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China in Africa: A Critical Assessment

This graph, showing China bypassing the U.S. to become Africa's largest trade partner currently, is a critical talking point for revolutionary Pan-Africanists and those concerned about Africa and the future of African people
This graph, showing China bypassing the U.S. to become Africa’s largest trade partner currently, is a critical talking point for revolutionary Pan-Africanists and those concerned about Africa and the future of African people

This piece is written specifically for those people who hold a specific interest in African politics, particularly Pan-Africanist movement politics.  We say Pan-African because particularly within the industrialized capitalist countries, Africa is primarily discussed and viewed as an ancillary place with secondary importance to the European Judeo-Christian, capitalist dominated societies across the planet.  For Pan-Africanists – and when we say Pan-Africanists we mean revolutionary Pan-Africanists who are committed to the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism, a process that will happen only with organized revolutionary struggle – this question of China in Africa is hotly debated, discussed, and assessed.  What we know from these discussions is that the issue is extremely complex with many different moving parts. The objective of this piece is to provide some insight into the reasons for, benefits of, and challenges from China’s political and economic activities in Africa today.

The complexity of the issue results primarily from two factors.  First, the overall political and economic condition of Africa. Officially divided up between European powers for the benefits of those emerging capitalist countries 150 years ago (colonialism), Africa today consists of 54 countries, approximately 58 if you include the surrounding islands.  The continent is adversely impacted by neo-colonialism which dominates Africa today. Neo-colonialism is the system where Europeans for the most part have physically left the African continent, but the actual political and economic mechanisms that are in place throughout Africa are set up to continue to benefit the industrialized capitalist world.  For example, all the infrastructure for electricity, roads, banking, international commerce, travel, etc., are all systems set up to run through the management and banking accounts of Europe and the U.S. Neo-colonialism is the reason that 50 to 60 years after most African “nations” obtained their nominal political independence, Africa is still overwhelmingly poor while the industrialized capitalist countries have been able to build unprecedented wealth from exploiting Africa.  And, that unprecedented wealth is the development and maintenance of the capitalist system where the mechanisms of production are controlled by private entities for private profit. These are the problems Africa faces today which make it impossible for Africa as it currently exists to exhibit any level of political and economic self-determination and independent thinking and action.

The other element of the complexity comes from the history and direction of the most populous country on Earth – China.  Descending out of a feudal and technologically undeveloped reality up through the 1940s, China emerged victorious with revolution in 1949 and since that time, China has gradually implanted its footprint on the world stage as a developing power.  Competing with the former Soviet Union in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, for leadership of the socialist world, with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, and the resulting consolidation at that time of the U.S. as the unquestioned leader of the capitalist world and the industrialized world as a whole, China continued on its path to establish itself as an independent power able to compete with the U.S. as a world superpower. 

The raging question among revolutionaries in general and revolutionary Pan-Africanists in particular is has China abandoned its socialist principles in exchange for market economies and a capitalist path?  This question is center to the challenge of China in Africa. Since the late 1970s, after the death of Mao Tse Tung and the policies of the then Deng Xiaping government, China has implemented massive market “reforms” designed to stimulate the infusion of currency into the Chinese economy.  These changes have led to the development of prosperous private corporations, personal wealth/millionaires, and distinct class disparities. It’s these changes that have led to charges that China has completely abandoned socialism, but a critical analysis requires a much deeper inspection. While the previously stated is undoubtedly true, China has also continued to ensure that education, healthcare, and other essential services are available to all its people.  No small task for a country with over 1 billion people. China has also been exemplary in eliminating disease and improving the quality of life for millions of its people, including many of its almost 600 million peasants. All of these latter things are unquestionably principles of socialist development. So, the question here is can we say China is socialist or not? And how does how that question is answered impact what China is doing in Africa today?

We believe the question about China’s commitment to socialism cannot be completely answered today because the necessary variables to answer that question are still incomplete.  In other words, we believe the majority of Chinese desire socialism and are committed to seeing it develop in China. The Chinese know as well as anyone that a country with over a billion people, over half of who are peasants, cannot organize an economy around principles of profit over people and expect stability and growth.  There are still enough people alive from the 1949 revolution who know such a move to capitalism would be disastrous for the Chinese masses. 

