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China-Africa ties and some western perspectives (part 1)

By Zeray Hailemariam Abebe
Tigrai Online, November 07, 2013

“We Africans know what we are doing with China”, former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin[i].

China-Africa ties and some western perspectives (part 1)
China and Africa have enjoyed a long-standing friendship. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, China-Africa relations have developed continuously, as evidenced by a deepening cooperation in political, economic and cultural areas

“The unique features of Africa and China relationships are based mutual benefit, brotherly and equal respect; we will continue our friendship with Africa irrespective of the noise from outside”, Xie Xiaoyan [ii] Chinese Ambassador to Ethiopia and permanent representative to AU.

“Africans must not prepare themselves for second colonization”. Hilary Clinton (2009)[iii].


Africa is found itself in the crossroad. In this 21st century, it is common to see Many Faces of China in Africa[iv]. The rising role of China in Africa has produced countless debates among scholars and policy makers and given rise to numerous books and studies. In examining this expanding view, this article is intended to give a bird eye on the issue. Chinese growing involvement in Africa is the very subject of this piece of writing.

Africa stands at a very critical historical conjuncture again. The future of the continent in terms of the deep-seated twin tasks of economic transformation and socio-political stability will depend on how effectively it will be able to deal with these challenges.

The practices of Western states associated with past colonialism or present imperialism make Peoples Republic of China practices appear particularly distinctive to Africans. Most prominent among these Western practices are (1) impositions of neoliberal attitudes that have resulted in diminished growth, huge debt, declining incomes, and dwarfed social welfare; (2) the use of aid to force obedience with the foreign policies of Western powers; (3) protectionism (despite free-trade rhetoric) in developed states that inhibits African exports; and (4) support for authoritarian leaders (despite talk of democracy and human rights) to secure resources and combat “radicals.” In addition, Western mocking of Africa, through an unremitting negative discourse overlaid with strong implications of African incompetence, remains rampant.  The ideas that on balance colonialism benefited “the natives,” and that Africa’s troubles have all been postcolonial, are popular among elites of the former colonial powers. Historically, China has been playing supportive role in Africa since the time of colonization. (Araya 2007) and (Sautman & Yan 2007; Nyang 2005).

The recently-elected Chinese President Xi Jinping made a major foreign policy speech on China's relations with Africa.  He summed up the defining feature of China-Africa relations as sincerity, friendship, mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit and common development.

China and Africa have enjoyed a long-standing friendship. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, China-Africa relations have developed continuously, as evidenced by a deepening cooperation in political, economic and cultural areas and by the creation of a new type of strategic partnership based on political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges [v].

Over the past 60 years relationship with African countries, China has adhered to the principles that stress sincerity, equality and mutual benefit, solidarity and cooperation development. It has demonstrated respect for the will and choices of African countries, actively encouraged cooperation between Chinese and African businesses, and shown its sincerity in aiding African development [vi].  Trade and economic cooperation has achieved remarkable results, having grown in size, scope and areas of cooperation and having yielded benefits to the Peoples of both China and Africa. This relationship stands as a fine example of south-south cooperation.

Following the principle of mutual benefit and reciprocity, China has been promoting trade facilitation and all-rounded, comprehensive and balanced China-Africa trade for years. China has signed bilateral trade agreements with 45 African countries, and enhanced cooperation in customs, taxation, inspection and quarantine, so as to create favorable conditions for China-Africa trade development [vii].

In support of African countries’ export expansion to China, the latter has offered the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of Africa that have diplomatic relations with China zero tariffs on some exports to China since 2005. By July 2010, African products that enjoy zero-tariff treatment had increased to 4,700 taxable items, and are expected to cover 95% of the total taxable items mentioned in the People’s Republic of China on Import and Export duties. 

As a result of the zero-tariff policy, the export of African products to China were worth $US1.3 billion between 2005 and the end of July 2010.  Agricultural products, leather, stone materials, textiles and garments, machine spare parts, base metals and wood products were some of the African exported products to China. China has been helping African enterprises enter the Chinese market by holding African commodity exhibitions, establishing African products exhibition centers and offering free stalls or reducing stall rents and other preferential terms [viii].

