China an easy way into Africa.

Secondly, China is not prescriptive in its interaction with Africa and African governments. Often Europe and North America leave the impression that Africans must listen to them if the continent is to ever to ‘develop’.

Europe and North American ‘experts’ on Africa both in the continent and abroad have very clear opinions on what Africa ‘needs to do’ to get out of poverty. China does not have this attitude.

Despite the fact China has pulled millions out of poverty and become the second largest economy in the world, the Chinese are remarkably humble.

In my interactions with both government and private sector from China, there is a humility in the approach they have with Africa. They understand that a unique combination of factors allowed China to become economically dominant fairly quickly, and thus will not push ‘Model China’ on Africa.

This is because they seem to appreciate that there are complexities in Africa that may render many elements of China’s path ineffective in Africa. China could have easily marched into Africa barking orders about what African governments need to do to catch up, but they have not.

African governments appreciate this humility and almost feel honoured by it.

Finally, China does not lecture Africa. African governments have grown weary of lectures about governance, corruption, human rights and autocracy, among others. from Europe and North America.

There still seems to be a sense in the Global North that they have the right to meddle in the business of African governments. In the same way African governments do not meddle in how Europe and North America run themselves, they wonder why Euro-America continues to feel the need to lecture them on how to run their countries.

This is not to say that the points raised by the Global North are not relevant, it is simply that African governments have increasingly tired of the patronising posturing. Again, China does not behave in this manner. China accords Africans the space to run their countries without much interference.

These three factors have hastened the rise of China in Africa. It will be interesting to see how the interaction between China and Africa evolves as the ties between the two entities develop and invariably become more complex.

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