Practical and tactical challenges, and strategic perspectives for African engagement with China

23 September 2010

There are many important factors to consider when speaking broadly of China's role in Africa, and one should avoid falling into the trap of simplistic comparisons with historic African-European relations.

When we talk about “African engagement” with China we are, of course, dealing essentially with African governmental engagements. This refers mainly to the diplomatic, political and economic engagements of individual African governments in bilateral relations with China. There are also, to a much lesser degree, more general - and somewhat formulaic – collective African positions in relation to China through the African Union. However, as with all other aspects or levels of African governmental policies and practices, Africa’s relations with China require active African civil society engagements. These, in turn, must be based upon deeper investigation and analyses, insights and proposals, and involve broader public information, lobbying and campaigning. This, too, is what “African engagement” means.

Similarly, when we talk about China, we are dealing not only with official Chinese governmental pronouncements and policies, but also with a complex array of Chinese agencies and actors. These are, of course, the Chinese government, directly, but also a number of very powerful Chinese SOEs (State-Owned Enterprises) and other parastatals. These include public-owned/controlled banks and other financial bodies, production and construction enterprises and public utilities and other services organisations. But we are also dealing with a growing number and range of quasi-independent Chinese business enterprises which are in the process of becoming increasingly - although not completely - independent actors. In major degree, these are the practical drivers of Chinese economic activities in Africa. In this regard, we are faced with very large Chinese corporations - some with annual turnovers larger than the entire national budgets of many African countries. We are also faced with medium and smaller Chinese companies (such as in transport and trade) and even micro-enterprises and individual Chinese operators (especially small vendors etc.)

Furthermore, when we refer to China and the growing Chinese presence in Africa, we must be aware that ‘the Chinese’ we are encountering are not only from mainland China (the Peoples Republic) but also from the specific Chinese entity of Hong Kong. This was for centuries a colonial/capitalist enclave on mainland China, and HK is the base to this day for the operations of transnational corporations from the West, as well as major Hong Kong banking and other capitalist enterprises per se. It is also important to note that ‘the Chinese’ in Africa are often from Taiwan, or Singapore, or Malaysia and these are part of the large number and wide range of ‘Chinese’ companies/entities/individuals that people on the ground in Africa see . Thus, for the purpose of accurate analysis and effective strategic policy formulation, it is important for both governmental and non-governmental analysts in Africa to be clear

• when and where we are dealing with official Chinese government policy and initiatives from Beijing, as well as other public political and economic entities; and/or
• where and how far we are dealing with private quasi autonomous, or fully independent Chinese enterprises and initiatives, and where they are specifically based; and • where and in what ways the public and the private are interlinked or actually overlap in Chinese roles and responsibilities in Africa (as elsewhere).

There are some further preliminary observations that are also essential for effective African engagement with China. The first is the importance for both governmental and non-governmental African analysts to consciously resist being overwhelmed or (unintentionally) influenced by the avalanche of critical media comment and other publications on China-in-Africa emanating from Western or Western-based researchers arguing the “predatory” or “imperialistic” threat posed to Africa by China. African analysts and activists have to maintain a clear critical awareness that such alarms are mainly motivated by Western concerns at the competitive threats posed by China to their own interests and ambitions in Africa (and more broadly).

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