Politics & Policy

The Chinese Are Coming…

... to Africa.

To modern sensibilities there can be few documents more shocking than Sir Francis Galton’s “Africa for the Chinese” letter published in the London Times on June 5, 1873. Sir Francis, a polymath and explorer, and a member of the great Darwin-Wedgwood clan, held Africans in low esteem, believing that they could not “sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilisation without a large measure of external guidance and support.” Towards the Chinese, by contrast, he expressed admiration, regarding them as “endowed with a remarkable aptitude for a high material civilisation.” In his letter to the Times he put forward the suggestion that Chinese people should be imported to Africa in large numbers, so as to displace the Africans and civilize their continent.

Even in 1873 Sir Francis’s opinions were too much for some Times readers, as the rejoinder by Gilbert Malcolm Sproat illustrates. (Though Mr. Sproat seems to think no better of the Chinese than Sir Francis did of the Africans.)

It would be interesting to know what modern Chinese people make of the Galton letter. There is a widespread vague opinion in Western countries that the Chinese are unblushing racists, who hold black people in contempt. Such well-known stories as that of Darlie toothpaste are offered as illustrating instances.

In fact matters are much more complicated than that. Modern Chinese racial pride certainly exists, but it is more defensive than offensive, founded more on resentment at past wrongs — the Opium Wars, the Boxer Indemnity, and so on — than in notions of innate superiority. Since none of those historical wrongs were committed by Africans, anti-black feeling is well-nigh absent from the modern Chinese psyche. To the degree — and it is not in any case a very high degree — that Chinese people see the world as an arena of racial conflict, Africans are hors de combat.

There is even some feeling among educated Chinese people of solidarity with Africans, as fellow victims of European imperialism. This strain of thought found fullest expression in the later Mao Tse-tung period, following the Sino-Soviet split, when third-worldism was going strong and the Chinese Communists promoted themselves as champions of that movement, in opposition to the world-dominating ambitions of the West and the “hegemonists” (i.e. the U.S.S.R.). Visitors to China during that period found themselves confronted at the airport with numerous posters and murals on the theme: “We have friends all over the world!” The accompanying artwork always showed a selection of beaming peasants and proletarians as exquisitely race-balanced as in a present-day U.S. college prospectus, black Africans well represented. Much was made, too, of the voyages to East Africa by the “eunuch admiral” Zheng He in 1417-22, even though those voyages established no permanent China-Africa connection, and likely included military action against obstreperous African rulers.

The reality of Mao-era Afrophilia was not always as sunny as the propaganda. As part of their outreach to Africa, the Maoists imported students from African nations to their universities. This led to many incidents in which male African students were accused of molesting Chinese women, with riots often resulting as Chinese students stormed the dormitories reserved to Africans and other foreigners. (In one case reported to me by an African in Beijing, the college authorities solved the problem by holding periodic parties for African male students only, the other guests at these parties being Chinese prostitutes bused in for the occasion.) Nor did things always go smoothly at higher levels. Ghanaian despot Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup while on a state visit to Beijing, to the great embarrassment of his hosts.

A relationship of sorts was established in the late-Mao era, however, cemented by projects like the Tan-Zam railroad. In the past few years the Chinese have been building on that relationship for all they are worth, pouring investment and credit into Africa, and most recently, in November last year, holding a Sino-African jamboree in Beijing, attended by pretty much everybody who is anybody in Africa. The summit’s promotional billboards attracted some snide commentary — one of the pictures of “Africans” actually featured tribesmen in Papua New Guinea – but the Chinese authorities counted it a great success, and their endeavors in Africa are being pushed forward ever more energetically.

Why? Because China is resource-poor and Africa resource-rich, that’s why. China’s biggest supplier of oil is now Angola; and China is Angola’s largest export market after the U.S.A. Burkina Faso sends a third of its exports, almost all of which are cotton, to China, compared with virtually nothing in the mid-1990s. China takes over 70 percent of Sudan’s exports, compared with ten percent or so in 1995. Of the 4m cubic meters of undressed timber exported from Africa every year, 60 percent goes to Asia, almost all of that to China… and so on. . In the first nine months of 2006, China-Africa bilateral trade volume totaled $40.6 billion, up 42 percent on the corresponding period in 2005. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, addressing a conference of Chinese and African entrepreneurs, urged both sides to bring their trade volume to $100 billion by 2010.

From the point of view of African elites, China’s attentions come refreshingly free of any concerns about human rights or economic transparency. Sahr Johnny, the Sierra Leonean ambassador in Beijing, noted that: “They just come and do it. We don’t start to hold meetings about environmental impact assessment, human rights, bad governance and good governance. I’m not saying that’s right, I’m just saying Chinese investment is succeeding because they don’t set high benchmarks.” A September 2004 U.N. Security Council resolution against Sudan had to be watered down under threat of a Chinese veto. (Satisfied at last, China abstained on the final vote.) The U.S. and European Union have arms embargoes against Sudan; China has three arms factories near the Sudanese capital, happily churning out weapons for the government forces.

Similarly, relations with Zimbabwe (rich in gold and platinum) have flourished since Chinese advisers designed and built Robert Mugabe’s new 25-bedroom mansion, its Chinese-style swooping roof furnished with cobalt-blue tiles. China also assisted Mugabe in his March 2005 election, providing a radio-jamming device for a military base outside the capital to prevent independent stations from broadcasting during the election campaign.

What China brings in to Africa is somewhat more problematic than what she takes out. Cheap Chinese imports, from textiles and shoes to medicines, hurt local industries; Chinese traders and storekeepers take business from local merchants. Notes The Economist: “Textile factories in places like South Africa, Mauritius and Nigeria have been badly hit. In tiny Lesotho, where making clothes for Europe or America is the only industry around, this has been catastrophic.” South African labor unions forced their government to negotiate quotas on Chinese textile imports. Arms sales have long been thriving — China is said to have made a billion dollars profit from the war in Eritrea in the 1990s.

None of this makes it likely that Sir Francis Galton’s scenario will come true. With China heading fast for the demographic cliff that Japan and South Korea have already fallen off, there will be no surplus Chinese population available for mass colonization projects, even if the Chinese were that way inclined, which they are not. The Chinese are content to let Africans run, or mis-run, their own affairs, so long as Africans are willing to (a) trade oil, minerals, and wood for Chinese investment, weapons, and manufactured goods, and (b) give diplomatic support to China’s campaign to end Taiwanese autonomy.

Quote from a French newspaper: “Many African despots have echoed Omar Bongo Ondimba, president of Gabon and a long-time friend of China, and praised the spirit of ‘mutual respect’ and the ‘concern for diversity’ that characterize Chinese trade and cooperation.”

Far from wishing to displace the Africans from their continent, China is entirely willing to enter into that spirit of “mutual respect” so desired by President Bongo, so long as her trade with Africa flourishes. Similarly with that “concern for diversity” — a concern which, as every American knows, trumps pretty much every other motivation nowadays, in any sphere of human activity.


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