BEIJING // Views about China's engagement in Africa are being distorted by a series of "myths" about the country's activities on the continent, according to a western academic. Inaccurate reporting and other "misinformation" are painting an overly negative picture of Chinese activities in Africa, Deborah Brautigam says.
Ms Brautigam, a professor at the American University in Washington and the author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, said that although "in some areas it's quite right to be critical, in other areas it's more nuanced or wrong". "We've been reading that the Chinese are the new colonialists, that their aid is toxic, that they're undermining good governance," she said during a recent presentation in Beijing.
"The West has not been successful at raising living standards or fostering structural transformation. The Chinese are experimenting [in Africa] and they're trying to do this. The Chinese think they can do better." China's experiences influence its conceptions of development, she said. "In the West, we tend to think we know what Africa needs. China is much less prescriptive about what Africa should do to develop."
Hundreds of Chinese companies are involved in infrastructure projects in Africa, often carrying out development projects in return for access to the continent's natural resources. Chinese government estimates suggest as many as 750,000 Chinese nationals have moved to Africa, working in a diverse array of fields ranging from trading to the oil industry. "A Nigerian official said: 'The West comes here and it's oil, oil, oil. The Chinese come here and they're interested in every sector of our economy.' It's not colonialism, it's globalisation with Chinese characteristics," Ms Brautigam said.
But with China's increasing engagement in Africa has come concerns its companies are exporting what are often seen as poor labour standards, and that Chinese authorities support what some consider to be rogue regimes by failing to insist that development assistance, for example, be tied to good governance and the protection of human rights. Particular concerns have been raised over China's close ties to Sudan, a major oil supplier accused of human rights abuses in its Darfur region, to which China has sold arms. China's links to President Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe have also come under the spotlight.
Ms Brautigam acknowledged that civil society actors held "largely negative" views about China's activities in Africa because of concerns over environmental standards, the treatment of workers and the effect on governance, while government officials and business leaders tended to take more positive views. She described as a "myth" the idea that China provided large amounts of aid to African states. By her calculations, Chinese aid to Africa in 2007 was a "relatively small" US$1.4 billion (Dh5.1bn). She said China's engagement was not fuelled by charity but by business interests, and these could often be successful in hastening development in a way that western aid models have not been. Most Chinese money going into Africa is through loans at market rates, she said.
Many loans are for infrastructure projects and are backed by natural resources, with those resources used to finance repayment. Such arrangements directly transfer resource revenue into infrastructure development, Ms Brautigam said. But there are dangers involved in such projects. "There's not international competitive bidding. Will the country get value for money? That's a risk," she said. She also described as a myth the suggestion China was engaged in a "land grab" in Africa, for example to grow crops for export back home, saying upon investigation most such cases "evaporated". Also, she said Chinese companies in Africa primarily employ Africans, with an 81 per cent local workforce, rather than Chinese nationals.
The way China sells itself in Africa as a fellow developing country may be unconvincing to outside observers, she said, but it was effective within the continent. "This is a trope that's used over and over again: 'We're part of the developing world, we experienced colonialism,'" she said. "It resonates. It sets them up as different from the West. They don't have the colonial baggage. It plays very well in Africa.
"They're not sure about the Chinese, but they say, 'Let's give it a shot. It cannot be worse.'" However, Ding Xueling, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies China's foreign relations, said he was "very pessimistic" about China's involvement in Africa. He said it was difficult to take issue with those who saw Chinese interests on the continent as "neo-colonialist".
There is, he said, no pressure on the Chinese government from within China to ensure it acts in a way that promotes human rights and good governance in Africa. "In China you don't have the kind of bottom up pressure to force the Chinese government and Chinese companies to change their behaviour, and the NGO sector has been so weak, you cannot expect the NGOs to pressure the Chinese companies to behave better."