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Richard Dowden on China and Africa

The Chinese are everywhere in Tanzania, from mobile phones to Christmas decorations to infrastructure. The University of Dodoma has a whole department dedicated to the study of Chinese language and culture. Richard Dowden says in Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, “Where the West sees Africa as the place to make poverty history, the Chinese see it as the place to make money.”

Here’s some more from the chapter ‘New Colonists or Old Friends?: Asia and Africa’. Emphases are mine.

On Chinese voyages to Africa in the 15th century

“Unlike the Europeans who came later, the Chinese wanted respect, not control. Lesser races must make obeisance to China, but China had no need to rule over them… The language then was also very similar to today. The Chinese still speak in terms of peace, equality, friendship, trade and mutual benefit. And trade did grow between the continents. China found then what it has found today: Africa is a much richer continent than anyone thought. The Chinese pottery from that period discovered on the east coast of Africa suggests that Africans wanted only the best – and were capable of paying for it.”

On aid

“The Tanzam Railway is China’s biggest legacy of that period [the 1960s, when they re-engaged with Africa]. The newly independent states of Southern Africa wanted to shake off their dependency on apartheid South Africa, but all their road and railway links were to South African ports or through the Portuguese territories, Mozabique and Angola. The Africans wanted a new railway running northwards from Zambia’s copper-producing area to Dar es Salaam. Western countries, content with the anti-Communist apartheid regime, were unwilling to help in the project. The World Bank turned it down as uneconomic. The Chinese stepped in and built the railway in five years…

The railway brought no obvious direct benefit to its builders. The Chinese had little use for anything coming from Zambia at that time. Western countries gave ‘aid’ projects to Africa that either directly benefited their national companies or bought diplomatic support in the Cold War. The Chinese, however, invested in long-term goodwill – international solidarity, they called it. They still do. It is a factor that most Western governments, acting only according to national self-interest and accountable to an electorate, find it hard to match – or comprehend…. The Tanzam Railway made the Chinese popular in Africa. It was a huge political success and is still cited by the Chinese as an example of their aid to Africa.”

On Chinese success in Africa

“[The Chinese] are prepared to go where Western workers fear to tread. Unlike Western professionals who need high salaries, insurance and health cover, air-conditioned houses and staff to run them, business-class tickets home and four-wheeled drives, the Chinese are pretty much content to live at the same level as their workers. Western companies, more vulnerable to public opinion, are signed up to corporate social and environmental principles and programmes…. And their [Chinese] work rate is phenomenal: often they complete projects early and under budget. Chinese companies bring their own Chinese workers from managers to labourers. One reason is language especially on building sites. That’s why the Tower of Babel could not be build. But asked why they don’t employ more local Africans – at least as manual workers – one Chinese minister said that the Africans were not prepared to work at night and weekends – and did not work as hard as Chinese. Had a manager of a Western company made such remark the sky would have fallen.”

[Tamie’s note: the big road that’s just been built by the Chinese between Iringa and Dodoma employed local Tanzanian labourers under Chinese management. I know because I saw them digging the road!]

On why Africa likes China

“It is also obvious that African rulers, harassed by Western criticism of corruption, human rights and environmental damage, will embrace China’s uncritical ‘non-interference’ policy in its government-to-government relations. China simply accepts that the government is the government and what a government does to its own people is an internal matter and no business of China’s. It does not believe in transparency or multi-party democracy and blames many of Africa’s ills on ‘imposed Western systems’…. African rulers also like the way in which China presents itself as a neutral, un-imperialist, value-free outsider that wants simple relationships of trade and friendship with African governments. In their formal, stylized way, the Chinese emphasize the best of Africa, never referring to its failures and explicitly denouncing ‘Afropessimism’. They ignore the aid agency images of poverty and war that African rulers so resent… Many Africans see this as a mark of respect

“The Chinese are popular with African governments because they build things: infrastructure. Western donors… prefer to concentrate on less visible assistance such as education and health or capacity building… African presidents [think it is] far better to see something concrete – literally than a page of statistics that shows school attendance is rising…

“And the Chinese get on with it. Their aid program is uncomplicated: a government wants a road or a stadium, it gets a road or a stadium, fast. ‘The West makes us wait – but we are a poor country and we don’t have time to wait,’ said one minister from Sierra Leone. ‘We like the Chinese. When they say they will do something, they do it. No consultants, no environmental impact, no delay. You get your road.'”

On whether China is a new colonial force

“These days a major component of Western business as well as aid projects is the involvement of the local people. While China funds innumerable training projects, when it comes to their own commercial operations they prefer to bring in their own workers rather than employ and train up locals. Western companies and NGOs in Africa are frequently headed by Africans, but I have yet to discover a Chinese project where Africans are in charge of Chinese… President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa… bluntly warns of the risk that China will replicate Europe’s old colonial relationship with Africa…

“In the end the most fundamental decisions do not lie with Beijing. They lie with Africa and its politics. China will either make or break Africa but it is up to Africa to control the relationship. Those who portray Africa as the weak victim of Chinese colonialism do not know their own history in Africa… At the moment China has an Africa policy but Africa’s fifty-three governments do not have a China policy.”



Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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