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African problems can only be solved by Africans…and Chinese?

by Michael Rychener-Schreiner, 22 November 2020


At least one side of the equation appears to be clear: China can be an ideal ally for the African
continent as well as its development and global connectivity. However, the question remains in
what ways China may benefit from Africa. Critically examined, an unbalanced partnership be-
tween the Asian giant and the African continent may result in an economic, political, and cultural
influence that will make countries across the African continent increasingly dependent on China.
Or is this all black painting after all?
In 2018, under the overarching mantra “China and Africa: Toward an Even Stronger Community with
a Shared Future through Win-Win Cooperation”, the delegation of the People’s Republic of China and
a total of 53 representatives from African countries gathered at the Beijing Summit of the Forum on
China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).1 This two-day gathering can be regarded as evidence for the im-
portance the cooperation between China and Africa has gained in recent years. In fact, China has out-
stripped the US and Europe in terms of Africa’s largest trading partner2, and has become the key investor
for Africa’s infrastructural initiatives.3 Not unexpectedly, the increasing and fortifying partnership has
attracted particular attention in recent years, and especially so in Western economies. Along these lines,
China has frequently been suspected of pursuing neo-colonial policies in Africa.4
Beyond dispute, this is a strong accusation with no clear-cut evidence. The question in face of China’s
massive financial engagement, however, remains what is ‘in’ for them along the path taken in Africa.
At the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018 Chinese President Xi Jinping
claimed that “inadequate infrastructure is believed to be the biggest bottleneck to Africa’s develop-
ment”.5 In fact, even though Africa has surpassed China as fastest growing and urbanising population,
the continent still today faces alarming infrastructural deficits.6 And here is where China seems to come
into play with its investments on an unprecedented scale. Nearly a decade ago, the International Mone-
tary Fund (IMF) suggested that China owned approximately a total of 15% of Africa’s external debt.7
By 2015, in turn, only about one third of all new loans taken on the African continent were not stemming
from Chinese investments.8 Taking on a purely business stance, one may argue that China is aiming at
assisting Africa in developing towards more economic growth and purchasing power so as to create a
new market for their own goods.
Yet, the question still remains, whether African countries may not fall into a Chinese debt trap as they
saddle themselves with massive amounts of infrastructure-induced debts in seeking to assure a more
prosper economic future. Indicators for African over-indebtedness do exist. For example, Ethiopia’s
Addis Ababa Djibouti Railway accounted for almost a quarter of their total national budget in 2016.
Another example is Kenya’s railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. This gigantic railway project – that has
quadrupled its foreseen budget – is 80% funded by China and costed Kenya more than 6% of their GDP.9
Not surprisingly, this further emboldened some of the critics that China’s course is somewhat neo-colo-
nial in nature. Officially, China follows a policy of non-interference. However, not far from this remains
the conjecture that the closer the economic ties get, the greater political interest become. In other words,
those who invest a lot, may also have a lot to lose.10 In line with this reasoning, the investments across
the continent may only be a building block for much deeper and more multifaceted geopolitical aspira-
tions China strives for.
To date, it is still unclear how China’s financial engagement across Africa will affect the economic, and
political balance (and ultimately also culture) on the continent. Fact is, however, that Africa is a conti-
nent which has ever since the days of colonialism been facing economic as well as social challenges that
have not experienced any resolution to date. Even today, Africa’s economies remain little diversified as
most of their countries are still dependent on the primary sector, and specifically so, on extractive
industries. These dependencies translate more than less into a majority of Africa’s workforce being
poorly educated and, along with it, into little economic added value.11 What has already been in the past,
will remain a huge problem when looking at the demographic shifts expected across the continent. At
present, it is estimated that the median age on the continent is about 20 years. By 2050, with almost
double the young population of South Asia and Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania12, the continent
will not only have the largest number of young people in the world13 but will also have to accommodate
about 1.25 billion people of working age.14 It has been predicted that Africa will have to annually gen-
erate over 18 million new jobs.15 In addition to this, within the same timeframe of 30 years, the world’s
population will be made up by more than a quarter of people living in Africa. 16 These impressive figures
already hint at the large extent to which demography will shape Africa’s future.
Now, while these prospects may give rise to pessimism, the expected shifts may also be regarded as an
opportunity to be seized. And this is where China seems to be tapping into. By addressing the structural
weaknesses, population growth could also be regarded as the big engine for Africa’s development. With
its course, whether Western economies may like it or not, China is actively contributing to the necessary
diversification of African economies. When looking at the last century, the US and Europe have both
missed in large parts to address Africa’s structural problems, and thereby only insufficiently evoked a
promising development towards Africa’s inclusion in the global arena. China, on the other side, is taking
a long-term approach by not simply throwing aid money at Africa with rather modest results.17 Their
investment-led growth strategy adds to the development and progression of manifold services and in-
dustries apart from mining in Africa. Railway roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and many other Chinese-
financed structural initiatives are making it possible to reduce the continent’s huge infrastructure deficit
that have thus far prevented the continent from its own development and global integration. China’s
financial engagement in Africa may not only promote the integration of the continent’s countries in
global value chains but furthermore foster the creation of labour outside the primary sector and pave the
way for the incorporation of important managerial and entrepreneurial skills that have thus far remained
lacking.18
Concluding, no matter how promising or romantic this all may sound on paper, whether or not African
problems can be solved with the help of China, largely depends on how Chinese infrastructure initiatives
across the African continent will foster mutual economic growth. It remains to be seen whether the
China-Africa cooperation, which is theoretically based on joint gains, will not turn out to be increasingly
asymmetrical in nature; thereby favouring the Asian giant. However, under the condition that China is
‘constructing Africa’ in a collaborative manner that is financially stable, socially responsible as well as
environmentally sustainable19 and, not less importantly, contingent to African governments’ intent to
act in concert rather than committing abuse of the administration, both parties may look “Toward an
Even Stronger Community with a Shared Future through Win-Win Cooperation”.20

