In 2009, China became Africa’s single largest trading partner, surpassing the United States. And China’s foreign direct investment in Africa has skyrocketed from under $100 million in 2003 to more than $12 billion in 2011.
Since China began seriously investing in Africa in 2005, it has been routinely cast as a stealthy imperialist with a voracious appetite for commodities and no qualms about exploiting Africans to get them. It is no wonder that the American government is lashing out at its new competitor — while China has made huge investments in Africa, the United States has stood on the sidelines and watched its influence on the continent fade.
Despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure. To satisfy China’s population and prevent a crisis of legitimacy for their rule, leaders in Beijing need to keep economic growth rates high and continue to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs arable land, oil and minerals. Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic thinking.
Moreover, the evidence does not support a claim that Africans themselves feel exploited. To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.
And the charge that Chinese companies prefer to ship Chinese employees (and even prisoners) to work in Africa rather than hire local African workers flies in the face of employment data. In countries like my own, Zambia, the ratio of African to Chinese workers has exceeded 13:1 recently, and there is no evidence of Chinese prisoners working there.
Of course, China should not have a free pass to run roughshod over workers’ rights or the environment. Human rights violations, environmental abuses and corruption deserve serious and objective investigation. But to finger-point and paint China’s approach in Africa as uniformly hostile to workers is largely unsubstantiated.
If anything, the bulk of responsibility for abuses lies with African leaders themselves. The 2011 Human Rights Watch Report “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse,” which described a series of alleged labor and human rights abuses in Chinese-owned Zambian copper mines, missed a fundamental point: the onus of policing social policy and protecting the environment is on local governments, and it is local policy makers who should ultimately be held accountable and responsible if and when egregious failures occur.
China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.
In a functioning democracy, a government receives revenues (largely in the form of taxes) from its citizens, and in return promises to provide public goods and services, like education, national security and infrastructure. If the government fails to deliver on its promises, it runs the risk of being voted out.
The fact that so many African governments can stay in power by relying on foreign aid that has few strings attached, instead of revenues from their own populations, allows corrupt politicians to remain in charge. Thankfully, the decrease in the flow of Western aid since the 2008 financial crisis offers a chance to remedy this structural failure so that, like others in the world, Africans can finally hold their governments accountable.
With approximately 60 percent of Africa’s population under age 24, foreign investment and job creation are the only forces that can reduce poverty and stave off the sort of political upheaval that has swept the Arab world. And China’s rush for resources has spawned much-needed trade and investment and created a large market for African exports — a huge benefit for a continent seeking rapid economic growth.