China in Africa

The following article is based on a speech delivered by a representative of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) at a meeting, ‘Evolving China and Africa Relations – an alternative to Western domination?’, organised by A Just African Movement for Unity (AJAMU), in north London on Saturday 19 February 2011.


Although the imperialist powers, but less often the imperialist media, sometimes have to say for diplomatic reasons that they welcome cooperation between China and Africa, that is very far from their real position. We could, of course, guess their real view – but thanks to Wikileaks, we don’t have to guess.

A cable in February last year from a senior US official in the Nigerian capital Lagos described China’s role in Africa as “aggressive and pernicious”. The US official added:

The United States will continue to push democracy and capitalism while [the] Chinese… are with the Mugabe’s and Bashir’s of the world, which is a contrarian political model.”

Frankly, if the West opposes something, there is usually something to recommend it.

In the West, we are constantly being told, essentially by the very people who themselves colonised Africa, stole its land, sucked it dry of whatever resources it could lay its hands on, ran the genocidal Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and carved up its territories like slices of wedding cake at the Berlin Conference at the close of the nineteenth century, that China is the new coloniser of Africa. And that China has only just become interested in Africa now that its rise and its booming economy are leading to its seeking to purchase huge quantities of African minerals and commodities.

It is indeed true that China’s need for many of the resources that Africa possesses in such abundance has given a remarkable boost to Sino-African economic cooperation, but it is quite untrue to state that China/Africa relations only began yesterday.

What is true is that, unlike those in the West who are today so free with their criticisms of China’s relations with Africa, China has never come to Africa as a coloniser and has never enslaved African people. Indeed, Chinese people were brought to Africa as slaves, by British imperialism, to work the gold mines of South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century.

Back in the fifteenth century, Zheng He, a famous Chinese Muslim Admiral, sailed with his fleet as far as East Africa. They traded their goods and went away.

The modern relations between China and Africa begin and are defined by the liberation struggles of the two peoples against colonialism and imperialism. And in this context I want to note that most of the prominent leaders of the African liberation struggle have also been supporters of the Chinese revolution, a revolution they have also seen as having direct significance for their own struggle.

In the 1930s, Langston Hughes, the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote poetry lauding the heroic resistance of the Chinese people against invasion by Japan.

A little later, Paul Robeson learned and sang in Chinese the words that were to become the national anthem after the People’s Republic was founded, to express his solidarity with the Chinese people in their revolutionary war.

The great scholar, Dr WEB Du Bois broke the US blockade to celebrate his 91st birthday in China, with a remarkably prophetic broadcast on Radio Peking, where he said:

Speak, China, and tell your truth to Africa and the world. What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for. Tell this to Africa, for today Africa stands on new feet, with new eyesight, with new brains and asks: Where am I and why? …..

China is flesh of your flesh, and blood of your blood. China is coloured and knows to what a coloured skin in this modern world subjects its owner. But China knows more, much more than this: she knows what to do about it. She can take the insults of the United States and still hold her head high. She can make her own machines, when America refuses to sell her American manufactures, even though it hurts American industry, and throws her workers out of jobs. China does not need American nor British missionaries to teach her religion and scare her with tales of hell. China has been in hell too long, not to believe in a heaven of her own making. This she is doing.”

Robert F Williams, the first prominent African-American leader to advocate armed self-defence, was given refuge in Mao’s China, together with his family, and from his writings and speeches there, and in his travels in Africa, did much to enlighten African revolutionaries as to events in China and the significance of Mao’s teachings, especially on people’s war, for the oppressed people of the world.

Malcolm X referred to the significance of the Chinese revolution again and again. Here is one typical example of what Malcolm had to say:

There was a time in this country when they used to use the expression about Chinese, ‘He doesn’t have a Chinaman’s chance’.

Remember when they used to say that about the Chinese? You don’t hear them saying that nowadays. Because the Chinaman has more chance now than they do….

It was not until China became independent and strong that Chinese people all over the world became respected…. Once China became independent and strong and feared, then wherever you saw a Chinaman, he was independent, he was strong, he was feared and he was respected. It’s the same way with you and me…. You and I have to get our people behind us, our people in our own motherland and fatherland. Just as a strong China has produced a respected Chinaman, a strong Africa will produce a respected Black man anywhere that Black man goes on this earth. It’s only with a strong Africa, an independent Africa and a respected Africa that wherever those of African origin or African heritage or African likeness go, they will be respected.”

