Please note: this essay was first written in Chinese and translated to English afterward. I am still learning Chinese so advanced and native speakers may find mistakes or odd word choices.
The information in this essay is primarily from a February 3, 2021 webinar hosted by The Diplomat, “African Perspectives on China.” The conclusion at the end about the future of the Africa-China relationship is my own.
非洲历史上已经有很多跟更发达的国家合作的经验。他们知道怎么谈判，也知道自己的优点和缺点。他们知道怎么考虑正反。关于中国投资的问题，拉哥斯州大学的Oshodi博士说现在非洲老百姓有两个同时存在的看法：第一个是“龙的礼物,”这个看法说跟中国合作有好处； 第二个是“龙的爪子,” 这个看法也有几个方面非洲的国家可能要以怀疑的眼光看待中国。
TRANSLATION IS MOSTLY LITERAL TO REFLECT WORD CHOICE AND GRAMMAR USED IN THE ORIGINAL CHINESE.
China’s governmental and corporate investments in Africa are extensive. Even though this is not a new phenomenon, nevertheless the Belt and Road Initiative has caused the two countries’ relationship to grow closer. According to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) news outlets, the Africa-China relationship is representative of a bright future for both sides. On the other hand, US news outlets and researchers believe China is in the process of exploiting the vast power disparity between them and Africa. Western academic circles in general think China’s activities in Africa are detrimental to the latter. What opinion does Africa itself have regarding this problem? Because these investment projects may have a profound and long-lasting effect, each side has an obligation to not harm Africa. Other countries do not have a fiduciary duty toward Africa, so Africa can only rely on itself.
Africa has historically already had many experiences cooperating with more developed countries. They know how to negotiate, and also know their own advantages and disadvantages. They know how to consider positives and negatives. Regarding Chinese investment issues, Lagos State University’s Dr. Oshodi says that regular people in Africa have two simultaneously-existing views: the first is “dragon’s gift,” which says that cooperation with China is beneficial; the second is “dragon’s claw,” which in addition has several aspects about African nations needing to look upon China with suspicion.
According to Dr. Oshodi and Dr. Weseka from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, regular people in Africa recognize that having relations with China is advantageous. The most apparent benefits are large infrastructure investment projects. They are able to use Chinese-built highways, railroads, bridges, and more. Oshodi and Weseka say that China has changed their strategy: previously, they focused on country-to-country economic relationships, whereas now China is focusing more on relationships with civilians. To this end, China has started focusing on constructing libraries, university buildings, language schools, and so on. Indeed, domestic universities in China are its most important soft power: African students, researchers, and leaders studying in China outnumber those studying in the US and UK combined. This makes the African populace feel that China is actively helping them develop.
However, people in Africa know that China’s primary concern is self-interest, because they use political rhetoric in news and announcements, but their ultimate goal is to raise their own position. Dr. Oshodi says that African people can see that the majority of their natural resources are being exported. They know this is a problem, because historically, African nations have been taken advantage of by larger, more developed countries, with the end result often being Africa losing its natural resources in exchange for merely temporary benefits. Aside from natural resources, Africa’s populace also thinks China attaches importance more to economic rights, while disregarding human rights. For African people, this is a major shortcoming, because historically their trading partners have also been this way, harming Africa.
Dr. Oshodi and Dr. Weseka explain that China also has another problem, that their media does not understand the mentality of the African people. The Chinese news industry has not achieved good growth in Africa, because Africans harbor too much suspicion toward them. Regular people in Africa don’t trust Chinese media because there is no opportunity to criticize China. Africans are similar to Americans: they generally don’t like their own government. So in encountering a country that does not allow its own citizens to criticize the government, African people tend to think that country is not being sufficiently candid with them. In addition, when COVID-19 began, the Chinese government’s racial discrimination in Guangzhou profoundly influenced African people’s viewpoints. Videos from then proved China does not really treat Africans with equality. There are also other similar examples, such as a video widely-viewed in Africa in which an African politician was summoned to China, solely to reprimand him publicly and severely. Although that politician encountered an uncomfortable circumstance, generally China treats African governments very well. In fact, regular people in Africa also think that special treatment is a good thing, because normally they feel their governments are excessively corrupt. This is one of the reasons why African governments have increasingly trended toward associating with China over the US or Europe.
Africa’s misgivings toward China are not random, they are fully aware that having diplomatic relations with China is beneficial but also damaging. Africa has already had negative experiences with larger, more developed countries. They know these circumstances may harm them. However, in the past century China was also a developing country, and from then until now they have achieved great success. Africa also would like to replicate that outcome, therefore it will utilize every opportunity that helps them develop their society.
If China hopes that their relationship with Africa will continue after Africa has already successfully developed, they must change their strategy. Taking things as they are, Africa is not satisfied with China’s methods, and after achieving development, the probability of their renouncing China is high.