China: the straw that will break Africa’s back

By Patrick Mbullo


The fact that the United States current debt stands at approximately $20 trillion is not anything new. Of interest, however, is the $1.2 and $1.1 trillion respectively owed to China and Japan, the economic giants of the east. With burgeoning industries bolstered by growing capital base, China and Japan are on a charm offensive to establish new global alliances at a time when the west – United States of America and Europe – is in economic and political turmoil. Rising cost of living, poor governance, capital and political instability are now increasing issues of concern. Entangled in its own domestic mess, the United States and Europe are rapidly losing their long-standing political and economic glory. The authority of western countries in global affairs is rapidly fading, and their claim to global democracy and dominance is now in question. In fact, we can say with confidence that are the days of using political and economic powers to influence global economies and politics are becoming a thing of the past. It is evident that the world’s capital base has now moved to the east.

However, we cannot easily erase from our memories the years of global territorial expeditions and conquests that gave rise to western powers and their dominance of the global economy and politics. Exploitative in its advancement, Europe rejoiced in its victorious conquest, and went about plundering and raping virgin lands for raw material and free labor. The colonial territories, as these new frontiers came to be known, build from scratch the economic power and infrastructures that Europe and America stand on today. Anti-colonial voices such as that of Walter Rodney, have argued that Europe’s success is the fruit of human injustices inflicted on African people through illegal labor and outright robbery of Africa’s natural resources.

Coming out of the colonial business and the second world war that left it devastated – broke and insecure, men and women of productive age killed and/or wounded, industries and manufacturing halted and agricultural production grounded – Europe was in economic and political disarray, economic crisis and inconceivable loss. Trapped in a rut, the only way to bail itself out was to turn to its benefactor, and partner in crime, the United States of America. The United States had indirectly used the war to advance economically and emerged as a leading global superpower after 1945. In the process, the European Recovery Plan, also known as “The Marshall Plan” was born.

Led by George Marshall under President Harry Truman, approximately 16 European nations would eventually benefit from the Marshall Plan’s economic recovery agenda. The result was unprecedented industrial growth, establishment of a remarkable economic relationship that facilitated investment and industrial growth in Europe, which then laid the foundations for the establishment of a European Union.

As Marshall Plan funding ended in 1951, the western nations (Europe and United Sates) under the leadership of the Bretton Woods Institutions – the World Bank and International Monetary Fund –  turned their attention to the rest of the developing world.  Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean this time around became the targets of a new exploitative economic agenda: the structural adjustment programs of the 1970s and 1980s. The assumption was that if economic aid with austerity measures could bring fundamental changes in Europe, so why not Africa and other developing countries? With this notion, the united west – Europe and the United States – turned their attention to restructuring Africa. Their aim was to take “development” to the “un-developed” and “underdeveloped” or the so-called “Third world” countries. For Africa, it was much more of a new era; one that welcomed cold war politics and flexing of muscles between the pro-communist east (the Soviet Union) and the pro-capitalist west (Europe and United States).

A significant change that occurred during the onset of this conditional economic support was the birth or push for political reforms, and the takeover of African economic and political affairs by the capital rich Europe and United States. Equally important was the push for political allies. Large sums of money were set aside to buy allegiance of African leaders. These so-called “development” and other favors were at the disposal of the governments regardless of whether they were dictatorial regimes who cared less about human rights or not. This is how Daniel Moi of Kenya and Mobotu of Zaire became sanguinary despots. Nothing mattered at this time so long as you supported the capitalist west and could denounce the east and its communist agenda.

Covert CIA operations were not unusual. The CIA allegedly financed coups to overthrow unfriendly governments. The United States further flexed its economic muscles to push for self-benefiting trade policies that would later entrench the already biased core-periphery relations with most African countries. In the end, the young and emerging nations in Africa produced and sold their goods through forced unequal terms only to pay unrealistic debts created by the structural adjustment plans. Europe and America were the ultimate beneficiaries.


When capital moves to the east, will democracy follow?

Today, much of this economic power has now moved to the east, increasingly towards China. But how will China use this turn of events? Will there be political coups and toppling of governments similar to the days of Euro-American power? Or will they instead push for democracy, and uphold human rights? The answer to these questions perhaps can be found in China’s global policy initiative to building global development framework, the so-called “One-Road, One-Belt” (OBOR) policy. This Sinocentric economic order largely depends on China’s generous financing and investment into foreign infrastructure projects such as roads, dams for hydro-electric generation, and irrigation projects.