The Black Panther Party were also staunch supporters of socialist China and of Mao’s teachings and did everything they could to popularise them in their communities. The Chinese insisted on hosting a delegation from the Panthers, led by Huey P Newton before Nixon’s visit.

All these revolutionaries were inspired by the struggles of the Chinese people. But the support they gave to China was also invaluable, at times when the Chinese people were fighting for their liberation and when they were isolated, blockaded and embargoed by the most powerful imperialist power on earth and other big powers.

I will say more a little later about China’s support to Africa, but I want to stress that the relationship has always been one of mutual support and Africa’s support to China has been invaluable.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when many countries shunned China, President Nyerere of Tanzania and President Kaunda of Zambia were among the very few heads of state to visit.

At the start of the 1970s, the People’s Republic finally won the right to take its lawful seat in the United Nations, and on the Security Council. It was the votes of the African countries that were crucial in securing that victory for China.

Whenever China has been under attack from hostile western forces, the overwhelming majority of African countries have always sided with China and shown their support for its vital interests.

China was liberated in 1949 – a time when the overwhelming majority of African countries were still to win their political independence. At the time of liberation, China was a desperately poor country, needing to overcome more than a century of humiliation and decades of war, yet to recover all of its national territory, its industry and agriculture in ruins, and the majority of its people illiterate, hungry and disease-ridden. Moreover, just a year after its founding, the People’s Republic was forced into a vicious war in Korea against the might of the United States and 15 of its allied and satellite countries.

Yet this mountain of problems did not stop China from expressing its support for the national liberation struggles in Africa.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls that in 1953 he sent Walter Sisulu to China to secure China’s support for the anti-apartheid struggle.

In 1955, contacts were made between the Chinese leaders and many leaders of the African liberation struggle at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia.

China recognised the provisional government of Algeria on the very day of its founding, the first country to do so, and long before the French were driven out.

When Patrice Lumumba was murdered in Congo, Mao made a personal statement in solidarity with the Congolese people. Millions of people demonstrated in China and China supported the armed liberation struggle in the Congo led by figures such as Pierre Mulele and Laurent Kabila.

On August 18 this year, celebrations will be held to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Treaty between China and Ghana, signed by Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Chinese President Liu Shaoqi in front of tens of thousands of people in the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing.

Between 1970-75, when China was still a very poor country and going through difficult days, she built the Tan Zam railway, which the west had refused to build. Zambia and Tanzania were being crippled economically by their support to the anti-apartheid, anti-imperialist struggle. Landlocked Zambia could only export its copper through what was then Rhodesia and South Africa. The Tan Zam railway gave Zambia another outlet to the sea. The west said the railway was logistically impractical and too expensive to build. A still impoverished China proved them wrong.

The greatest contribution to the liberation of Mozambique and Zimbabwe by any non-African country came from China and fighters of nearly every African liberation movement were trained in China in the 60s and 70s. Some of them are today leaders of their countries, such as the current President of Eritrea.

Today, the focus of the relationship between China and Africa has changed somewhat, as economic relations increasingly come to the fore. But it is important to appreciate that they do so against this background, not least because it is so often overlooked or denied here in the West.

And of course, economics and politics cannot be separated. On December 23 last year, the Chinese government published its first ever White Paper on China/Africa economic and trade cooperation. This authoritative statement of the Chinese government begins by stating:

China is the largest developing country in the world, and Africa is home to the largest number of developing countries. The combined population of China and Africa accounts for over one-third of the world’s total. Promoting economic development and social progress is the common task China and Africa are facing.”

And it continues: “China-Africa economic and trade cooperation is a major component of South-South cooperation, infuses new life into the latter, and elevates the political and economic status of developing countries in the world, playing a significant role in promoting the establishment of a fair and rational new international political and economic order.”

For many years, the first overseas visit made by a Chinese foreign minister every year has been to a number of African countries. This tradition began as a way of expressing appreciation to the African countries for their political support to China at a time when the west was attempting to cause internal political strife and to punish it with sanctions. But this year, China has begun 2011 with four separate high level political visits to the African continent.

Vice Premier Hui Liangyu has visited Mauritius, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Senegal.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has visited Zimbabwe, Gabon, Chad, Guinea and Togo.

Vice Chairman Li Zhaozhuo of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference has visited Ghana, Rwanda and Mozambique.

And Minister of Commerce Chen Deming has visited Morocco, Equatorial Guinea and Ghana.

