30 April 2014

Africa: China in Africa - Neither Devil Nor Angel

Much has been written on the subject of Africa's economic engagement with China. There are those who can be characterized as Sino-optimists versus the Sino-pessimists with the Sino-pragmatists in between. But is it really the case that if one is leftist, one is also likely to be a Sino-optimist?

China's relations with Africa has come under scrutiny recently, with more articles and books having been written about it in the last fifteen years than in the preceding fifty years all combined. Despite the generous attention, however, the nature and outcome of Sino-African relations are still far from clear. Implicitly or explicitly, analysts have certainly sought to address the inescapable question of whether or not China is a force for good in Africa. The empirical evidence nevertheless seems inconclusive at best. The uncertainties are likely to persist for some time partly because the knowledge we acquire from this type of discourse is a social knowledge that is based on judgment and interpretation. The problem is compounded by the fact that the discourse takes place both at political and intellectual levels.


Discourse not merely represents 'reality,' but also it produces meaning with empirical 'evidence' used as much for obscuring some aspects of the 'reality' as for highlighting others. The issues surrounding the discourse about Sino-African relations today include that pertaining to whether China's stepped-up activities in Africa are a boon for the continent. In this universe of discourse are, on the one hand, Sino-pessimists who see China as exploitative which is not only already sucking Africa's resources in order to fuel its own rapid industrialization but also is bound to destroy Africa's development potential in the process. On the other hand, there are Sino-optimists who perceive China as the ultimate savior, capable of or willing to "develop" Africa. In other words, one school of thought views China as devil and the other views it as angel. Between the two divergent schools are those sitting on the fence for the time being, the Sino-pragmatists, who, although less sanguine about the potential outcome of Sino-African relations, are willing to reserve judgment until the "dust settles".

The emergence of these perspectives can be explained first in terms of the contradictions in China's activities in Africa in recent years, what may be called the dualism of China's diplomacy. This duality is in turn partly a reflection of the heterogeneity of African actors with all their contradictions. The ambiguity of China's behavior is nevertheless reflective of issues that are far wider than what goes on in Africa itself.

The perspectives about Sino-African relations are also divergent because of the inherent nature of perspectives. Any given perspective by definition not only highlights a certain part of reality to some extent but it also simultaneously makes the other part invisible. In other words, since social facts acquire meaning through interpretation and judgment, relative to where we stand in the society, optimists, pragmatists and pessimists about the impact of Sino-African relations can all point to aspects of the dualistic Sino-African relations which support their respective position.


There are other relevant factors, too, with regard to how these perspectives emerged and why they co-exist. One of these relates to the fact that China is a relative newcomer to Africa as an aspiring major power. This means that Sino-African relationship has not yet fully crystallized and that it is too early to assess the wider impacts. Further, China is carefully shaping the environment under which its rise as a major global power is realized, and is doing so under a unique constraint imposed on it by a unipolar international system. By definition, unipolarity encourages the rising hegemon to be less forthright about its intentions and ambitions. It is thus the interplay between the fluidity of the current state of Sino-African relations and the underlying wishes, hopes and fears about the future direction and impact of this relationship which gave rise to the divergent perspectives. That is to say that these perspectives reflect the variable possibilities of the outcome of Sino-African relations which, we must add, are contingent upon factors internal to China, Africa and the global political economy in general.

Although Sino-optimism, Sino-pragmatism and Sino-pessimism can be separated analytically, it is often hard to do so in practice. Even in studies that explicitly acknowledge the existence of divergent perspectives, a clear statement regarding which one is more sensible is hard to come-by. Only rarely do analysts spell out explicitly the singular perspective which informs their analysis. This is precisely why we need a set of strategies in our quest for mapping existing social knowledge about Sino-African relations.

We can begin by looking at the ontological commitment of an analyst which is often reflected in the theme or subject-matter of analysis. To choose or single out a topic for investigation is not a neutral act. What we believe is the "big" question worthy of answering, our research interest also sometimes reflects where we are located politically, socially and culturally. It would not be illogical, for example, not to expect a sympathetic reading of China in Africa from a work which is concerned with "how China loots Africa". The theme of analysis could, however, pose a challenge sometimes if we wish to use it for unmasking the perspective of the analyst. Suppose the subject-matter of a piece of research is to show how "china is challenging the West in Africa." Here two analysts could see China in Africa as a challenger to the West but, for ideological reasons, subscribe to different perspectives, one embracing Sino-optimism if he or she would approve of the challenges, and the other identifying with Sino-pessimism, if he or she does not.

Similarly, would a greater emphasis on China's interest in Africa's extractive sectors to the exclusion of other aspects of the relationship imply a Sino-pragmatist or Sino-pessimist perspective? By the same token, an analysis which exclusively deals with China's investment in the infrastructure sector in Africa is likely to lead to a more optimistic conclusion about the impact of China in Africa than one which deals with China's oil diplomacy in Africa. The perspectives of many writers on China-Africa relations nevertheless betray greater subtlety and require digging deeper into the text in order to grasp the implications. Normative commitments are most potent in analysis especially when they are least explicit.


Not only themes but also concepts that are deployed in an analysis can be considered. If the key concepts of the discourse about Sino-African relations are, for instance, "China's scramble for Africa," "China's re-colonization of Africa," and "China's new colonialism," the analyst is most probably approaching the relationship from a Sino-pragmatic or a Sino-pessimistic perspective. If the key concept is "strategic partnership" or "win-win cooperation" between Africa and China, the writer could be a Sino-optimist. Could we also get clues from the national identity or geographical origin of the analyst? The answer is yes, to some extent, but only if used with care. Not surprisingly, most Chinese analysts seem optimistic about the outcome of Sino-African relations for both sides, as are many Africans. Nonetheless, not all Westerners are Sino-pragmatists, or Sino-pessimists, just like not all Africans are Sino-optimists. The discourse about Sino-African relations can also be classified into one of problem-solving and critical variety, with the former focusing on order and stability in the Sino-African relations whereas the latter engaging issues of legitimacy and justice.

Could there be a relationship between analysts ideological stance and his/her theoretical perspective? Historically, two views dominated development discourse in Africa. On the one hand, there was the view held by Marxist and neo-Marxist intellectuals that global capitalism has the propensity to under-develop Africa and that the solution was for Africa to disengage itself from world capitalist system. On the other hand, others saw the process of economic exchange between Africa and the West as a positive-sum game, beneficial to both sides, even if the benefit was never equal. A variant--or distant relative-- of this paradigm maintained it was just too late to disengage from global capitalism, even if it was desirable to do so. Subsequent to China's latest arrival in Africa, however, left-leaning intellectuals seem to be reversing their position by advocating Africa's deeper economic engagement with China and by suggesting that this could accelerate Africa's own development. And yet these "progressive" scholars have not adequately explained, if at all, why the logic of capital changes when the Chinese are in the driving seat. In any case at least at the moment there seems to be a correlation between ideology and discourse about Sino-African relations. If one is leftist, one is also likely to be a Sino-optimist.

Seifudein Adem, PhD, Binghamton University

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