OBOR’s overarching aim is to enhance global connectivity and expand economic growth with a win-win desire for all involved. It claims to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; specifically, the principles of Peaceful Coexistence which include mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Whether China is living up to these grandiose claims is yet to be seen.

Today, in many of the countries where OBOR is operationalized, Chinese owned state companies are the main drivers of the initiative, an approach so different from the liberal market approach which it claims to observe.

The most concerning thing about Sino international relations, and now OBOR’s cooperation, is the inadequate consideration of the host countries interest. Arguably, most trade deals involving China, are surrounded with suspicion and secretive financial agreements, thought to be more beneficial to China. Non-interference in host government’s sovereignty, coupled with lack of commitment to human rights issues, have equally generated debates about China’s real interest in its cooperation with other countries. In Africa, for instance, China has surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trade partner and continues to expand its economic interest which currently covers virtually all sectors of the economy – telecommunication, electricity generation, construction of roads and railroads, mining, agriculture, and health.

China’s capital invasion has found a fertile land in Africa; a place where corruption is rife and where it is acceptable to sell resources to a convenient bidder and bleed the state to death. A case in point is Kenya, where huge loans secured from China to improve infrastructure, have pushed the country into an economic brink with huge debts, high costs of living, and political turmoil. The government of Kenyatta, has been accused of using large sums of money from China to advance political party interests, and entrench a dictatorial regime. China-Kenya bilateral relations has emboldened a rich and arrogant political class in Kenya, whose actions now amplify abject poverty, and poor governance.


China’s political and economic power at work

Even though China’s move continues to be debated around the world with mixed reactions, a lot has been said about the true status of Chinese economic power and international relations. China’s economy, its growth, influence, and the ripples it is already creating around the world are enough to have us worried. Over a short period, the Sino giant has become one of the most advanced technological hubs, with incredible security intelligence, advanced military prowess, and shrewd business negotiations. Within a short period of time, China has asserted itself not only economically, and politically, but also socially and culturally to become the most feared emerging super power. How it chooses to use this power remains sharply debatable.

Nonetheless, if cues from Taiwan and the South Sea territory controversies are anything to go by, then we can predict, with precision China’s global politics as a superpower. It is a fact that China’s economic beneficiaries have been astutely blackmailed, intimidated, and coerced to either drop their undesirable criticism or face economic blackout. A case in point is the economic alienation of the former UK Prime Minister David Cameroon in 2012 after he met with the Dalai Lama. Additionally, in this territorial and geopolitical advancement, China has been sharply criticized for its tendency to bribe ruling governments in Africa in order to get cheap trade deals, some which include concession rights on mineral deposits, and agricultural land as has been witnessed in countries like Guinea and Sierra Leone.

In extreme cases, ruling Chinese Communist Party, has been known to deploy subtle psychological and technological warfare to understand and deal with those who go against its wishes. Huawei Telecommunication Company, China’s telecom giant has heightened the information warfare, with its equipment said to be culpable of spying activities. This accusation is what actually led to Huawei’s shutdown in the US. In addition, China’s state media has also directed its focus to cultural expansion of Chinese values. China Radio International (CRI), the only radio station in China running a world service, is making forays into radio frequencies in Africa. In Nairobi, for instance, it is providing 19 hours of programming that comprises of a day in English, Kiswahili, and Chinese. This program mostly covers China’s economic, social and cultural development, China’s friendly exchanges with African countries, and major events around the world.

Critics have argued that the China – Africa bilateral relation is exploitative and similar to the plunder of the imperialist governments of the United States and Europe. To this end, China is likely to emerge as that straw that eventually will break Africa’s back, as economic growth in Africa hits a snag, for while Africa is blinded by the economic goodies from China, the benefits to China are far greater.  It is obvious that China now seeks ways and means to dislodge the United States in most of its strategic positions around the world, especially in control of the world’s economic and political affairs. With  double digit economic growth for more than a decade now, coupled with a closed government system and an aggressive foreign policy, China is obviously the sword that will eventually slay the western dragon in Africa.


*Patrick Mbullo is a PhD student in Anthropology at Northwestern University, USA.

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