Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

China in Africa

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd May, 2018

China in AfricaIn the 1880s, the European powers divided up Africa into their mutually recognised colonial spheres and the borders of most African states still reflect the lines drawn on the map then. In the 20th Century, two new big players became involved in Africa: the United States and the Soviet Union, sometimes facing each other off in proxy wars and militarising much of the continent in the process. In comparison, China was a late entrant into the evolving scramble for Africa, these days as much about access to markets as control of raw materials.

China in Africa ForumAs Shao Zheng, Counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in London, last night reminded a forum on China in Africa put on by Liberal International British Group (LIBG), African votes in the UN General Assembly helped the People’s Republic get its seat in the United Nations in 1971. But the People’s Republic’s relations with African states and their populations has not always been smooth since then. When I was working in Kenya and Tanzania in 1976 many Africans complained to me that the Chinese who came to Africa — for example, to build the TanZam railway, that linked the Zambian copper belt to the port of Dar Es Salaam —  did not mix with the locals and looked down on them, which was a complaint echoed by African students in China. Since then matters have improved when it comes to community engagement, but according to other panelists at last night’s event — such as Noel Mbala, former Minister of Transport of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rebecca Tinsley of the charity Network for Africa — the Chinese tend to deal only with elites and many of the big infrastructure projects they are supporting bring little benefit to the poor. Professor Paul Reynolds  gave an interesting brief case study of how the Chinese in Djibouti have flexed their geopolitical muscles and clearly Beijing’s interest in Africa is not just about trade. Indeed, as China asserts its global presence more under the guidance of Xi Jinping, we can expect to see an increasing Chinese footprint in Africa as well as more Chinese, ranging from engineers to hawkers. At the end of last night’s meeting, when Shao Zheng was asked whether he was bothered by the criticisms leveled at China during the previous two hours, he replied that these were due to “misunderstandings”. What is doubtless true is that China and the West do often see things differently, not just with regard to Africa.

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