Samuel Marshall writes from Addis Ababa: How about that huge tower block that the Chinese have built for the Organisation of African States in the Ethiopian capital? Yes, the Chinese are smart. They go for high profile projects that stand out so that the locals cannot miss them. They are saying to all Africans: ‘We’re building your future’.
The arrival of the Chinese has come as a shock to the American and European dispensers of aid. The Anglo-Saxon approach is to treat the locals as overgrown children who need to be taught the rules of modern life. What are their priorities? Human rights, equality of the sexes, freedom of the individual and the rule of law. The Americans are worse offenders than the British, the French, the Germans and the Scandinavians. Uncle Sam downgrades the local culture and sets out to reshape it and turn it into an ersatz version of America’s. All those ethnic divisions and religious prejudices should be gradually forgotten in order to forge a bright future.
So what is the Chinese approach? Accept the locals and their cultural traditions and leave well alone. No one is trying to turn Africans into ersatz Chinese. Does this mean that Beijing is not really concerned about Africa and its future? Of course not. Why else is it investing so much human and financial capital in the continent? China’s approach turns the Anglo-Saxon one on its head. You change a continent by changing its business culture. Hence they have studied Marx. The means of production are the key. Build up the infrastructure and the political superstructure will fall into place. The Chinese are hard headed realists. Which railway lines and roads should be built first? Those that transport energy and raw materials for export.
Everywhere you go in Africa you will encounter Chinese. You even find them in local markets. For example, in Zambia they are outselling local chicken traders. The way they do this is to set up large chicken farms. The locals do not enjoy economies of scale and lose out.
Europe and America shovel in billions every year in aid. Most of it goes into education, health, the promotion of democracy and attempts to improve rural life. The philosophy is that if people can vote for political parties which promote their interests, the country will blossom. The only drawback of pushing a multi-party system and parliamentary democracy is that it does not really work in the West. No one trusts a politician is received wisdom. Hence the West is pushing a system which is out of date and bound to disappoint.
Two thirds of African governments now have financial agreements with the Chinese. Infrastructural projects may be worth $40 billion. America and Europe are way behind when it really comes to changing Africa. Beijing has another advantage. It does not demand repayment in cash but in kind. Hence there is no need for IMF style bailouts of faltering economies. The World Bank goes around telling Africans what to do and imposing stringent conditions for its loans. The Chinese just do the job themselves. Over a million Chinese workers are now reshaping Africa.
Uncle Sam’s influence is declining worldwide. It is taking a nosedive in Africa. Europe, as the former colonial power, will always carry this baggage around. Hence the Chinese have a great advantage: they were never imperialists in the continent. Things look bright for the Middle Kingdom in the dark continent.