Their challenge is since socialist development is rooted in the ability of that system to provide for the needs of its people, the industrialization of production in a socialist society is essential.  History has proven that due to this requirement, it is extremely difficult to develop socialism in a country with antiquated production capabilities. Since China emerged out of that antiquated feudal era in 1949, the ability to produce on a high technological level did not exist.  The only way to those technological capabilities is to be able to finance the development of the mechanisms necessary to facilitate that development. That requires the infusion of cash/currency to facilitate the development of mechanization. Another way to look at this is the U.S. would be an ideal socialist country because all  the required technology is available. The technology in the U.S. exists because of capitalism’s exploitation of Africa and everyone else, not because of better efficiency by capitalism (as capitalists would argue). Still, since the world today is capitalist dominated. So, in order to develop, China and any other socialist country, will need that cash flow to purchase technological advancements which the capitalist world controls.  The more success they develop in this process the better able they are to create and sustain socialist institutions. With its over 1 billion people, China has a much larger burden than any country on Earth in developing ways to feed and keep its people healthy. It can be argued that China’s expansion into market “reforms” has been very successful in bringing in much needed cash to permit them to create sustained development while providing for their people. It can also be argued that China’s continued commitment to a one party system – governed by its Communist Party – is indication that they see what they doing with capital as a simple method to industrialize so they can develop socialism as just described.  The problem is the permission of market economic “reforms” comes with it values committed to capitalist development and practices. With the millionaires and capitalist values that the influx of cash brings, if this is the vision of China’s leaders, it remains to be seen if they can successfully accomplish that task. Right now, it can easily be said that revolutionary political education in China is at a very low ebb. Significant numbers of people want material items and they are willing to sacrifice the good of society to get them. Racist and patriarchal ideals are commonplace in China. All of this is the result of capitalist ideology and practices. This is the reason we say the verdict on their socialist path is still very much up for debate, but it certainly is still a debate.

On a related note, the question of whether China is pursuing capitalism or socialism is crucial to the answer of whether their involvement in Africa is classic imperialism – as many claim – where they are simply in Africa to continue to exploit African resources.  Or, if China’s objective as an emerging socialist power is to develop relations with Africa to utilize its mineral wealth to facilitate China’s development while providing Africa with much of the infrastructure it needs to pursue its own development?

When we look at China’s specific operations in Africa its quite clear that what they intend to take away from these relationships are the materials they need to facilitate their technological march to progress.  Its also clear that China is willing to provide much needed capacity to Africa in exchange for those resources. For example, China continues to prefer to negotiate trade deals with African countries where China will do things like build and/or provide roads, airports, airplanes, infrastructure like water and power grids, technological equipment like transfer stations, water delivery systems, telecommunication systems, etc., in exchange for oil or other rare Earth materials instead of currency (which wouldn’t be possible with African currencies anyway).  The preference of China to negotiate deals this way probably proves that they are not focused on profiting from these relationships. Instead, they are interested in getting what they need in exchange for providing what African countries need. There is also little evidence that China, unlike Western imperialist countries like Britain and the U.S., is setting up infrastructures in Africa that will serve the future interests of China. There is also no evidence of China engaging the level of imperialist education and training in Africa that the imperialist countries have institutionalized. 

What China has done is negotiate endless deals structured around infrastructure for resources in Africa.  In 2010, China’s China Industrial Fund (CIF) – a National state investment bank in China – negotiated a 7 billion dollar deal with Guinea in West Africa.  The deal required China to build transportation, water/power development, electricity infrastructure, and urban housing development in Guinea in exchange for exploration rights to bauxite and oil reserves. That same year, CIF initiated a similar deal with Zimbabwe for similar infrastructure projects in exchange for mining rights to diamonds, platinum, and gold.  Similar trade deals were established in the following years in Mozambique, Angola, and a host of other African countries.

The question regarding China’s establishment of these trade deals and relationships is again, are these relationships exploitative or common interest deals?  As we said previously, we have no evidence that can question the official current and long term intentions and objectives of China in Africa, but what we can say is because of the state of Africa today, China’s intentions should really be a secondary concern for Africa and Africans regarding this relationship.  As was stated, Africa is dominated by neo-colonialism today. And imperialism – the system where one country steals another country’s resources – is the order of the day in Africa. Since the political leadership in Africa has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are beholden not to the masses of people in Africa, but to the interests of the capitalist/imperialist countries, the only safeguard we have to ensure our people’s interests are being protected are the voices of the masses of people in Africa.  This voice happens through mass protests against the exploitation of mining workers, service workers, and other exploited workers and peasants in Africa. Also, the voices/protests are for land reclamation, or the return of land to African people. These voices have no faith in the corruption from neo-colonial puppet leaders. The very leaders who are negotiating away African resources to China in these trade deals. The relationship is practically the social equivalent of a poor person who has an automobile to sale.  The seller is desperate for money so the person who buys their car could offer them a fair price for it, or they could also prey on the desperation to cheat them out of their car. Either way, the looming question is in the long run, does the fact the seller had to make that transaction in order to survive place them in a better position or not? 

