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China and Africa: the debate continues…

Written by Paolo de Renzio


Lots of ink has flowed last week on Hu Jintao’s visit to eight African countries, reigniting the debate about the role that China’s increasing engagement with the African continent can play in promoting development and democracy. Yet, the debate is still unclear and quite polarised.

Compare the following two statements.

“The international development secretary said China's failure to match the conditions placed on aid by countries such as Britain - including evidence of good governance, respect for human rights and spending directed to alleviate poverty - could set back progress toward democratic administrations.” (Hilary Benn, UK Secretary for International Development, Chinese Aid to Africa may do more harm than good, The Guardian, Thursday 8 February).

 “I think it would be wrong for people in the west to assume that they can buy good governance in Africa... What the Chinese have done is explode that illusion. It (China) does not in any way endanger the reforms of good governance and democracy in Africa because only those that were home-grown ever had a chance of success”. (Meles Zenawi, President of Ethiopia, Ethiopia looks east to slip reins of western orthodoxy, The Financial Times, Monday 5 February).

This makes for an interesting contrast! Who should we believe? The Minister or the President? The critics who say that the record of development assistance in upholding democracy and human rights has been, to say the least, uneven? Or the cynics, who claim that Africa’s leadership is allergic to good governance? While since the end of the cold war the nature of aid has certainly shifted, donor countries are finding it difficult to balance the competing pressures of disbursing funds while ensuring good governance standards are respected. The ‘war on terror’ has meant that geo-political interests have re-entered aid allocation criteria. And in some cases, research shows that donor support for incumbent regimes may be preventing healthier democratic processes from taking place. In this sense, President Zenawi’s remarks could even support the view that the democratic wave that swept across Africa in recent years, resulting in the holding of multi-party elections and the creation of anti-corruption commissions in numerous countries, is actually all but a formal façade to keep the aid flowing, while informal and undemocratic institutions and practices still rule.

Amidst all the noise, however, the most deafening roar is that of China’s silence. Its silence on the vision it has for a different world order. Should the international community engage with China in dialogue at this higher level, rather than focus narrowly on good governance in Africa? At the moment, as some have noted, observers can see the self-interested rush for primary resources, the large amounts of cash put on the tables of African leaders, and general statements of brotherhood. Is there any long-term vision? Or is it simply a strategy to tie the knot of future debt around the necks of resource-rich countries?

Marcelo Mosse, a Mozambican journalist, sent an open letter to President Hu Jintao, saying: “One of our great struggles is overcoming external dependency, not just western dependency… We don’t want to be a Chinese take-away, as in our colonial past… China does not have the right to promote aid which, in the long run, will be expensive for Mozambicans, more expensive than western aid and its conditionalities” (my own translation). In Zambia, President Jintao’s visit was spoiled by a number of protests by angry miners working at a Chinese-owned copper mine, and by textile workers sacked because of cheap Chinese imports (Chinese influx revives colonial fears, The Guardian Weekly). Despite government rhetoric then, not everybody in Africa seems to reserve the same red carpet treatment for China’s arrival.

Yet, in a letter to The Financial Times, ODI Council member Prof. Avinash Persaud says: “I have no doubt that China is cutting itself a good deal in Africa. But the best guarantee of a good deal for Africans is not externally set standards, but if they have a choice of lenders and investors. I have observed first hand the beneficial power of competition when financing infrastructure projects in emerging markets”. That’s another interesting contrast that someone may want to comment on.

Few would argue that there’s a new game being played in Africa. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what the rules are yet. So, is China’s intervention good or bad for Africa? The jury’s still out, I’m afraid. For a start, stark (and often uninformed) characteristics of China’s role and intentions should be dispelled by finding out more about what’s really happening on the ground.