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Neocolonialism nonsense

2014-05-13 15:44 China Daily Web Editor: Qin Dexing

It is clear from Premier Li's visit that China is endeavoring to help African countries grow beyond just being resource suppliers

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has just concluded a four-nation - Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya - visit to Africa, during which he signed numerous deals in areas such as high-speed railways, roads, utilities, agriculture, communications and solar power.[Special coverage]

China and Africa are major economic partners with bilateral trade around $210 billion in 2013, and Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa totaled slightly more than $14 billion in 2012. Furthermore, China is a major purchaser of African commodities, minerals and energy, indeed, Angola and Nigeria are two major oil suppliers to China. Moreover, China has pledged an estimated $30 billion in loans to Africa, with a significant amount provided to Angola. Of note is the fact that Ethiopia is the home of the African Union, while Nigeria hosted the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa.

Premier Li's visit gives us an opportunity to consider anew the claim that China's involvement in Africa is nothing more than another form of neocolonialism. At first glance, this assertion has some plausibility given the structure of Sino-African trade, which often involves African countries providing primary goods to China in return for manufactured goods and heavy Chinese investment in Africa's natural resource sector. Upon more serious reflection, however, it is highly questionable to equate China's general involvement in Africa with neocolonialism.

In the past European countries forcibly toppled African governments. European countries totally dominated the economic, cultural, and social life of certain African countries and stationed their militaries in Africa without permission. There is simply no parallel between now and then. And focusing more narrowly on the issue of neocolonialism in the realm of economics, which is the real issue, we find African countries asking China to engage with them in tackling the current structure of trade, which they recognize fits contemporary economic realities.

Critics have pointed to the risk that Chinese infrastructure is making African countries vulnerable by concentrating their exports on China. Some have expressed concern about the nature and quality of Chinese-built infrastructure, and have noted that some Chinese companies in African countries such as Angola, Uganda, and Zambia have been found wanting in terms of using local employees and managers, respecting the environment, and adhering to corporate social responsibility norms. Another area drawing attention is the transparency of China's activities and their effect on good governance.

However, it is abundantly clear from Li's visit to Africa that China is endeavoring to help African countries grow beyond just being resource suppliers. Illustrations include Chinese companies investing in Ethiopia's textile sector, Chinese efforts to support the development of an African regional aviation industry, the training of thousands of African professionals, China's investment of more than $3 billion in African manufacturing, and China's construction of infrastructure, which will facilitate non-resource oriented economic activity.

Looking at the issue of Chinese infrastructure locking African countries into the China market, this is not borne out by the diversity of the destinations for the host country's exports and the fact that Chinese-built infrastructure often serves the domestic intra- and inter-city economic needs of host countries as well as regional economic integration. Regarding the nature and quality of Chinese infrastructure, there are problems in a few instances, but the vast majority of infrastructure serves its intended purposes and is substantive, far beyond the construction of presidential palaces and soccer stadiums that critics are fond of highlighting.

Regarding the behavior of Chinese companies in Africa, the need for efficiencies, market access and knowledge, and better local brand images, are driving them to improve their practices. The Chinese government, though, understands this is not enough and it regularly encourages Chinese companies to do more to bolster local employment, respect local laws and the environment, and be good corporate citizens. As for the effect of Chinese activities on good governance in Africa, there is little evidence to support the claim. Good governance is largely dependent on what the local governments and peoples do.

China's involvement in Africa is not the neocolonial assault that critics claim. But as Premier Li has acknowledged there have been some "growing pains". Going forward, the Chinese government will need to continue to find ways to ensure that Chinese companies in Africa not only work well, but also do well. In addition, it will need to continue to be responsive to employment, environment, financial, technological, and requirements of individual African countries and the continent as a whole. This will help to ensure that the China-Africa relationship matures in a healthy direction and yields the win-win results that are so often touted by all.

The author Jean-Marc F.Blanchard is assistant dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Multinational Corporations.

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