The Hard Truth of China’s Soft Power: Chinese Aid in Africa

mp3ief via Flickr
mp3ief via Flickr

In recent years, China has emerged as a significant economic and political player in Africa, committing $75 billion to aid and development projects since 2000 according to AidData. But what is driving China to make these mass contributions to African nations? According to many Western nations, Chinese involvement is strictly resource-driven in a pursuit of global economic hegemony and self-interest. An NYU study concluded that: “China’s aid is driven primarily by the need for natural resources,” while another American study based in Sub-Saharan Africa also concluded that aid, in the form of Chinese government-funded projects, was aimed at securing a flow of natural resources in that area. A number of African leaders share a similar view to their American counterparts such as Nigeria’s Central Bank chief, Lamido Sanusi who wrote: “Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism… China is no longer a fellow under-developed economy – it is the world’s second-biggest, capable of the same forms of exploitation as the west.” Zambian president, Michael Sata called the Chinese “infesters”.

Along with this assumption, many have also accused China of committing egregious human rights and labour abuses in the continent. Hillary Clinton attacked China last year, claiming that Americans are committed to democracy and human rights in Africa even if it may be easier to sidestep democracy and take a deal with China. There have also been numerous accounts of human rights and labour abuses, which have incited significant anti-Chinese sentiment. In Zambia, coal miners were shot at after a labour dispute with a Chinese mining firm, for example, leading to protests and the murder of a Chinese mine manager. Chinese presence has also destroyed a number of businesses in Lesotho. In Ghana, illegal Chinese mining caused the government to deport 4500 Chinese workers. China has been accused of exploiting the weakness of these states in business dealings, as well as supporting harsh dictatorships such as in Sudan. Africans further accuse Chinese firms of funding projects that offer limited economic benefits such as stadiums, cultural centers and hospitals without providing any staff or equipment; these buildings have also been noted to be of low quality with structural defects and feeble infrastructure.

SFTHQ via Flickr
SFTHQ via Flickr

Despite all the condemnation by Western nations and African leaders, critics say some of these claims are misunderstood and exaggerated, primarily the claim that Chinese interests are solely resource-driven. Daniel Large, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest, says that this fundamental misunderstanding may be because of the lack of statistics released on Chinese aid by the Chinese government. When information is released, it is disorganized, with no annual report or dataset organized by country, making analysis even more difficult. Agencies that release information are also extremely disorganized. As Chinese special representative for African affairs, Ambassador Zhou Jianhua, said, “The government’s statistical capacity is that of a developing country.”

However there have been attempts to unearth the Chinese aid mystery. China AidData, as cited earlier, is a media-based searchable database consisting of almost 1700 Chinese project descriptions in Africa. This database -though somewhat limited as it is only media-based- is a very reliable research tool and shines new light on Chinese aid. Primarily, it reveals that China defines aid differently than OECD countries. For example, military aid is included in China’s definition but not for the OECD, while scholarships for students from developing countries are part of the OECD’s definition, but not China’s.

AidData also reveals that China has a large presence in sectors where Western countries have been wary to work, such as infrastructure investment. Many Africans agree that where the West has been ineffective and inefficient in this area, the Chinese have been quick and effective. Said best by former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade in an op-ed in the Financial Times:

“China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow…approach of European investors… China has helped African nations build infrastructure projects in record time…a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities.”

He goes on to note that although the rule of law is important:

“…when bureaucracy and senseless red tape impede our ability to act and when poverty persists while international functionaries drag their feet African leaders have an obligation to opt for swifter solutions.”

As Wade notes, democracy and rule of law is of the utmost importance but sometimes it may eventually be necessary to push it to the side in hopes that a project which could help thousands may actually get completed.  Western aid often shows little results in sectors such as infrastructure and energy. China also has a growing presence in areas such as education and healthcare. Hundreds of Chinese education initiatives in Africa target children across the continent, for example establishing 23 Confucian schools in 17 countries. China has also promoted its pharmaceuticals such as anti-malarial drugs across the continent.

Although it is argued why China is supplying Africa with aid, it is indisputable that non-traditional aid is becoming a hugely important form of soft power for them. It is uncertain though if aid is simply resource-driven or diplomatic; signs point more towards a diplomatic approach, an attempt to improve their image abroad and also gain influence. However as long as information on Chinese aid remains opaque, we will never know for sure. It is certain though that despite growing resistance, China, and Chinese investment and aid, will become an ever-stronger presence on the African continent.

-Sam Hersh