What does China expect from Africa in exchange for assistance?
Our television screens, newspapers and social media were abuzz with content showing Chinese diplomats, Chinese enterprise and small businesses helping communities devastated by Covid-19.
However, sceptical voices persisted. These sceptical voices have become part of the China-Africa relationship DNA since its beginning. The sceptics keep asking, “What does China expect from Africa in exchange for all the assistance during the pandemic?”
The question presents an opportunity to have a lucid and evidence-based China-Africa relationship discussion. The pandemic may have brought a crisis but it is also an opportunity to answer some deep-seated questions of the China-Africa relationship.
In order to find answers to this question, Africa ought to first distance itself from blame games and focus on its own long-term growth and stability.
Africa needs to abandon the idea that the China-Africa relationship consists of a repeat of colonial exploitation of its natural resources.
Africa needs to move away from short-sighted predictions that the China-Africa relationship aims to exploit the looming African demographic bulge (African youth dividend) as a future potential market.
In short, Africa needs to abandon its “victim” mentality.
Instead, Africa needs to understand that China needs a strong and stable Africa as that will ensure a long-term China-Africa relationship. Africa needs to have an awareness that it consists of a space for an inclusive global design for sustainable economic and social stability.
Lastly, Africa needs to have strong home-grown economies and social stability lest it becomes a breeding ground for a bipolar world that may come to challenge China’s production and supply chains at home and abroad.
China is very much aware of the short-lived lifespan of economic and social systems. In recent histories economic systems have tended to show signs of instability after a 60-year mark. According to Peter Turchin, a professor specialising in cultural evolution, cycles of social stability only enjoy a 50-year lifespan. Past a 50-year mark cracks begin to emerge with peripheries threatening to bring the status quo to its knees. These cycles are intertwined and share common triggers that may lead to economic depression or social instability.
China, on the other hand, has a well-documented reverence for long-term thinking and planning that spans imperial histories to the present.
In 1972, when asked about the influence of the 18th century French Revolution, Premier Zhou Enlai simply said: “Too early to say.”
Chinese leaders and people tend to think and plan in terms of centuries in contrast to the short-termism of Western democratic politicians.
In order for China to ensure long-term economic and social stability it needs strong partnerships in spaces that still have room for economic and social development. China has identified the African continent for such partnerships.
However, for such a strategy to work China needs a strong and peaceful Africa. It needs an Africa that won’t run across the Atlantic with begging bowl in hand.
China aims to engage Africa as a strategic partner in strengthening multilateralism and to achieve an equilibrium between north and south. In developing Africa, China is moving a step closer to establishing an inclusive south-south co-operation, north-south co-operation and a sustainable long-term community of a shared future.
In conclusion, the saying “once bitten (sic), twice shy” may explain scepticism witnessed among critics of the China-Africa relationship.
However, given African histories of underdevelopment under centuries of Western dominance, Africa may be better off standing on the shoulders of a high-soaring dragon like China.
Such a stance will help overcome pervasive poverty, unemployment, unstable economies and a weak international image.
* Paul Tembe is associate professor at the Institute of African Studies Zhejiang Normal University. Jinhua, China. He is also based at the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Relations.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.