I WAS privileged to attend the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) summit hosted by South Africa in Johannesburg during 4 to 5 December 2015.
As I watched the opening of the summit by its co-Chairmen, President Xi Xinping and President Zuma, I could not help but observe that the irony of a single Chinese individual, making the promises of independence to an attentive crowd of 54 representatives of presumed sovereign African nation-states all seeking to outdo each other in a beauty pageant style to look good as beneficiaries and resource mortgagors.
Any rational observer would have taken note of the fact that, China, the world’s most populous nation-state, with a population of about 1.3 billion compared with Africa’s 1.11 billion, has a single individual as its head of state as opposed to Africa’s 54 incoherent voices. It is the case that scale matters in the economic order of things yet the unity of Africa is being driven by outsiders who have the financial power to make it happen than the people in whom true sovereignty is vested.
A lot has been said about the colonial and post-colonial relationship between China and Africa and implications thereof as if to suggest that China is some kind of a salvation army to fill the perceived gap created by the Western Nations who know better that money without values is recipe for disaster.
During the African decolonization period, China was pursuing the idea of socialism and, therefore, the value and principles that informed its worldview were founded on the premise that the state and its actors ought to drive the agenda of delivering a just, inclusive and prosperous dispensation. The fact that the socialist idea was fatally flawed from conception and implementation was proved right by the passage of time.
The idea failed, as could be predicted, to capture the imagination and creativity of the Chinese people yet the big idea that the state and its actors know better and act in the national interest seems to be taking root with the assistance of the Chinese whose history and emergence as a super power suggest otherwise.
With the death of Chairman Mao and the short-lived transition, it was as predictable as it was inevitable that China would have no choice but to conform to the dictates of the human spirit in order to unlock the true potential that resided in the frustrated minds of the ordinary Chinese citizens.Advertisement
The evolution of China from a socialist/communist system has been quick and transformational yet the African post-colonial journey has and remains painful, uninspiring and dangerous. A careful observation of the Chinese work ethic in countries and territories dominated by the Chinese like Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Indonesia would confirm that the Anglo-Saxon protestant ethic is not unique to Caucasians.
The history of human civilization has taught us that human beings have the inherent capacity to step up to the plate when opportunities exist and when freedom reigns for them to dream and convert dreams into products and services.
The China represented by President Xi is dramatically different from the China of Chairman Mao. Under President Xi, it is a China at work. It is a unitary state despite its own challenges, yet the idea of a borderless Africa poses so grave a danger to the characters who surrounded President Xi who would have to give up the limelight to a single African.
Africa’s strength lies in its diversity and, more significantly, in the imagination and creativity of its people and certainly not in the genius of its state actors. The Chinese, unlike the majority of their African counterparts, are acutely aware that resources do not come from heaven but are created from human ideas and ingenuity.
Even the government of China is, in reality after all, a creature of citizens and as such is only an instrument for robbing Peter to pay Paul. However, the instrumentality of the state often disguises the source of the seemingly free gifts.
The Chinese people, like all their foreign predecessors in African affairs, know too well that Africa is pregnant with the creator’s goodies and that Africans are easily fooled by visitors when it comes to economic models to pursue to best realize the promise that must have been intended by the giver of the resources.
The fact that Chinese entrepreneurs unlike their European counterparts can openly and with the complicity of African state actors use Chinese state actors for commercial diplomacy of a different kind underpinned by resources intermediated through the state must worry ordinary Africans.
This worry is not ill-conceived or far-fetched when a Chinese leader supported by South Africa has the capacity to cause fragmented Africans to agree on the single idea that Chinese state-led financial assistance is good for Africans principally because no sitting African head of state has the capacity and credibility to bring these actors in a room to discuss what matters to Africa’s future.
There is no doubt that if President Zuma, the co-host of the summit, had invited Africa’s heads of state and government to gather in the name of an agenda that seeks organic African transformation driven by its people, such a meeting would not have taken place. What makes Africans see in the Chinese a benevolent form of capitalism?
It may escape many Africans that the idea of a market system works best on the basis of a “greater fool principle” i.e. one of the market participants either the buyer or seller necessarily has to be a fool. As I looked at the top table during the summit proceedings with President Xi surrounded by African heads of state and government, I could not avoid thinking about who is the real fool.
China has traversed like many African states the foolish idea that the state and its actors knows everything and that giving fish to humans would cure hunger. Africa’s post-colonial journey has been characterized by a begging mentality premised on punishing the citizens of its foreign partners to tax their citizens so that the proceeds can be diverted to help cure its triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
At some stage in our collective mental thinking and construction, we must accept that Africa was colonized because the Africans of the day had no viable alternative development roadmap or were weaker leading us to investigate whether the behavior of the current crop of African leaders is no different from those that acquiesced to colonial subjugation in the name of civilization and progress.
Europeans found themselves surrounded by people they considered to be intellectually inferior and therefore not worthy of being included in the deal. The Chinese are now active in Africa asserting the view that their involvement in exploiting the resources deposited by the creator is good for Africa in as much as their predecessors held the same view.