And all this is just in the first six weeks of the year. No other big power treats Africa with this degree of respect. It’s also worth noting that these visits cover every part of Africa, cover big and small countries, and, whilst cooperation in mining and minerals certainly features, the visits are not confined to those countries with such an obvious and strategic interest and importance for China.

I want now to use some of the material from the White Paper I just mentioned to highlight some aspects of the growth and development of the current relationship.

According to the paper: “With the development of China-Africa relations and increased exchanges between China and African countries, the scale of China-Africa trade has increasingly expanded. China-Africa bilateral trade volume was only US$12.14 million in 1950, it rose to US$100 million in 1960, and exceeded US$1 billion in 1980. After reaching the US$10 billion mark in 2000, China-Africa trade has maintained a momentum of rapid growth ever since. In 2008, China-Africa bilateral trade volume exceeded US$100 billion, of which US$50.8 billion is China’s exports to Africa and US$56 billion is imports from Africa. [In other words, the African countries have a modest balance in their favour in their trade with China. – Ed.] The average annual growth rate of China-Africa trade between 2000 and 2008 reached 33.5%, with its proportion in China’s total foreign trade volume rising from 2.2% to 4.2%, and its proportion in Africa’s total foreign trade volume increasing from 3.8% to 10.4%. Although China-Africa trade volume dropped to US$91.07 billion in 2009 as a result of the international financial crisis, China became Africa’s largest trade partner that year for the first time. As the global economy recovered, China-Africa trade also maintained a favourable recovery and development momentum. From January to November in 2010, China-Africa trade volume reached US$114.81 billion, a year-on-year growth of 43.5%.”

To assist Africa in its exports to China, she has offered the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) of Africa that have diplomatic relations with China zero tariffs on some of their exports to China since 2005. By July 2010, African products that enjoy zero-tariff treatment had increased to 4,700 taxable items.

China attaches importance to giving support to African countries to improve their infrastructure, helping them build houses, roads, bridges, railways, airports, ports, telecommunications, power networks, water supply, sewage and drainage systems, low-cost housing and hospitals.

Chinese enterprises undertake social responsibilities on their own initiative, and actively participate in programmes benefiting local people. They have provided funds to build roads, bridges, hospitals and schools, and to sink wells. They have also donated materials to make a positive contribution to the development of local communities. For example, the friendship schools China aids in Nigeria promote elementary education in 300 villages, and vocational training centres in Angola and Libya turn out large numbers of skilled workers.

By the end of 2009, 107 schools had been built in Africa with Chinese assistance, and 29,465 African students had received Chinese government scholarships to study in China. At present, the Chinese government offers about 5,000 scholarships to students from African countries each year. It has also intensified its cooperation with African countries in fields such as higher education, vocational education and long-distance education, building specialised laboratories for biology, computer science, analytical chemistry, food preservation and processing, horticulture and civil engineering.

According to the White Paper: “China always regards helping Africa solve its food security problem as its ultimate goal in China-Africa agricultural cooperation. The major fields of China-Africa agricultural cooperation cover infrastructure construction, food production, breeding industry, exchange and transfer of agricultural practical techniques, and processing, storage and transport of agricultural products. By the end of 2009, China had helped to build over 142 agricultural projects in Africa such as pilot agro-technical stations, stations for popularising agricultural techniques and farms. China has launched 14 agricultural technology demonstration centres in Africa, and provided a large amount of agricultural materials and equipment. The Chinese government also encourages its enterprises to invest in agricultural product processing and agricultural development projects in Africa.”

In terms of improving medical and health conditions in Africa, the major measures taken by China include offering assistance to build hospitals, sending medical teams to Africa, and providing medicines and medical supplies. By the end of 2009, China had helped to build 54 hospitals, set up 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres, and provided anti-malaria drugs worth 200 million yuan to 35 African countries. Since 1963, China has sent medical teams to 46 African countries with a total number of 18,000 medical workers, treating as many as 200 million patients and training tens of thousands of African medical staff over the decades. They have not only cured common and prevalent diseases but also created the conditions to perform challenging operations like treatment of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, re-attachment of severed limbs and removal of large tumours, saving the lives of many patients. At present, over 1,000 Chinese medical workers are providing medical services in 41 African countries.

Besides this, on February 11 this year, eight Chinese academic research institutes formed an alliance to boost medical cooperation with African countries. According to one of the founders, more efforts were needed to help African countries improve their heath care systems, instead of just sending medical teams, so Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu has pledged not only to send another 3,000 medical workers and 100 different types of medicines to less-developed countries but also to help them train 5,000 doctors in five years.

