China has often been criticised for economic colonisation and exploitation of Africa through unfair deals as the battle for economic influence in the continent grow. Its engagement with Africa has mainly focused on trade, aid, infrastructural development and investment while benefiting from the continent’s natural resources and export markets.
Aid has been an important policy instrument for China with Africa being the biggest recipient. However, this has always been tied to African natural resources. Its trade with Africa trade has also been one-sided. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2017, China’s exports to Africa were $94.7 billion, while the whole of Africa’s export to China were $75.3 billion.
There was some improvement in 2018 when the volume of China’s total imports and exports to Africa grew to $204.19 billion. Out of this, China’s exports to Africa were $104.91 billion, up by around 10.8%, while Africa’s exports to China were $99.28 billion.
At the same time, while natural resources make up 90 per cent of Chinese imports from Africa, China’s exports to Africa are more diversified and virtually include anything from manufactured goods, transport, equipment and machinery. Almost every household in Africa has something made in China, ranging from utensils to socks.
The extent of trade imbalance is even more evident if you look at it on a country by country basis. For instance, the value of Kenya’s total exports to China in 2017 was a paltry $98.6 million, while its total imports from China were a huge $98.6 billion.
Despite Kenya having many inland lakes and also sharing the largest fresh water lake in Africa with its neighbours, it still imports fish from China. Data from the fisheries department shows that in 2018 the country imported 22,362 tonnes of fish from China compared to the lesser amount of 19,127 tonnes in 2017.
Following complaints from local traders and fishermen, the country’s president remarked,” I have been told about the imported fish from China. It is not possible that we import fish when our local traders are here.” However, despite the warning, Kenya is still flooded with Chinese fish.
China seems unconcerned with highlighting the trade imbalance between themselves and Africa. Instead, it has focused on showing off the general growth rate of trade between themselves and Africa. “In 2018, the growth rate of China’s trade with Africa was the highest in the world. The import growth rate was also highest in the world, 15% points higher than our import growth rate of foreign trade in the same period,” said a statement from the Ministry of Commerce.
Such imbalances have made many to question whether Africa is benefiting from its relations with China. The reactions have always been mixed.
Commenting on imbalances between China and Africa in the Financial Times, the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria Mr Lamido Sanusi believes “ It is time for Africa to wake up to the realities of their romance with China.”
He points out that Nigeria, a country with a large domestic market of more than 160 million people, spends huge resources importing consumer goods from China that should be produced locally.
”We buy textiles, fabric, leather goods, tomato paste, starch furniture, electronics, building materials and plastic goods. I could go on ‘The Chinese’, on the other hand, buy only Nigeria’s crude oil,”
“In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations.” Although he appreciated that the Chinese have also built infrastructure, he revealed that “they have done so using equipment and labour imported from home without transferring skills to local communities.”
“Africa must recognise that China, like the US, Russia, Britain Brazil, and the rest, is in Africa not for African interest but its own,” he wrote.
However, the claims were discounted, by the President of the China Institute of International Studies Mr Qu Xing. Responding in the Times he stated that China sends its equipment to Africa because they are not available locally and it costs much more if imported from markets other than China. This makes using equipment brought in from China a cost-effective way of production.
On Chinese labour in Africa, he says many are sent to work in Africa because the Chinese companies have no other choice if they want to facilitate certain projects which require specific skills. In regards tobChina flooding African markets with its exports, he argues “ Africa consumers are free to choose what to buy. China has never acted like western colonialists by forcing Africans to buy Chinese products.”
In Qu Xing’s opinion, the relationship between Africa and China is mutually beneficially. This view is also held by various experts who believe that while China profits by securing natural resources and export markets, it has also sparred development in Africa through aid, investment, infrastructure development and trade.
Global Law Initiatives for Sustainable Development in its report titled ‘Pros and Cons of Chinese Investment in Africa’, says, “Chinese investment is advantageous and self-interested and the government has good reasons to promote it, on the other hand, it is also expediting African economic growth.”
According to Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC, China truly hopes to help Africa achieve better development while avoiding meddling with the internal affairs of African countries through conditional aid.
“But on the other hand, China is not helping Africa for nothing. Chinese projects create access to Africa’s natural resources and local markets, business opportunities for Chinese companies and employment for Chinese labour.”
However, “it warns that the short term benefits should not form a cover-up for the potential long term negative consequences associated with neglecting issues of governance, fairness and sustainability. But on the other hand, Lesotho Minister for science and technology believes, “China has opened hands to Africa By doing that China also benefits”