Africa is better for visitors who have the capital and knowledge to connect with the resources so a strong and compelling view is held. Who is to contest this view when African leaders would soon see evil in the actions and choices of their citizens only to see angelic behavior in the actions and choices of people from distant shores?
Nature often has no room for vacuum and the Chinese are alive to the fact that Africa and its people seem to be blind of what matters to their common future to allow them to discriminate among economically driven actors. The relationship between the Chinese and money has changed over the last 30 years yet the relationship between natives of Africa and money has worsened during the post-colonial era.
Most African nation-states are technically bankrupt hence the Chinese hands-on approach where their assistance is embedded in their unique supply chain and financing schemes will inevitably lead to the crowding out of African non-state actors by the Chinese state and non-state actors.
It is not ironic that the Chinese financial assistance is provided to African state actors who in the main have failed to live up to the expectations of their citizens and with the lubrication of Chinese assistance that is often structured in an opaque manner, they can now remain in power indefinitely.
The Chinese system is not immune from corruption and whenever state actors are involved in the value chain, it is always the case that the probability and propensity for resources to be diverted is high. Unlike the European hustlers who made independent and random decisions to break the bonds that tied them to their countries of birth by taking one way tickets to come and be part of Africa, the majority of the Chinese have no interest in improving the institutional and human capacity of Africa.
On the contrary, they would argue that they do not have any intention of interfering with the internal affairs of a host country when their African interlocutors are in truth and fact rogue and predatory state actors who often get into politics as a pathway to personal financial gain. The Chinese model encourages African state actors to act as agents leaving no or little room for them to be accountable to the electorate who invariably are made to believe that without them in power, no developmental assistance would be forthcoming.
The privatization of African nation-states is being financed and facilitated by the Chinese whose own system at home is fundamentally distorted and unsustainable. The Chinese model encourages African state actors to be lazy and outward leaning. It is the case that when African children look at the stars in the galaxy, they are now more inspired by the Chinese than their own God-given capacities to lift themselves out of poverty.
Until Africans realize that the new form of imperialism is more lethal and debilitating to the African spirit, the security of Chinese investments in African is not guaranteed as has been the case with their predecessors. Africa needs its own stars that inspire hope. Indeed, at the conclusion of the summit, the Chinese President could confidently declare that: “We have successfully concluded all the major tasks of the summit. This summit was conducted in the atmosphere of sincerity, friendship, equality and win-win cooperation.”
It is significant that he said: “It is a historic meeting in the history of China-Africa relations. The summit, this time, has been a resounding success. It has a rich programme and a large turnout,” confirming that the wholesale approach of using South Africa to meet African leaders under one roof makes the costs of intermediation much easier and allows for South Africa to assume some political leadership in Africa which so far has proved to be elusive and treacherous.
The fact that President Xi passed through Zimbabwe on his way to the summit, a country whose economic fortune does not match the voice and standing of its leader, President Mugabe, the current Chair of the African Union, is significant for it confirmed that in order for the summit to succeed in the eyes of the Chinese they had to neutralize potential sources of possible friction.
Clearly, South Africa cannot pretend to speak for Africa yet China and the world would benefit more from a coherent and organized African voice. It would be impossible for a Chinese leader to visit all African states but it is more convenient for him to use South Africa as the beachhead to the continent, a role South Africa has not been able to play for various reasons.
Through Chinese assistance, it is possible for South Africa to begin to create a new pedestal that will place it as a senior African nation-state but given the stubbornness of some of Africa’s state actors, even the Chinese must know that a treacherous road lies ahead. On Friday, President Xi announced a complicated $60 billion aid package for Africa, an amount three times bigger than the 2012 aid package, at the opening of Focac in Johannesburg.
As expected it included $5 billion zero interest loans, $35 billion on preferential facilities and export credit lines, concessional loans on more favourable terms; an increase of $5 billion to the China-Africa development fund and a special loan for the development of SMEs, all designed to promote the export of Chinese goods and services to Africa.
An amount of $10 billion was allocated to boost African capacities but because of the Chinese model of corporate action and also because of language challenges, the Chinese prefer to work in closed loops controlled and administered by the Chinese leaving no real room for the advancement of natives.
Although the proposed assistance is meant to finance a broad range of assistance programmes to help Africa industrialize, modernize its agricultural production, boost the skills of its workers, build infrastructure and improve its health care, the reality is that this will not happen as the Chinese are not known for sharing any intellectual property.
President Xi said China’s aid would be directed at solving the three main bottlenecks which Africa faced – the lack of infrastructure, skilled workers and capital. However, the real bottleneck is that the Chinese assistance entrenches the incumbent political elites in a manner that is not responsive and responsible.
The Chinese know and ought to know that any assistance that is intermediated through unaccountable state actors will never deliver the promise. The history of communism and the Cultural Revolution undermined the aspirations of the ordinary Chinese people yet for some strange reasons, the model used for Africa’s development is premised on ideas that have historically failed to inspire hope and initiative.