Now China and Africa are both in the process of industrialization and urbanization, a time characteristic of great market demand, hence China-Africa trade has great potential. For China Africa’s exports of crude oil, minerals, steel and agricultural products plays active role in promoting China’s economy.  For Africa, China’s products and technology meet the need of Africa’s development, while the vast Chinese market provides wide space for African products.  Reasonable priced Chinese commodities are helping Africa to improve people’s standard of living and to constrain and relieve inflation.

Shu Yunguo points out the basis sources of the mutual benefit of China-Africa relations. He says China-Africa relations are based on equality, mutual benefit and common development.

“The China-Africa relationship is a new type of international relationship formed after the Second World War and is characterized by an equal, reciprocal and a win-win principle. These 3 characteristics are the result of many factors. The first is excellent tradition. China and Africa had established relations as early as 2,000 years ago, during which, there were no wars, aggression or looting but only exchanges and friendship between China and Africa. The history and tradition of China-Africa relations not only exerted positive and enormous influence, but also laid a solid foundation on the relationship development between countries in modern times”, he indicated. 

Secondly, developing countries have common qualities. Both China and African countries are developing countries meaning they have not only common history, but also share similar targets for development. Developing countries' common qualities determine that there is no conflict of interest between them, and also that the countries have the same or similar opinions on many major international issues (such as the establishment of a new international political and economic system). He further detailed the nature of mutual benefit China-Africa relations.

“Thirdly, they are all eager to develop themselves. Currently, developing countries are still weak compared with the strong developed countries. When dialogue between developing and developed countries is progressing slowly, the cooperation between developing countries becomes especially important. Both China and African countries are developing countries, and strengthening cooperation is the request of the era and the common need to develop”.

“Fourthly, the countries stood the test of practice. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China and African countries gaining independence proved that the equal, reciprocal and win-win relationship between China and Africa has strong vitality and the prospect of sustainable development. Fifthly, the relationship can be guaranteed by a system and mechanism”.

China and Africa launched the Sino-African Cooperation Forum in 2000, which established a new strategic partnership between them, determined the equal, reciprocal and win-win relationship, and in turn ensured such relationship through a system and mechanism.

The practice of developing China-Africa relations has comprehensively interpreted in the essence of equality, mutual benefit and mutual interests. Firstly, in terms of international relationships, China is committed to the philosophy of peaceful development, and has adhered to developing the China-Africa relationship on the basis of respecting sovereignty, equality and mutual benefit, and not interfering in internal affairs.  Over the past half century, the two sides have respected and supported each- other, and their relationship has continued to expand and deepen, setting a good example in international relations.

Secondly, in terms of trade, China and Africa are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and complement each other's advantages. Africa has offered China energy and raw materials to support China's high-speed growth, and China has provided Africa with urgently-needed funds and techniques to help Africa develop its economy and combat poverty. The China-Africa import and export trade value is nearly balanced. This has never been in Africa’s history.

Thirdly, in terms of investment, with the mutual-beneficial and win-win principle, China has made investments in Africa's various fields, which has not only met the consumption needs of the local people, but has also increased local job opportunities and tax revenues, achieving win-win results. 

Fourthly, in terms of assistance to Africa, China has fully respected the wills of African countries and sincerely helped recipient countries develop their economies, with enormous effective work done in fields such as agricultural production, infrastructure, personnel training as well as debt reduction and exemption. China put forth 8 measures in 2006 to promote substantial cooperation with Africa, and announced another 8 measures in 2009 to further China-Africa cooperation, both of which have advanced the course of African countries' economic development and poverty reduction.

 The China-Africa friendship has endured the challenges of over-changing international circumstances, and their bilateral trade and economic cooperation has shown outstanding vitality. In 2010, with the joint efforts of both china and Africa, their trade and economic cooperation will continue to develop on a win-win basis and will better contribute to the welfare of both the Chinese and the African people.

