OPINION: Re-thinking Africa-China Relationship

China and Africa Trade Index

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

To know about the road ahead, ask those coming back-Chinese proverb.

Each time I read African historians’ account on how civilization and development got to Africa, and compare same with that of many Europeans scholars, I often marvel at the fundamental differences, To the European authors, Africa was a dark continent lit only by the flashes of foreign penetration and has contributed nothing to world civilization. But to African historians, civilization means improvement in culture. And Africans have had remarkable improvement in their culture and civilization before the coming of the Europeans.

Politically, such description of Africa as a dark continent could be characterized as harsh and uncharitable. But looking at the current happenings within the continent, fair-minded and well-foresighted Africans understand that there is something bracing about such description. Indeed, Africans may have overtly shown remarkable improvement in their culture and civilization. That notwithstanding, for the fact that after almost 60 years of independence, African countries continually look up to China for aid, covertly tells a story of a continent lacking in capacity for taking responsibility for its actions and intiatives for values.

For a better understanding of this piece, the Chinese development aid to Africa, going by reports totaled 47% of its total foreign assistance in 2009 alone, and from 2000 to 2012 it funded 1,666 official assistance projects in 51 African countries. Also, the Brookings Institution Aid Data study found that at least 70% of China’s overseas aid was sent to Africa from 2000 to 2014.

Some of these projects includes but not limited to; the African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which cost $200 million to build and was handed over in 2012. Recently also, China announced its willingness to give the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a $31.6 million grant to build a new headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. China’s scarves have found their largest African market in Egypt, which imported supplies worth $45 million in 2014. The nations also have a healthy exchange of carpets, with multi-million dollar supplies traveling in both directions. – Dozens of African hospitals have been built with Chinese funds in recent years. China’s largest commitments in Africa are to infrastructure projects, such as Nigeria’s $8.3 billion Lagos-Kano rail line, largely funded through Chinese loans.

Admittedly, there is nothing wrong with exploring the concept of corporation in business, infrastructure and resource development from other nations. Notably also, China is a country that has just experienced a period of economic growth, the likes of which the world had never before seen. Its model, says a report blazes a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization and offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development. And China daily defends and describes its aid practices on the grounds of neutral and respect for recipient nations’ sovereignty.

Despite these virtues and attributes, mountains of evidence point to the fact that Chinese money; interventions/donations (infrastructural supports) are not wholly unpolitical and its leadership style undemocratic making it unworthy of emulation.

Essentially, apart from being ruled, ‘increasingly dictatorially by an unelected communist party that puts people in prison for their convictions and limits all forms of free expressions and associations’, it was equally in the news that Europe’s biggest powers- Germany, France and the United Kingdom-along with Poland, Spain and the Scandinavian countries, maintain/ believe that China is undermining human rights, democratic ethos, rules and standards. Africa must not lose sight of these real and lasting concerns or allow such lessons go with political winds.

Observably, the historical roots of the Chinese development are well understood, their strategies are common knowledge. But there is in my views a need to step beyond development and strategy. And take a look at the country’s fundamental obstacles-its government’s reluctance to appreciate development plans and reform programs from a rights-based perspective.

Directly and indirectly, it adversely affects the infusion of human rights principles of participation, accountability, transparency and non-discrimination towards the attainment of equity and justice in development initiatives. As clarified by the United Nations Independent Expert on the Right to Development, for a programme to be tagged development, it must require a particular process that allows the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights, and all fundamental freedoms, by expanding the capabilities and choices of the individual.

Even as this piece centre on the non- infusion of human rights principles, there is one account that probably did more than anything else to capture the frustrations, disappointments and sins of China against Europe, and will go a long way to convince African leaders to look differently at their relationship with China than the report by two seminal writers, Julianne Smith and Torrey Taussig.

While writing on the well considered topic; The Old World and The Middle Kingdom-Europe Wakes Up to China’s rise, they noted that Chinese president xi Jinping’s consolidation of power has shaken Germany’s confidence in China’s future political stability. And explained that in the name of national security, the Chinese government detained over one million Muslim Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang in “reeducation camp.”

To many in Germany and across Europe, these developments raise troubling questions over what a Chinese-led world   would look like.

German industry, the report added, is growing concern about Chinese technological progress. German business leaders who have long supported deeper economic ties with China are now apprehensive about China’s state-led quest for technological supremacy at the expense of German companies. In January, the Federation of German Industries released a widely cited report cautioning companies to reduce their dependence on the Chinese market. Then there is the long-standing issue of Chinese hackers stealing foreign industrial and technological secrets.

In December, the heightened frequency of Chinese hacking led the German government’s cyber security agency to warn German companies about the growing risk of Chinese cyber-espionage. That came on top of a 2017 case in which German intelligence agencies accused China of creating fake LinkedIn accounts to connect with more than 10,000 German citizens, including lawmakers and government officials, in order to gain information, recruit sources, and infiltrate the Bundestag and government

Germany is not alone in its awakening.

French president Emmanuel Macron, recently declared an end to ‘‘European naivete’’ on China. Macron also invited Merkel and jean-Claude junker, the president of the European commission, to join his meetings with Xi in order to present a united front. The message was clear: Europe will resist China’s attempts to divide it.

Many European countries are experiencing what one senior EU official described as “China fatigue,” the report noted.  These grievances are having a mounting effect on German policy toward China. Merkel, now refers to China as a “systemic competitor,”

Similarly, Several European countries have tightened up their screening of Chinese investments. In 2018, the German government, citing national security, blocked a Chinese investor from buying Leifeld Metal, a leading German producer of metals for the automobile, space, and nuclear industries. It was the first time that the German government had voted a Chinese takeover.

The move was followed by a new law giving the government power to block a non-european investor from buying a ten percent or higher stake (down from 25 percent) in a German business. The law includes media companies, a sign that Germany is worried about Chinese information influence. A number of other European countries have adopted similar measures.

Some European countries have grown disenchanted with china’s behaviour; they have started to push for a more coherent EU wide strategy. A recent EU white paper on china labeled Beijing a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” and called on the EU to pursue a more reciprocal relationship with china and to strengthen its own industrial base.

Whatever the true situation may be, I believed and still believe that there are of course, ingrain lessons for Africa to learn from the above revelations by Julianne Smith and Torrey Taussig. First, Africans must not fail to remember that authoritarianism may do well in the short term, but experience clearly shows that only democracy produces good government over a long haul.And as a continent; we cannot be professing democracy and fraternizes with a nation that has no regard for human rights. Africa urgently need to ask Europe why they are kicking against Chinese development styles and strategies.

Jerome-Mario Utomi (jeromeutomi@yahoo.com) writes from Lagos.

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