Africa's Leaders Race to China Summit to Talk Cooperation

Beijing is welcoming African leaders to the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit.
2 September 2018

Exalted as a "mega-event," the Africa-China summit is expected to draw nearly all of Africa's leaders to Beijing. Barely a squeak of criticism has come out of China or Africa, even though there is plenty to be said.

"It will be the biggest summit of all time." Those were the words of China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press briefing last week. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is set to take place in Beijing on Monday and Tuesday -- "an event of global significance, which Beijing awaits with feverish enthusiasm." China and Africa are in a "win-win situation," and the cooperation will benefit all countries concerned, according to China's chief diplomat.

Africa offensive in China's media

In the run-up to the FOCAC summit, Chinese state media embarked on a propaganda offensive on the topic of Africa. On an almost daily basis, over weeks and on all channels -- especially the China Global Television Network (CNTV) -- Chinese Africa experts praised China-Africa cooperation. Shen Xiaolei of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies in Beijing noted that China has been Africa's biggest trading partner for past nine years.

And Africa expert Zeng Aiping of the China Institute of International Studies hailed the frequent Africa visits of President Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader has already made four separate trips to various African countries -- more than any previous Chinese head of state. This policy is bearing fruit, said Aiping: "The relations are developing at a tearing pace and at the highest level."

The growth in trade between China and Africa is actually impressive: According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the volume of trade in 2000 stood at $10 billion (€8.5 billion). In the 17 years since, the figure has risen twentyfold to $200 billion. In the meantime, Africa's trade with Europe and the United States has stagnated for years. In addition, the African continent has seen a sharp rise in Chinese direct investment.

'A very, very important partner'

Africans have also featured strongly in Chinese media in the run-up to the summit. Liberia's Economy Minister Augustus Flomo was quoted as saying: "China is a very, very important partner for our development strategy." In Liberia, the focus is on road construction, an expansion of the electricity network and the modernization of the health system.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta remarked in a pre-summit interview with CGTN that, "I believe it has huge potential for a win-win situation for all who are involved, and that is why we are very keen as a country, and I believe also as a continent, to partner strongly with China." In the same interview, Kenyatta also called for open markets between China and Africa. "We Africans must not seal ourselves off. A protectionist policy would have a negative outcome for Africans in the long run."

Cheap goods, 'from bicycles to flashlights'

"Actually, Kenyatta should criticize China because it has destroyed African markets with subsidized exports, especially with the cheap exports by state companies, with cheap consumer goods -- from bicycles to flashlights, from the candle to the fridge," said Robert Kappel, a development economist at the University of Leipzig in Germany. The free trade that Kenyatta promotes on Chinese television ultimately contributes to the gradual destruction of industrialization in African countries.

Other risks, Kappel notes, are the increasing dependence of Africans on Chinese credit. "China finances infrastructure projects, for example the construction of railways from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, or Mombasa to Nairobi. These cost a lot of money, which African countries have to pay back. The Chinese don't gift their money." That drives many African countries directly into a debt trap.

Indirect political influence

Alongside the economic components, China-Africa cooperation also has political and cultural components. In South Sudan, where China is part of a peace mission, and in Djibouti, where China has a military base, it's already exercised great political influence, says Kappel. "China always asserts that it does not influence internal affairs. But its influence, even when indirect, targets political developments.

That these pursuits have already borne fruit is evident in the case of the relations between African countries and Taiwan, according to Kappel. All African countries, with the exception of Swaziland, have cut ties with the Taiwan, which China sees as its breakaway island republic. Burkina Faso became the latest to do so in May. "China has, more or less, ensured that these countries cooperate only with the People's Republic of China. Also here it counts as clear political influence," says Kappel.

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