China’s relationship with Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular, is more complicated than it might seem.
For some, it is purely an economic relationship spurred by China’s need for raw ma.terials and, perhaps, future markets: in exchange it may offer development help but only in order to smooth the way to getting what it needs. China itself and the govern.ments with which it deals tend to portray it as a development partnership, an expres.sion of South-South solidarity. And, while major powers who are active in Africa always seek to portray their involvement as a development partnership rather than an exercise in extraction, the history of China’s role in Africa as well its current status in the world mean that this has more plausibility than it does when the claim is made by Western powers.
Unlike the European powers, China never colonised Africa and so it approached the continent not as a former master. On the contrary, China’s previous forays into Africa
– most famous among them the Tazara railways project of the 1970s – were designed as exercises in anti-colonial solidarity. At that time, China was seen not as a colonial power but as a country of the global South, allied with other countries in a fight against imperialism. The development projects were portrayed as expressions of that reality.
Today, despite its phenomenal economic growth, China’s alliances are with Southern countries, most notably, the BRICS partnership with Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa, rather than with the major economic powers gathered in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). So, unlike the United States which also never colonised the continent, China has previously presented itself as an ally in the fight against economic domination rather than as a former dominator seeking to become a partner. This means that partnership with China can be seen as a continuation of South-South solidarity rather than an attempt to bolster Chinese economic power.
Even if we reject this sympathetic portrayal of China’s presence, it is possible to see it as a political rather than a purely economic phenomenon. It could be seen as an at.tempt to enhance China’s political influence in much the same way as other major powers use their relationship with countries in the South to enhance theirs. Or it could be seen as an attempt to build a bloc of opposition to Western power. This would give governing elites in African countries the option of ignoring Western influence.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s values and vision have faced no competition from another major power, reducing the bargaining power of African governments who have often had no option but to comply with the West’s requirements. Partnership with China would offer governments an option not previously available. But this could also work against the interests of citizens because it could ensure Chinese support to governments which violate their citizens’rights and ignore calls for democracy. As our Zimbabwean study points out, it is possible to see China as a development partner, an economic competitor, or a coloniser. All of these descriptions can be backed with credible evidence.
This has important implications for our analysis. If, in the minds of the Chinese au.thorities and the African governments with which they interact, the relationship is an exercise in South-South solidarity, then attempts to ensure that the relationship is fairer and more suited to Africa’s needs should enjoy a sympathetic hearing, since both the reformers and the governments with whom they interact would share a wish to pro.mote the interests of African countries.
If, however, the talk of partnership and the recollection of previous solidarities are purely a disguise for what has become a purely commercial arrangement, the road to change would lie not in moral appeals to Chinese solidarity but in the adoption of a more tactically coherent and principled strategy to.wards Chinese investment by African countries. If China’s political influence in Africa is growing, strategies for change may need to identify ways in which this can strengthen or impede pressures for reform.
This chapter will thus discuss the way in which the governments and other stakehold.ers portray the relationship; it will assess whether those portrayals are accurate, and will attempt to analyse the nature of the relationship. It will also point out the impli.cations for strategy.