China is active in debt cancellation to Africa. From 2000 to 2009, China cancelled 312 debts of 35 African countries, totalling 18.96 billion yuan.

On climate change, the Chinese government has promised not to contend for the financial assistance, pledged to developing countries, with African countries, but instead will offer them practical assistance in funds, technology and capacity building. At present, China has formed cooperation plans in the fields of biogas technology, hydropower, solar power and wind power with some African countries.

At a 2006 summit between China and the African countries, China gave eight commitments, as follows:

1. Increase assistance to African countries, and by 2009 double the size of its assistance to African countries in 2006.

2. Provide US$3 billion in preferential loans and US$2 billion in preferential export buyer’s credits to African countries in the next three years.

3. Set up the China-Africa Development Fund, the total amount of which will gradually reach US$5 billion, to give encouragement and support to Chinese companies investing in projects in Africa.

4. Help the African Union to build a convention centre in order to support African countries in their efforts to strengthen themselves through unity and speed up African integration.

5. Cancel the repayment of interest-free government loans that had become due by the end of 2005 to China by Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in Africa that have diplomatic ties with China.

6. Further open the Chinese market to Africa, and increase from 190 to over 440 the number of African export items to China eligible for zero-tariff treatment from the LDCs in Africa having diplomatic relations with China.

7. Set up three to five overseas economic and trade cooperation zones in African countries in the next three years.

8. Train 15,000 professionals for African countries in the next three years; send 100 senior experts in agricultural technology to Africa; set up in Africa 10 demonstration centres of agricultural technology; assist African countries in building 30 hospitals and provide a grant of 300 million yuan to African countries to be used to buy anti-malaria drugs like artemisinin and build 30 centres for prevention and treatment of malaria; dispatch 300 young volunteers to African countries; help African countries set up 100 rural schools; increase the number of Chinese government scholarships for African students from the current 2,000 per year to 4,000 per year by the end of 2008.

All these commitments had been met in full by 2009. One need hardly bother to note the stark contrast with the worthless pledges made by the imperialists at their G7 and G8 summits, for example that at Gleneagles, where the preposterous ‘coalition of the willing’ of Blair, Bob Geldof and Bono, sought to present themselves as the trinity that would save Africa.

Accordingly, with the fulfilment of these pledges, in 2009, at a ministerial conference between China and Africa, China unveiled another eight commitments, covering agriculture, environmental protection, investment promotion, debt reduction and cancellation, wider market access, education, and medical care and public health. According to the Chinese government:

These eight commitments, focusing on improving the living standards of the African people, enhancing cooperation in agriculture and human resource development and raising Africa’s self-reliance capacity, aim to help African countries solve their current practical problems, realise sustainable growth, and further consolidate the foundation for economic and social development.”

These eight commitments are as follows:

1. China proposed the establishment of a China-Africa partnership in addressing climate change and the holding of senior official consultations on a non-regular basis to strengthen cooperation in satellite weather monitoring, development and use of new energy, prevention and control of desertification, and urban environmental protection. The Chinese government has decided to assist African countries with 100 clean energy projects in the fields of solar energy, biogas and small hydropower stations.

2. To intensify cooperation in science and technology, China proposed to launch the China-Africa Science and Technology Partnership Plan, carry out 100 joint research and demonstration projects, invite 100 African post-doctoral students to conduct scientific research in China and subsidise them when they return to their home countries to work.

3. In order to raise African countries’ capacity in financing, the Chinese government will provide US$10 billion in preferential loans to African countries. China supports the establishment by Chinese financial institutions of a special loan of US$1 billion for the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa. The Chinese government will cancel debts of interest-free government loans that will mature by the end of 2009 owed by all HIPCs and the LDCs in Africa having diplomatic relations with China.

4. China will further open its market to African countries. It will gradually give zero-tariff treatment to 95% of exports from the LDCs in Africa having diplomatic relations with China. As the first step, China granted zero-tariff treatment to 60% of the exported commodities from those countries in 2010.

5. In order to further strengthen agricultural cooperation and improve African countries’ capacity for food security, China will increase to 20 the total number of agricultural technology demonstration centres built for African countries, send 50 agricultural technology teams to Africa and help train 2,000 agricultural technicians from African countries.

6. China will continue to deepen China-Africa cooperation in medical care and public health service. It will provide 500 million yuan worth of medical equipment and malaria-fighting materials to 30 hospitals and 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres which have been built with China’s assistance, and help African countries train a total of 3,000 doctors and nurses.