1
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (12 Sep 2018). Beijing Declaration-
Toward an Even Stronger China-Africa Community with a Shared Future. Retrieved from
http://focacsummit.mfa.gov.cn/eng/hyqk_1/t1594324.htm (19.11.2020).
2
Brown. H. (13 Sep 2018). Chinese investment in Africa: New model for economic development or
business as usual? Doc Research Institute. Retrieved from https://doc-research.org/2018/09/chi-
nas-approach-to-africa/ (19.11.2020).
3
Shepard, W. (3 Oct 2019). What China is really up to in Africa? Forbes. Retrieved from
https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2019/10/03/what-china-is-really-up-to-in-af-
rica/?sh=665c38b45930 (19.11.2020).
4
Müller, M. (3 Sep 2018). China umgarnt Afrika mit Milliarden. Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Retrieved from
https://www.nzz.ch/international/china-umgarnt-afrika-mit-milliarden-ld.1416905 (19.11.2020).
5
Reuters (3 Sep 2018). China's Xi says funds for Africa not for “vanity projects”. Retrieved from
https://www.reuters.com/article/china-africa/chinas-xi-says-funds-for-africa-not-for-vanity-pro-
jects-idUSL3N1VO018 (19.11.2020).
6
Muggah, R., & Hill, K. (27 Jun 2018). African cities will double in population by 2050. Here are 4
ways to make sure they thrive. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from https://www.wefo-
rum.org/agenda/2018/06/Africa-urbanization-cities-double-population-2050-4%20ways-thrive/
7
International Monetary Fund (7 Apr 2017). A Rebalancing Act for China and Africa : The Effects of
China’s Rebalancing on Sub-Saharan Africa’s Trade and Growth. Retrieved from
https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Departmental-Papers-Policy-Papers/Issues/2017/04/07/A-
Rebalancing-Act-for-China-and-Africa-The-Effects-of-Chinas-Rebalancing-on-Sub-Saharan-
44711 (19.11.2020).
8
Brown. H. (13 Sep 2018). Chinese investment in Africa: New model for economic development or
business as usual? Doc Research Institute. Retrieved from https://doc-research.org/2018/09/chi-
nas-approach-to-africa/ (19.11.2020).
9
Shepard, W. (3 Oct 2019). What China is really up to in Africa? Forbes. Retrieved from
https://www.forbes.com/sites/wadeshepard/2019/10/03/what-china-is-really-up-to-in-af-
rica/?sh=665c38b45930 (19.11.2020).
10
Urech, F. (26 Jun 2018). Afrika ist für China mehr Absatzmarkt als Rohstofflieferant. Neue Zürcher
Zeitung. Retrieved from https://www.nzz.ch/international/afrika-ist-fuer-china-mehr-absatz-
markt-als-rohstofflieferant-ld.1397960 (19.11.2020).
11
Moral, P. (1 Sep 2019). China en África: del beneficio mutuo a la hegemonía de Pekín. El orden
mundial. Retrieved from https://elordenmundial.com/china-en-africa/
12
Daysm (27 Jun 2019). Who are the African youth? Retrieved from https://www.dasym.com/who-are-
the-african-youth/#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%2010%2D12%20million,billion%20peo-
ple%20of%20working%20age (19.11.2020).
13
Sow, M. (20 Sep 2018). Figures of the week: Africa’s growing youth population and human capital
investments. Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-fo-
cus/2018/09/20/figures-of-the-week-africas-growing-youth-population-and-human-capital-in-
vestments/ (19.11.2020).
14
Daysm (27 Jun 2019). Who are the African youth? Retrieved from https://www.dasym.com/who-are-
the-african-youth/#:~:text=Every%20year%2C%2010%2D12%20million,billion%20peo-
ple%20of%20working%20age (19.11.2020).
15
International Monetary Fund (2015). World Economic and Financial Surveys. Regional Economic
Outlook. Sub-Saharan Africa. Navigating Headwinds. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/~/me-
dia/Websites/IMF/imported-flagship-issues/exter-
nal/pubs/ft/reo/2015/afr/eng/pdf/_sreo0415pdf.ashx (19.11.2020).
16
The Economist, (26 Mar 2020). Africa’s population will double by 2050. Retrieved from:
https://www.economist.com/special-report/2020/03/26/africas-population-will-double-by-2050
(19.11.2020)
17
Brown. H. (13 Sep 2018). Chinese investment in Africa: New model for economic development or
business as usual? Doc Research Institute. Retrieved from https://doc-research.org/2018/09/chi-
nas-approach-to-africa/ (19.11.2020).
18
Jayaram, K., Kassiri, O., & Yuan Sun, I. (28 Jun 2017). The closest look yet at Chinese economic
engagement in Africa. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/fea-
tured-insights/middle-east-and-africa/the-closest-look-yet-at-chinese-economic-engagement-in-
africa# (19.11.2020).
19
Huang, Z., & Chen, X. (1 Jul 2016). Is China building Africa? Look East. Retrieved from
https://lookeast.in/is-china-building-africa/ (19.11.2020).
20
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (12 Sep 2018). Beijing Declaration-
Toward an Even Stronger China-Africa Community with a Shared Future. Retrieved from
http://focacsummit.mfa.gov.cn/eng/hyqk_1/t1594324.htm (19.11.2020).