China - Interviews
Watershed - China's political and economic return to Africa in force is recent but it is pace staggering. Has Africa been making the most out of it?
Lucy Corkin - This depends very much on which country in Africa you are talking about, as the level of pro-activity in response to growing Chinese engagement varies substantially across the continent.
WS - In brief, how can the African continent make China's engagement work towards its development more effectively? Is Africa finally starting to realise what it wants from China?
LC - Individual countries’ leaders have started to make more forceful comments when considering Chinese engagement, and it is clear that most are aware that China is not a panacea for their problems. The issue is that this rhetoric is less often translated into practical mechanisms to address identified concerns. The most effective way to address Chinese engagement of the continent would be to strengthen the fora in which responsive policy is formulated. The AU, despite being the obvious choice, given the number of members and Morocco’s non-membership, poses its own problems. A more feasible solution would be channeling engagement with China through the regional economic communities, as the members are more likely to share concerns and develop consensus. These RECs are however often quite weak and need to be supported in order to be seen to legitimately represent the interests of its member states. African countries also need their own formal FOCAC follow-up committee to complement the institution based in Beijing. This was discussed by the African member states, but it is unclear what the result of such deliberations were.
WS - Can China make a difference for Africa's development as the world battles to recover from a global financial crisis? What do the particularities of this context represent for China-Africa relations?
LC - Chinese financial institutions have shown a willingness to invest in emerging markets in order to mitigate an exposure to risk that came to light with the economic crisis. This is good for African countries. Furthermore, at FOCAC 2009, Wen Jibao announced US$ 10 billion in concessional loans (through Exim Bank) to African countries. Given that such assistance from the West is likely to be less forthcoming in the current climate, this is a boon to African countries.
WS - The China-Africa Science and Technology Partnership was launched by China's Ministry of Science and Technology on November 24th 2009. To what extent to these kind of initiatives reflect China's attempts to cut loose of the "neocolonialist" label it sees itself sometimes attached to in the African continent?
LC - The Chinese government has worked hard to foster initiatives that highlight aspects of the China-Africa relationship other than resource-co-operation. This partnership is also it seems an attempt to encourage “people-to-people” exchanges (a phrase coined from President Hu Jintao’s African tour in 2007) in the research community.
WS - How strong do you think this stigma is and what are the most important factors affecting the current perceptions of China in Africa?
LC - The stigma is one largely attributed by Western commentators, which is ironic, given the context. Some African leaders such as former President Thabo Mbeki also warned of against entering into a neo-colonial relationship with China. It is important to note however that African observers will place the blame at their own leaders’ door if this occurs. As independent entities, African countries must take responsiblity for their own political destinies. Nevertheless China remains very sensitive to such accusations. Currently, the most important factors affecting China-Africa relations I believe are the impressions ordinary Africans and Chinese are developing of each other through increasing contact. Often these are clouded by suspicion and a lack of trust, due to miscommunication and prejudice.
WS - A few analysts predict a future rush for Africa's rich, arable land. At the same time policy-makers have already expressed concern over a supposed "corporate takeover of African land and food production systems”. How do you see China's role play out in this sector in Africa?
LC - Food security has become a big issue recently, particularly for populous countries, but also in African countries, where food riots broke out a few years ago over the rising price of staples. African countries on the whole suffer from low productivity and the under-utilisation of their arable land. One of the key co-operation areas in FOCAC is in agriculture, not only because African countries need investment in this sector, but because it is in China’s interest to develop markets from which to export agricultural produce. China Development Bank, one of China’s largest policy banks, has also earmarked agricultural projects as a priority for investment. Land, is however a very senstive issue in Africa, and land reforms in most countries that need them have been ad hoc at best or are as yet incomplete. In terms of technology transfer and technical assistance, there is a lot Africa could learn from China, if such programmes that are developed are recognisant of the local conditions. The political senstivity of land in Africa, has however, I feel, not been fully appreciated by Chinese actors, and this will have to be addressed for it not to cause problems in the future.
WS - You have recently noted a fall in trade between China and Portuguese Speaking Countries in the wake of the financial downturn. You referred to the words of Zhang Wei, vice-president of the China Council for the Promotion of International - "Macau has an irreplaceable role in serving as a channel for Chinese SMEs to enter the Portuguese-speaking markets". Do you agree with him?
LC - I see Macau as trying to redefine a strategic role for itself as a sort of gateway between China and the world, particularly the Portuguese-speaking countries. Practically, however, this role is not yet fully established and the Macau forum, despite thick political rhetoric, has yet to emerge as a cohesive grouping with tangible benefits for the members. As regards the SMEs, a great challenge for the Chinese firms entering the markets of Portuguese-speaking countries is of course the language. The Portuguese-speaking Macanese only make up about 2% of Macau’s population, so it is doubtful that Macau can address this issue adequately; it has as yet not been able to do so. As a financing hub, Macau has some promise, but it will have to work hard to distinguish itself from Hong Kong in this respect. To a large extent, many of the deals conducted between China and Portuguese countries are done on a bilateral level.
WS - In practice do political and economic exchanges between China and Portuguese Speaking Countries really need to go through the Macau Forum channel? Can the Macau-Forum really fast-track engagement under its current modus-operandi?
LC - Not really, from what I can see.
WS - What will be the highlights of China-Angola relations for the near future? How do you foresee 2010 and 2011 unfolding?
LC - Angola has recently drawn the interest of China Development Bank (CDB) and Industrial and Commerical Bank of China (ICBC). This will serve to diversify the range of Chinese actors involved in the country as the China-Africa relationship has been dominated by China Exim Bank’s concessional loans to the Angolan government. These banks are also interested in projects in a range of sectors, including agriculture which is a promising development for Angola’s economic diversification and is in line with the Angolan government’s national development plans.
WS - At a personal level what have been to you the key challenges as a researcher in China-Africa affairs? How do you think this area of study will evolve?
LC - One of the key challenges for most scholars looking at this relationship is often the perceived sensitivity of the data and other information. Consequently, respondents from both China and Africa are at times reluctant to engage candidly about the issues.
Interview by Daniel Guilherme Alvarenga Rodrigues