The Chinese leaders also called for better co-operation with African countries on international affairs. As developing nations, China and countries in Africa should work better together in response to "the big bullying the small, the strong domineering over the weak and the rich oppressing the poor" in international affairs, said Mr Hu . Economically speaking the cooperation of the two is deepening and diversifying both in quantity and quality implicating the daily life of both partners.

The loan is doubled the amount China pledged in a previous three-year period in 2009, since which time China has been Africa's largest trading partner, BBC news 2012.

Trade between the two hit a record high of $166bn (£106bn) in 2011, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming wrote in the China Daily newspaper, ahead of the two-day forum. Politically speaking, China respects African internal affairs and promotes African voice in global affairs. Africa respects the one China policy. Leaving African affairs for African is probably the very foundation of the relationship. This is because Africans had never been given the chance to decide their own destination.

"We want to continue to enhance our traditional friendship... rule out external interference and enhance mutual understanding and trust," said Mr Hu.

China-Africa relations are based on equality, mutual benefit and common development.  In recent years, China has established solid and friendly cooperative relations with Africa, drawing extensive attention from the international community, which is very common.

However, some western media groups take every chance to poke at China's African policy and even "demonize" China.  No convincing content can be found in their reports, for what these media groups excel at is publishing groundless news, criticizing the imaginary "resource exploitation" and "neo-colonialism," and irresponsibly citing the "China Threat Theory."

The Economist Magazine which had labeled Africa as a “Hopeless Continent”  also has come up with inspiring news titled “The Chinese are coming...to Africa”. The increasing importance of Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa” it reads: many of its people are not happy about it, as our briefing reports, but business is booming in Africa thanks mostly to the Chinese.  Trade between the two surpassed $120 billion in 2010, and in the past two years China has given more loans to poor, mainly African countries than the World Bank.  The Heritage Foundation, an American think-tank, estimates that between 2005 and 2010 about 14% of China's investment abroad found its way to sub-Saharan Africa.

Given the main problem in Africa is food shortage; Africa badly needs huge investment in this sector. Africa currently has a huge demand in crop cultivation and agricultural product processing.  China has developed both the expertise and technology for agricultural development. Africa and China can clearly reap mutual benefits in this area. Since the onset of the global financial crisis, many African countries have paid more attention to the essential role that agriculture plays in safeguarding food security, eradicating poverty and achieving economic development, and therefore formulated many preferential policies to encourage investment in agriculture and to stimulate their development accordingly and actively in the areas of agricultural investment, technology transfer, construction of irrigation systems, and the export and import of agricultural equipment.

Meles unquestionably agree here with the agricultural development in Africa is a must. He the theoretical and historical analysis presented has shown that the engine of development in its initial phases is and has to be agriculture, and that this is so not only because growth in the relatively massive agricultural sector will have bigger impacts on total growth of the economy directly but also because agricultural growth accelerates non-agricultural growth and structural transformation even more. The neo-liberal school of thought is thus absolutely correct in taking agriculture as the engine of the early phases of development [ix].

The Chinese government attaches great importance to cooperation with Africa in the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) sector, Zhai Jun said. The Chinese department in charge of information and communication will strengthen communication and cooperation with their African counterparts and establish consultation mechanisms, Zhai said.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government will support capable enterprises to open business in Africa, in a bid to make contribution to African countries' economic development and promote modernization of communication in the continent, he said.

The cooperation between China and Africa in the ICTs sector has played an active role in advancing Africa's overall communication level, promoting the continent's economic development, and bridging the "digital gap" between Africa and the rest of the world. 

NB. Continued in PART 2

[i] Interview with author in Beijing January 2013

[ii] Interview with author, Addis Ababa oct 2013

[iii] Former secretary of state of US Hilary Clinton made a speech in AU summits Addis, Ethiopia 2011

[iv] TERRENCE McNAMEE, “THE MANY FACES OF CHINA IN AFRICA COMPETITOR, COLNIZER OR DEVELOPER”? Paper prepared for the ANU conference, 4-5 September 2012, Canberra, Australia

[v] China daily newspaper 2013

[vi] Chinese Communist party documents

[vii] China-Africa forum document issued by the government of China 2012


[ix] The late Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi’s thesis

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