We suggest it does not place them in a better position and until Africans are in the position where we control our resources in a way where we can determine what we sell them for, or even if we want to sell them at all, we have to be extremely careful about any efforts we participate in at anyone’s negotiating table.  The corruption exposed during the 2008 CIF oil deal with Angola is a case in point. In that instance, $40 million allocated by the Angolan government to help facilitate payment on a trade deal came up unaccounted for. This is indicative of the corrupt system of neo-colonialism which revolutionary Pan-Africanists will not ignore when evaluating Africa’s dealings with anyone, despite the potential trade partner’s intentions.  Of course, there are many more instances of corruption in these dealings because that’s essentially the common business practice of these corrupt leaders in Africa today. In fact, we have no way to ensure how these deals are being negotiated because the standard practice of these crooks is to never reveal correct accounting for how their country’s currency and resources are allocated. There are also many social factors related to neo-colonialism and Africa’s depressed state that speak to the problems these trade deals with China represent, despite China’s intentions behind them.  It needs to be restated that Chinese is entering these relationships in Africa primarily because of their economic need to do so. As a result, when they are building these infrastructure projects in Africa, they have the need to employ their own people, primarily men. So, there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese men performing these jobs in Africa. Jobs that desperately need to be available to African people, but aren’t. And, since people evolve together socially once placed in the same social conditions, there are many children being produced today from these Chinese men and African women in Africa.  Many of these children are being left with one parent once the work project is completed and the men go back to China. Also, since the Chinese are bringing this infrastructure there is the tendency on behalf of African countries to cater to their new Chinese guests. There are overwhelming cases of social prejudice, and even institutional discrimination, against Africans when they become engaged with Chinese people in Africa around issues ranging from minor traffic accidents to business opportunities, to access to jobs and living conditions. All of these social contradictions have created some antagonisms from Africans and rightfully so.  We believe these social contradictions must be seen in the context of Africa being powerless and disorganized. As a result, even the best intentions can become less than beneficial in many ways for an oppressed people when they have no ability to shape the conditions of those relationships. 

In summary, there are several questions.  Should we view China’s involvement in Africa as a necessary step towards providing Africa the infrastructure it needs to prepare us for one unified socialist Africa?  This is the position of many Pan-Africanists, even revolutionary Pan-Africanists. And, they are undeniably correct by stating that the infrastructure is desperately needed.  Another view is should we see China’s involvement as that of mutual exchange, but because of the lack of political development in Africa, these exchanges will provide that infrastructure, but at a price of unintended consequences that further hinder our growth and ability to grow our own movement for self-determination.

We will end by saying infrastructure is desperately needed, but it cannot exist e.g. through trade relations with China or anyone else, independent of strong revolutionary Pan-African organizing on the continent and throughout the African world.  The ability of our people to apply pressure on these neo-colonial governments who are inking these deals with China is an absolute must and this cannot happen on a consistently sustainable level without that organization taking place. This focus on the future of African unity is so important that this must become the focal point of these negotiations e.g. how any deal impacts Africa’s development as a whole, inclusive of the people in the particular country/area.  We must develop this consciousness and organization to ensure that it is so strong in the process that it cannot be ignored. This approach has to become a focus for revolutionary Pan-Africanists and we must develop a way to ensure this work is a part of our overall Pan-African work. This is the only method to stem the corruption of neo-colonialism while ensuring that any infrastructure developed is going to benefit the construction of a United States of Africa under one continental socialist government, not continued maintenance of capitalist exploitation in Africa.  As for China, as was stated, that country is trying to provide for its people. We believe they are also focused on positioning themselves to become the pre-eminent world power, taking that mantle from the U.S. That’s their mission and whatever engagement they have with us is designed to help them facilitate their objective. As revolutionary Pan-Africanists, we have to view Africa’s future the same way. Anything that happens for Africa has to be within that framework of building Africa’s capacity to be independent of anyone else. So we don’t believe China to be an imperialist country and we do believe the infrastructure being developed in Africa can help build up Africa.  We also believe that the current model of Chinese engagement with neo-colonialism in Africa is dangerous for Africa. Until we have a level of independence for the masses of our people, it is wise for us to distrust anyone coming into Africa seeking business relationships with us as well as the people in Africa facilitating these arrangements. My father always told me that you pay the cost to be the boss. Until we are in the driver’s seat, meaning the masses of African people, for Africa’s forward progress, it would be naïve for us to believe anything currently happening is going to be linked in any strong and committed way to our liberation. 

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.

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