China in Africa: 6 Myths

When most people think about the relationship between Africa and China, they think of it as a "colonial" relationship where China dupes the impoverished and downtrodden Africans by presenting them with unfair economic bargains and supporting corrupt and often authoritarian governments in return for oil and natural resources for its factories at home. The sad fact is that this is a misconception based largely on bias expressed in Western media, which according to Professor Deborah Brautigam of American University in Washington DC, can be unraveled upon closer examination of the facts. Here are six myths about the Chinese-African relations.

Myth #1: China Prefers to Back Corrupt/Authoritarian Regimes in Africa

Actually, China prefers to deal with stable regimes that offer a safe environment for investment, which does include some corrupt or authoritarian regimes. The fact is that most of these regimes tend to be unstable and unsafe places to invest resources into especially given the strife that often plagues such regions. Although, China seems to be willing to take some risks by investing in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and what is now South Sudan this isn't unusual given the willingness of non-Chinese companies to invest in these areas as well.

In regards to Sudan -- where China has been most heavily criticized -- there is substantial truth behind the notion that China was a strong backer of the Sudanese government while the tragedy in Darfur was taking place. However, China has also shown that it can be politically astute in that it shifted its position in Sudan, in 2008, by prodding the government in Khartoum to accept the UN-African Union deal that created South Sudan.

It would be safe to conclude that China prefers to invest in areas of Africa that don't pose a high risk for them in politico-economic terms.

Myth #2: China Builds Substandard Infrastructure

When asked about the quality of Chinese infrastructure work, most African governments express a high degree of satisfaction. There is little evidence that the projects done through China's Africa Development Fund or any government backed project has shown signs of major substandard work.

Myth #3: The Transportation Systems Built by China Don't Help Africa's Growth

Many of China's critics allege that the transportation systems - like railroads - were built, solely, for the purpose of helping to extract the natural resources that China needs. However, there is little evidence to support this claim.

Myth #4: China Destroys Africa's Budding Industrial Capacity with its Cheap Goods

This myth is partly true as cheap China-made clothing has devastated the indigenous clothing industry in Africa. But China has also invested in factories in Africa to produce manufactures that help Africa to industrialize. In fact, China has invested millions into African factories to produce consumer goods to fuel the growth of industry in Africa.

Myth #5: China Acts Like a "Colonial" Power in its Dealings with Africa

It may surprise you to find out that China's approach to making deals with African governments is based on the Japanese approach used when China began its economic rise in the 1980s. The Japanese offered a line of credit to purchase Japanese technology and services to help China develop in exchange for the oil and coal it exported to Japan. The basic idea was that China would be able to develop its economy while making the most of the raw materials it exports regardless of its deal with Japan. In Africa, China offers similar types of deals to African states that allow Africa to develop while making the most of the natural resources it exports.

China also believes in a policy of noninterference with the internal affairs of other nations - including those of African states that it does business with. It's been at the heart of China's foreign policy since the early days of the Cold War.

Myth #6: Chinese Workers "Steal" African Jobs on Projects in Africa

A great many of China's critics state that China brings in Chinese workers to complete the infrastructure projects that it finances through deals with African governments. Upon close inspection of the facts, however, the ratio of Chinese to African workers of such projects is roughly 2:8 on average. With some exceptions -- including grant related projects -- the majority of workers on any China-related project are African. There are many countries that require a certain percentage of locals to be hired onto any such projects.

An Earnest Competition Between the West and China Benefits Africa

Based on the differences between the popular myths and the reality of China's relationship with Africa, one can reasonably conclude that China offers a challenge to the West in terms of who should be Africa's primary strategic partner during the course of their economic development process. While China's assistance is not without moral conundrums, China's interactions have had a positive effect on Africa's goal of development, infrastructure building, and boosting exports. It's true that working conditions and the impact on the environment are often not a priority for the Chinese in their dealings in Africa, but their transgression is no worse than any other power operating on the continent. China pursues its own national interests when engaging in Africa. 

America should respond by trying to compete with China by using its influence with African governments to secure deals for its companies and give what economic incentives it can to companies that operate in Africa on projects being sought by the Chinese. Africa must look out for its own interests when dealing with China, the U.S., or any other state seeking to engage it with economic incentives. While there are certain obvious problems -- including labor conditions and environmental impact -- China seems to offer a competitive alternative to the West's brand of engagement. In the end, the African people and their governments must decide how to maximize the benefits from their deals with China and the West to further their aims of bettering their societies.