From the Editor’s Keyboard

Colonialists, Africa and China

24 July 2006 at 09:55 | 422 views

Governments, research and policy centres, NGOs and the private sector are abuzz with speculation over China’s influence in Africa. The tone of much Western discourse has been to warn Africa about China, with much emphasis placed on China’s poor human rights record, its disregard for the environment and its tendency to act only in its own interests. But aren’t these the very attributes of Western engagement with Africa? Who is the West to lecture Africa on the dangers represented by China? Tajudeen Abdul Raheem(photo) addresses the challenge of how to engage the Chinese.

By Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Guest Writer

Who is Afraid of China? It is difficult to read western papers these days or watch their televisions and listen to their radios without some Chinese feature, news, information, disinformation and mis information. Western policy makers are training future generations to learn Mandarin. Chinese studies is booming. Intelligence services are in a frenzy recruiting anyone who can help decipher the Chinese mind. Even retired old China hands are being recalled from their retirement back into active service.

China is being discussed in the West as a threat. A threat to Western hegemony across the world mostly in economic terms. Nowhere is this threat more orchestrated than in Africa. If China is a threat to the West, should we worry when the West has always been a threat to our very existence for centuries?

I was at one of those conferences on China in the United Kingdom a few weeks ago. It was organised by the highbrow New Labour policy think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). The theme of the Conference was ’China and Africa’. I went to the conference with mixed feelings. I would have had no problem if the theme had been ’ Britain and China’. But why would a British institution be concerned about China in Africa?

Should we not be having such meetings in Africa under the auspices of our own governments, research centres, NGOs and even the private sector?

Of course this question is very rhetorical on my part. I cannot plead naivety in these matters but still I cannot help asking the question even if I know the answers. Such is the ideological incapacitation (both structurally induced and by complacency and irresponsible leadership) of Africa these days that even the poverty that the majority of our peoples suffer from have their experts in the West and advocates in Western NGOs and other Western Do-Gooders who put our pictures in the background of their appeals. So bad is the situation that some African countries even have Western donor advisers to help them negotiate in forums like the WTO, where our countries ’negotiate’ with Western governments. It is like the person whacking you also offering you a handkerchief to wipe your tears! Oh Africa! Can turkeys really vote for an early Christmas?

That puts the IPPR conference in context. The West has arrogated to itself the right to act, talk, interpret and define African realities. Slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism / cold war and the current recolonisation via globalisation provide the historical template from which these attitudes are drawn. They even define for us who are our enemies and who are our friends!

But at every stage they have had willing collaborators, apologists and active agents not only at the highest level of our political society but also civil society. Without African agency these inequities could not have lasted this long. China is an example of a country and peoples who have refused to give up shaping their own destiny. Not that various imperialist forces have not tried several times. But China has remained Chinese.

The current discourse in the West about China is very much reminiscent of the Cold war days where the West thought, acted and behaved as though Africa was its exclusive preserve for exploitation and domination. It’s like a vulture scaring off other vultures from its perch.

So the West is now warning Africa to be wary of China. The alarm bells are sounded about many issues on which China is vulnerable. One, China is after Africa’s energy and other resources needed for its vastly growing economy. Two, It does not respect human rights at home and therefore will not give a damn about it in Africa. Just check the list of China’s new best friends in Africa! Three, it does not care about the cost to the environment of its energy and growth needs. Four, in international affairs China only seeks the protection of Chinese interests no matter whose ox is gored. For instance, China continuously either abstains from or prevents any vote of censure in the UN Security Council and General Assembly against governments it is doing business with, whether it is the killer regime in Khartoum killing its own peoples in Darfur or the illegitimate government of Idris Deby in neighbouring Chad.

There are many other reasons why the West thinks Africa should be wary of China. The interesting thing is that all of these charges and many more are true of China’s foreign policy. But the bigger question is this: Are they not also true of Africa’s relations with the West? Do we need Westerners to tell us about these when our physical body and body politic are still suffering from similar forced encounters with the West? How can the blackened Western pot really call the Chinese porcelain kettle black?

Does this mean that there are no legitimate issues that should concern Africans about China’s deepening engagement with Africa? There are many but we do not need our former and current colonisers to give us lectures on them. They are serial re- offenders when it comes to exploiting Africa.

Africa can and should choose its own friends and enemies, though some enemies and friends may decide to choose you.

There are many concerns that we must address. The first one is China’s bilateralism in relation to Africa. While this may suit the short-term needs of individual leaders, it undermines our sub regional and Pan African institutions and commitments. It replays the colonialist divide and conquer tactics. Most of our countries have no chance negotiating with China alone. They will be gobbled up one by one.

Two, the influx of Chinese goods, services (including criminal gangs) and migrants, is undermining our local economies and attempts at regional integration. While the goods are much cheaper than those from the West they are also killing our nascent industries. Even areas where we have had much progress in the past like textiles are being killed off from the dumping of cheaper Chinese products.

As a Funtua man I should know about this because the Chinese have taken over our biggest industry, Funtua Textiles. Three, in the cold war days China, like other Socialist states, used to have three principles governing their international relations. These were: People to People, Party-to-Party and Government-to-Government. These days China does only Business to Government and Government to Government. Where it has any links with parties they are not necessarily communist parties (since China is also any thing but communist in name only) but ruling parties that can facilitate access for their businesses.

This is where the biggest challenge is, both for African CSOs, NGOs, other pro-people forces and China itself: How do we engage with the Chinese and how can the Chinese engage with us outside of the framework of Government and Business, given the lack of institutional and historical knowledge on both sides on that type of engagement?

* Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa

Source: Pambazuka News