After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng Xiaoping promoted a series of economic reforms designed to shift China towards a market-based economy and eventual integration into the liberal global economy. This transformation resulted in unprecedented economic growth over the last forty years. China has been described as “the workshop of the world, sucking in oil and minerals from all over the planet and turning them into manufactured goods that undercut traditional suppliers in Europe and America.”
The Chinese regime’s legitimacy is dependent on economic growth. China’s domestic resource wealth has been on the slide for generations, so their foreign policy has been geared towards resource collection. As outlined earlier in part one, industrial capitalism is dependent on cheaply sourced raw materials, and the African continent has been a readily exploited source for well over two hundred years.
Many Chinese projects in Africa focus on resource extraction. Following the old colonial pattern, they have been building roads and railways and airports and seaports from Zambia to Kenya. Chinese companies have been more willing to work in challenging political and economic environments.
Chinese engagement in Zimbabwe exemplifies this. Zimbabwe ranks near the bottom on the Human Development Index (HDI), and has for at least a generation. Zimbabwe has a very complicated relationship with Western Donors. Initially called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe had a very similar historical evolution to South Africa, with one major difference: the black majority fought and won a civil war to oust the minority white regime. Back in 1980. With a charismatic leftist at the helm, Robert Mugabe. He’s still in charge. In the early 2000s, Mugabe enforced a land-exchange programme, where white farmers were basically kicked off their land and replaced with Africans. Since then the “international (white) community” has had a variety of sanctions imposed on the country.
China has no such qualms. Which is actually a critical and fundamental dynamic. China can rightly state that they have no imperial legacy in Africa. They can also rightly position themselves as a non-white actor. Again, Mugabe kicked white farmers off the land and replaced them with black farmers. The international community reacted by imposing sanctions. If there isn’t a clear racial bias there, then I’m blind. This is why the Chinese relationship with Africa is so complicated. While on the one hand, it is quite clear there is a neo-colonial bent to their approach – they’re only really in it for the resources. On the other hand, so are we, we’re just lying to them. And we have a deep history of abusing and exploiting the African continent. Now that China has positioned themselves as an alternative, who’s to blame African regimes for choosing to work with them instead?
Of course, here in the West, we cry foul. But the Chinese don’t care about democracy or transparency. They’re willing to do deals with dictators! They don’t care about aid effectiveness! They’re not hiring or training local Africans, they’re simply importing Chinese workers! Which are all valid points. However, one quick glance in the mirror reveals something we in the West often try to ignore. We did all of the above. Everything. We didn’t care about democracy or transparency. We did dirty deals with dictators. We tried to live there. From Kenya to South Africa. Did you know that 80,000 English folk lived in Kenya in the 1930s, well after the supposed golden age of imperialism?
In defence of the West, since the Gleneagles summit and the Paris Principles we’ve been a lot more focused on aid effectiveness, partnerships and mutual reciprocity. But can a sudden about-face in 2005 undo hundreds of years of exploitation? And what about authoritarian regimes? Why would Mugabe want to deal with the West? The Chinese are offering him money, no strings attached. We offer money, but he must have elections – free and fair elections. What does he care about that?
At the end of the day, should we allow African regimes, however undemocratic, to choose their sources of international aid and foreign investment? Or should we be dictating the terms to them? Lest we forget that our hallowed democracies aren’t quite as democratic as we like to think they are. Lest we forget that we’ve committed genocides on indigenous populations, enslaved People of Colour, and disenfranchised women for hundreds of years, whilst claiming to be a democracy. What right do we have? What moral high ground are we operating from? Do we believe in African agency? Or are they still just children, needing a stern patriarch as Cecil Rhodes would have had us believe back in the 19th century?
By Rashid Mohiddin
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.