Africa's relationship with China beyond just loans
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(File photo: China Daily)

Editor's note: Ikenna Emewu is a journalist at the Afri-China Media Center, Lagos

Margee Ensign in 1992, wrote in her book, Doing Good or Doing Well to assess Japan’s foreign aid program then. Ensign raised the question in diplomatic studies that draws a parallel between ‘doing good’ and ‘doing well’.

‘Doing Good’ is charity service or so-called selfless service where one renders assistance and walks away without waiting for any returns. ‘Doing Well’ is what China in relating with Africa aptly describes as ‘win-win.’

In diplomacy of course, no country does ‘good’. All they do is ‘well’, because the doer is also a stakeholder and has an intention to benefit, at least in goodwill and friendship.

I think getting this right at the beginning would help our perception of the multilateral relationship between China and Africa, especially on the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) platform that is now 19 years old.

Today, at the center of such global issues as Japan faced then, is China. There is so much focus on Chinese loans to African countries, the motives and how they enslave or recolonize Africa. This slant also worries China as many Chinese journalists have asked me this question many times and what Africa thinks about it.

My answer remained the same – if Africa allows China to recolonize her today, then Africa should blame herself for such unfathomable folly.

But a closer look at the details of the relationship between the two sides would show if it has all been just loans and re-enslavement of Africa by China, or if the Asian economic giant has had a positive impact on the development of the human capital of Africa, which is the best way to have a lasting input in the future of a people.

On July 31, 2018, as the Confucius Institute of the University of Lagos held its graduation and job fair, a group of Chinese investors in Nigeria announced the awarding of scholarships to about 63 students of the university to study at Chinese institutions.

While some of them were for short programs, most were for first degree and second degree courses with all the bills paid. That development was part of the consolidation of the growing links between China and Africa and by extension, Nigeria.

However, four months later, the same institute in liaison with the investors group took up a challenge the Vice Chancellor of the university had thrown at them to establish more links with the university for a better relationship. That day in November, the university’s Nigeria-China Development Studies Institute was established.

In Nigeria also, on April 12, 2018, in Abuja, Chinese construction giant CCECC held a career workshop for some Nigerian university graduates immediately after their one year national service. The outcome of the training was an immediate hiring of 50 of them by that firm. The management of the company said it was one of the first steps towards large scale employment of Nigerians to ensure there was skilled Nigerian labor in the company.

By the middle of May 2019, during a visit to the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Dr Zhou Pinjian, in Abuja, his secretary revealed that the number of Nigerian students in Chinese universities on scholarship last year was more than 6500.

Moreover, CNN reported in June 2017 that, “The surge in the number of African students in China is remarkable. In less than 15 years the African student body has grown 26-fold – from just under 2,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015.”

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the US and UK host around 40,000 African students a year. China surpassed this number in 2014, making it the second most popular destination for African students studying abroad, after France which hosts just over 95,000 students.

This dramatic increase in students from Africa can be explained in part by the Chinese government's targeted focus on African human resource and education development. Starting in 2000, China's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summits have promised financial and political support for African education at home and abroad in China.

Since 2006, China has set scholarship targets to aid African students coming to China to study. For example, at the most recent 2015 summit, China pledged to provide 30,000 scholarships to African students by 2018.

Taking it in sectors, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping had pledged in Johannesburg in 2015 at the FOCAC summit that the country would host about 10,000 African journalists in exchange trainings in 2016 alone.

While on tour of Shandong Province as journalism Fellows of the China Public Diplomacy, 2016, we visited companies in Qingdao and one of the points of call was a power company where the management received us with 50 African students. They were later introduced to us as Zimbabweans studying in universities in the province on the scholarship of the company.

At the Sinotruk headquarters in Jinan, capital city of Shandong, I met Zhang Yuzong, executive director Africa division, who said he would be travelling to Nigeria for the commencement of their production at a Lagos factory in partnership with the Dangote Group.

And in March of the following year, I attended a seminar on investment by Chinese investors and their Nigerian counterparts alongside the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, during which we toured the truck assembly plant within the Lekki Free Trade Zone, Lagos, a multi-billion dollar project powered by Chinese investors and Dangote. The mega project is not about loans.

A report by reflected that China’s direct investment in Africa soared by 64 percent. Sun Jiwen, spokesman at the ministry, outlined that this recent rise is linked to China’s change in trade policies in 2015. He said China’s total trade with Africa rose 16.8 percent to $38.8 billion in the first quarter, its first quarterly increase on a yearly basis since 2015.

The report examined the relationship between “dragons” – Chinese firms investing in Africa—and “lions” — African economies receiving Chinese investment. Through face-to-face interviews with 1073 Chinese firms across eight African countries: Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia, Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company explored current and future plans of different Chinese businesses there.

McKinsey published a report entitled “Dance of the lions and dragons,” which analyzed the current and long-term trajectory of Chinese engagement in Africa, noting that China has become Africa’s biggest economic partner over the past two decades. In fact, presently, more than 10,000 Chinese firms are conducting business operations on the continent.

According to the report, 74 percent of surveyed Chinese firms feel optimistic and confident about investing in Africa. Relatedly, most investments by Chinese firms reflect long-term commitments to Africa. The features show that 63 percent of the investments made by the surveyed Chinese firms in Africa require long-term commitments, while 26 percent are low commitment.

Indeed, 44 percent of the surveyed firms have made capital-intensive investments, the hardest investments to reverse. These investments tend to come in the form of factory acquisitions and the purchase of manufacturing equipment.

Conversely, trade and non-labor intensive contracting investments (e.g., telecommunications) are the easiest investments to extract and comprise a smaller proportion of investments by Chinese firms in sub-Saharan Africa. This was published by reputed American Brookings Institute.

Likewise, foreign investments from China to Africa have far outstripped those of the US in Africa in the past four years, especially in the establishment of production bases.

These narrations support the case that the relationship between Africa/Nigeria and China is beyond mere advance of loans, which has been a raging global issue with incitement that China, the world’s second largest economy and number one in direct foreign investment, has been enslaving and recolonizing Africa with loans.