That China’s a superpower in Africa was suddenly, painfully apparent to European leaders in 2006.
Once colonised by European nations, Africa garners more attention from Europe than the United States. Europeans provided hundreds of billions of dollars of loans and aid to African governments after nations won their independence. But little growth resulted from that money, no matter what strategy was applied. In the 1990s, the Europeans tried another approach hoping yet again to give Africa a new start.
The Europeans forgave much of African indebtedness, then offering new monies, with good governance conditionalities attached. That is, to receive funds, the governments would have to begin to clean up corruption, respect organised efforts of societal groups and move toward respecting fundamental human rights.
Angola, a major oil exporter, became a test case in 2006. Despite huge oil wealth, Angola suffered financial crisis created by massive corruption and plunder. While the Europeans often conceded to corrupt dictators who faked adherence to the European conditions, in 2006 Angola brushed aside both hypocrisy and the policy of conditionality, instead accepting a multibillion-dollar, no-strings-attached fund from China, thus defeating Europe’s policy aimed at limiting the sources of bad governance, failed states and civil war.
Suddenly, Europeans were aware of a rising authoritarian China in Africa. China had amassed almost $2 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves. This foreign exchange reflected trade imbalances, which also upset Europeans. The growing trade deficit with China seemed to cost Europe jobs and undermined the tax basis of social welfare states. Popular European anger intensified anxiety about Chinese policies in Africa fostering bad governance and contributing to an exodus of Africans into Europe.
China’s rapid economic rise and wasteful production inefficiencies brought a hunger for energy and other resources, and Africa could help. Chinese State-Owned Enterprises could outbid Europeans for contracts and leasing rights, aided by interest-free capital from Chinese state banks. Chinese presence and policy spread all over the continent, and Chinese investments swiftly caught up with those from America and Europe. The trend line suggested that China would soon be weightier in Africa than any other nation or region in the world. Authoritarian China’s new superpower clout, which disregarded human rights abuses, had reached Africa, and was largely welcomed, especially by authoritarian regimes.
In paying for oil in the Sudan, China provided Sudanese ruling groups the wherewithal to stabilise a government responsible for atrocities in Darfur, shored up corrupt leaders of the Congo, backed Zimbabwe’s bankrupt Mugabe regime against African democratisers and European sanctions, and spent huge amounts for oil in corrupt Nigeria. The sudden influx of Chinese wealth enriched African leaders.
China undercut efforts to promote good governance in Africa, and Europe viewed Chinese policies as a disaster. The Europeans therefore invited China to join with them in fostering needed political and administrative changes in Africa. China, however, brushed aside the invitation to co-operate, refusing even to join the European organisation meant to make energy investments transparent so that African peoples could benefit from Africa’s wealth instead of corrupt elites.
Europeans concluded that China hurts Africa. In Africa, civil society groups, labour unions and democratic political parties similarly understood China as but another chapter in exploitative neo-colonialism that would not benefit Africans, instead propping up greedy, corrupt African regimes that ripped off their own nationals.
But many had bristled at the European effort to tell Africans how to run their governments as arrogance, a renewed colonial approach and represented China’s offer of no-strings-attached money as how Africans should be treated, with dignity and as adults. After all, China had never colonised Africa and Europe had failed the continent in the past.
Africans insisted that, as the Chinese had raised themselves from misery to world power in one generation after the death of old-fashioned Stalinist tyrant Mao Zedong in 1976, so China could help raise Africa from stagnation.
Observers in Europe and democrats in Africa tended to disagree, seeing corrupt and useless African rulers grabbing a Chinese lifesaver to avoid a transition to good governance. In this critique, China is ripping-off African resources and propping up African tyrants to the detriment of the African people.