7. In order to further enhance cooperation in human resource development and education, the Chinese government will help African countries to build 50 China-Africa friendship schools and train 1,500 school headmasters and teachers; increase the number of Chinese government scholarships for African students to 5,500 by 2012; and train a total of 20,000 professionals in various sectors for African countries in the next three years.

8. To enlarge people-to-people exchanges, China proposed to implement a China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Plan to strengthen cooperation and exchanges between scholars and think tanks, which will also provide intellectual support for better policy-making regarding cooperation between the two sides.

Whilst China’s policy statements and intentions are clear and laudable, there are, of course, at times, mistakes and shortcomings in its policies and practices towards Africa.

China is far from a perfect society. It is itself still a developing country with many people still living in poverty and the country faces many challenges, including poverty reduction, pollution, sustainability, external threats, repeated natural disasters, and so on.

Also, since the late 1970s, with a view to facilitating and speeding up China’s development, the country’s leaders have introduced a series of market reforms, which, among other things, have widened inequality in China and led to a revived private sector gradually taking a major, but not dominant, role in the economy.

Many of these private enterprises are well-run and responsible and are playing an important role in China’s economic development and the development of other countries where they may be operating. But some others are not. For example, by far the biggest number of mining fatalities in any country occur in China, with most of the deaths occurring in small, privately-run and often illegal mines. And the Chinese press itself often reports on abuses of working people in the private sector.

Most of China’s state-owned enterprises operating abroad, in which the Communist Party exercises direct leadership, are careful to respect and observe local laws and customs and carry out the Chinese government’s policies of bringing tangible benefits to local people and communities. But some private companies, just as they behave at home in China, do not, and they are responsible for most of the negative incidents that occur from time to time.

If China values its good name in Africa, and I believe it does, it will take measures to correct and punish these companies and prevent them from going abroad.

However, it would be quite wrong to leap from any individual problems to accusations that China is in Africa as the new coloniser. China does not send its armies to Africa. It has no military bases there and hasn’t asked for any. It does not foment coups or meddle in internal politics. The African countries today are sovereign states and if China has an economic interest in Africa, which it clearly does, then the African governments have the responsibility to drive a good bargain.

Indeed, in many instances, this is already happening. Dr Moses Kavanga, executive director of the East Africa Institute of Political Studies in Nairobi, Kenya, said recently, “the important outcome of the growing China-Africa relations is the construction and reconstruction of infrastructure, especially roads, water works and hospitals happening at a much faster pace than when Africa exclusively relied on the west as its strategic global partner”.

Tom Cargill, assistant head of the African Programme at the London-based think tank Chatham House said recently that the notion that Africa may not be getting enough benefits from its relations with China is misplaced.

Our report on China-Angola shows that on the contrary, some African countries are making maximum gains from relations with China,” he said in a press interview.

If you have a government that knows how to make deals, it can get lots of gains from relations with China.”

He went on to note that China has provided funding for strategic post-conflict infrastructure projects in Angola that Western donors declined to fund.

The shift toward China occurred partly because non-Chinese credit lines, that Angola secured in 2004, demanded higher guarantees of oil, according to a working paper published by Chatham House.

It said China’s investments in the rehabilitation of hydroelectric dams, construction of roads, hospitals and residential houses have helped to ease poverty levels in the formerly war-ravaged African country.

East African Community Secretary General Juma Mwapachu said recently that China and India are providing new markets to Africa and this is reflected in Africa selling less and less to previous key trading blocs like the European Union.

He said the EU and the United States have, for example, persistently dragged their feet when it comes to investing in infrastructure in Africa, by attaching numerous conditions, a trend that has been promoted and rubber-stamped by the World Bank.

This meant that, when Africa leaned towards the EU and the United States, investments in infrastructure, the key catalyst of economic growth, were sluggish, and this affected the pace of development.

But now China has come. It is building the infrastructure and there is a win-win situation between the two entities.”

In conclusion, relations between China and Africa may today appear more pragmatic and less ideological than in the past. But if anything, they are more real and more tangible – they are actually changing the economic and political face of the world.

Although these relations are not without problems, if China and Africa can continue to work together in a cooperative way, respecting each other’s interests and needs, then both peoples will benefit, and imperialism, the common enemy, will be weakened, by having less scope to meddle and to exert economic or other pressures on the developing countries.

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