I recently read Dambisa Moyo’s NYT op-ed “Beijing, a Boon for Africa.” After wrestling with a few questions that came up for me in the piece, I realized that this was a topic far beyond me and decided to ask my African friends here in China what they thought. The three men I chatted with come from Zambia (the same as Moyo), Zimbabwe, and Ghana. Even though they are not scholars like Moyo, their opinions reflect another valid view of how China is being perceived in their countries. Since they currently live in China, they prefered to remain anonymous.
Do Africans really like China more than the U.S.?
This question was met with chuckles from my Zambian and Zimbabwean friend (I didn’t get an answer from the Ghanaian). I was promptly reminded that Zambia had just elected a president who had been explicitly anti-Chinese during his campaign, and that many people had been disappointed when he failed to drive out the Chinese like he had promised. My friend suspected that perhaps corruption was a part of why President Sata had backed down. He found it telling that Moyo had chosen to ignore this in her article.
My friend from Zimbabwe was a little less diplomatic when he said, “We all hate the Chinese.” He didn’t mean the Chinese people, but what China’s influence was doing to his country. It is no secret that the Chinese gov’t has helped prop up Mugabe, and that their support for this dictator has limited Zimbabwe’s shift toward democracy, something my friend looked forward to.
All three of my friends were surprised to learn that Pew research showed that China was being viewed as a more favorable partner than the U.S. As Moyo argues in her article:
“Moreover, the evidence does not support a claim that Africans themselves feel exploited. To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.”
However, when one looks at the more recent 2011 survey on the same issues*, one sees that Kenyans’ views of China in their continent have become increasingly negative in the last few years. The 91% of Kenyans that thought China’s economic growth was good for them had fallen 6% to 85%. More importantly, China’s favorability in Kenya had fallen from 81% to 71%. Moyo also failed to mention that in the 2008 survey 51% of South Africans held an unfavorable view of China, even though it was a major recipient of Chinese investment. Unfortunately Pew had not done surveys in the countries where my friends are from.
What challenges are facing your country?
The response from my friends was corruption. Which Moyo identifies as one of the problematic side effects of foreign aid. Or in her own words,
“China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.”
My friends largely agreed with the idea that financial aid has been harmful in many instances, and in many ways wasn’t what their country needed. At the same time, they didn’t see how China’s massive foreign investments in their countries helped in any way to overcome the problem of gov’ts not being responsible to their own people. My friend from Zimbabwe said that it seemed to him that China had bought so much influence in his country that the citizens were now of secondary importance to the gov’t. He added, “It’s like we have become slaves again. We have resources, but still don’t benefit from them.”
My Zambian friend added that even though corruption was still a major problem in his country, with a fairly stable democracy they will be able to confront this issue. To him democracy was a far more important requirement for reducing corruption than a local tax base, after all, a dictator has no responsibility to their people. “In Zambia we can now openly criticize our gov’t, and I think we are moving slowly toward transparency,” he said.
Is China helping solve this problem?
None of them agreed with Moyo’s claim that “China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure.” My friend from Ghana wrote, “Africans are wiser now, even though some leaders are fools, so they can’t exploit us like those (colonial) days.” He also said, “ I think no nation would aid any other nation all in the name of friendship, and I still believe that no nation would even invest in Africa even with the mind of mutual benefit. they are all wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
My friend from Zimbabwe added that many African leaders still value the legacy of building massive projects and amassing wealth over making a meaningful difference in people’s lives. In his view China helps fund these egotistical projects, and contributes to irresponsible governance.
My Zambian friend added that what Africa needs from foreign countries is assistance with developing good governance, and he didn’t see China helping with this. “The Chinese companies come in to build mines, but they ignore our safety laws, don’t pay minimum wage, and bribe officials.” He expressed that it was this kind of behavior that was hurting Africans most.
While Dambisa Moyo clearly has more authority and information to back up her claims, it was interesting to me that none of the African’s I discussed her article with agreed with her idea – “Beijing, a Boon for Africa”. As my Ghanaian friend concluded, “I think we just have to wait and see if indeed they have pure mind, with a sense of mutual beneficiaries with us like they claim. I would just advise our leaders to watch out because there is no such thing as free lunch.”
For a more informed view, I suggest reading Ghanaian economist, George Ayittey’s critique of Moyo’s first book, Dead Aid (half-way down the page).
*2007 was the most African focused year of the survey, I think this is why Moyo chose that year for data.