China in Africa, NGOs talk about it/ La Chine en Afrique, les ONG en parlent

(Lien en anglais/ link in english)

Néocolonialisme ou collaboration Sud-Sud? La presse occidentale décrit la présence des investisseurs chinois sur le continent africains de la première façon, mais Pékin de la deuxième. En marge du sommet de la Banque Africaine de Développement qui s’est tenu il y a quelques semaines à Pékin, des ONG des quatre coins du monde se sont penchées sur la question de la présence chinoise sur le continent. Les choses ne sont pas aussi tranchées qu’il n’y paraît (voir plus bas en anglais). Pambazuka news nous indique que la voix des populations africaines est un élément clef de l’analyse.

Neocolonialism or South-South ccopertation? For the western press, the presence of chinese investments belong to the first interpretation. For Beijing, the second prevails. Pambazuka presents an article detailing this issue.


Heads of State, foreign ministers and central bank governors from seventy seven African nations met in Shanghai, China, last week for the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) annual meetings. The location of the meetings was pertinently and historically chosen in light of growing Sino-African relations, which, at the governmental level, have reached soaring heights and dimensions. Yet to be foreseen, however, are the implications for the people of Africa and China. It is to this uncertainty that a discussion was held on the peripheries of the AfDB fanfare between African and Chinese non-governmental actors in a meeting convened by China Development Brief, Fahamu, Focus on the Global South and the Transnational Institute.


The historic meeting of Chinese, African and other Southern non-governmental actors allowed for contemplative discussion and debate among academics, researchers and civil society organisations through open and critical dialogue. Participants included representatives from: China, Kenya, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Benin, South Africa, Mozambique, Burma, the Philippines, the Netherlands, UK, USA, Brazil, India and Australia.


A new and nuanced perspective was illuminated that was neither merely rejectionist nor unquestionably accepting. The meetings began with reflections on the nature of Sino-African relations exploring the charges of neo-colonialism versus the expressions of South-South cooperation and mutual aid.


At the outset of the debates, Prof. Yan Hirong of the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong challenged the vilification of Chinese relations in Africa in western media. She noted the importance of putting these trade and investment relations in the perspective of global trends where China is still a small player in Africa. However, Daniel Ribeiro from Justiça Ambiental in Mozambique observed that the impact of deforestation or the removal of livelihood on a community is itself colossal regardless of the size of Chinese investments in the particular nation. It is this impact that creates popular perceptions of Sino-African relations. Indeed, journalist Wang Yongcheng suggested that Chinese people view China to be helping Africa and are disconcerted by the apparent criticism and lack of appreciation. She said that little is heard in China about any negative effects of China’s involvement in the Continent. Ali Askouri, Piankhi Institute, provided an example of where Chinese corporations have been involved in projects that have a negative impact on communities in Africa. The Merowe Dam Project in Sudan is the largest hydropower project currently under construction in Africa. It is being implemented by two Chinese contractors and funded largely by China Export Import Bank. The construction of the dam will however cause the displacement, and affect the very survival, of some seventy thousand people living along the riverbanks. In Mr. Askouri’s view, it is unconstructive to debate whether Chinese actions are worse or better than those of western States as all actors should be held to the highest standards of accountability. Rather, he turned to his Chinese counterparts to find out how affected communities can effect change in the practice of Chinese corporations in Africa.


China’s government espouses the tenets of non-interference and non- conditionality in Africa as demonstrating recognition of self- determination in contrast to the neo-colonialist conditionality of western donors. Professor Xu Weizhong from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences considered hypocritical the cant advanced by western nations that perpetuates the perception of Africa as an economic burden rather than the prop from which industrialisation of the north was achieved and continues to be upheld. And in the same vein noted that “in the end Africans must be the deciders of their own destiny and must have the right to say whether their relationship with China is good for them or not.”


The non-interference and no-conditionality policy has many critics charging China with failing to encourage good governance. But yet African participants like Ali Askouri were not asking China to not invest in Africa, in fact he noted that the affected communities along the Nile River basin of Sudan are not, per se, against the dam project, but sought avenues to constructively bring the voices of Africa’s people to the table and wondered what role Chinese civil society could play in holding their government accountable.


While Chinese civil society is growing, it is still testing its position relative to the government and the people of China. Organizations are primarily focused nationally and have little experience or knowledge of China’s actions internationally despite parallel issues of concern. Their relations with the government tend to be cooperative rather than antagonist given that influence is most effectively leveraged in China through negotiation rather than the “naming and shaming” style of western NGOs. African civil society tends to be experienced and mature in their advocacy nationally and regionally but have little understanding and exposure to Chinese political waters and processes for change. The meeting began a much- needed open dialogue that needs to be continued and increased to enhance the opportunities of Sino-Chinese relations for communities in Africa and China.