The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa
Jabin T Jacob ·       

China’s foray into Africa – including its aid and economic engagement efforts – is among the most widely discussed aspects of China’s global rise. It is also a theme that is heavily laced with prejudice and misinformation and in her book Deborah Brautigam takes on the difficult task of sifting facts from the myths. The book is a result of several decades worth of field work in both China and Africa and its lively, engaging style is an added bonus as the “real story” of Chinese engagement in Africa is slowly revealed.

China’s success as a developing country in reducing poverty and achieving rapid economic growth makes it an attractive and credible partner for African nations in their own similar development struggles (p. 11). Not surprisingly, its aid programme in the Maoist years had strong ideological motivations. However, even at the height of China’s ideologically (“red”)- oriented foreign policy, it has been pointed out by Africans themselves that the Chinese working in their countries spent very little effort trying to convince them of the efficacy of the Chinese model; rather in Zhou Enlai’s words, China was only a sort of ‘reference point’ (p. 38). Over time, Chinese aid policy changed to attain a more “expert” or technical hue as China learned from its own experiences in receiving aid from Japan and the West in the Deng Xiaoping years. Like the Japanese, the Chinese too came to believe that sustained economic development was the best solution to conflict and instability (p. 21).

Brautigam makes the important point that even as the developmental impart of Chinese aid and economic cooperation varies across Africa, the “deciding factor” is not so much China as the country in question and its government (p. 21). However, unlike the West with its structural adjustment programmes and conditionalities, the Chinese have sought to encourage cooperation directly between Chinese companies and those in the recipient countries (p. 85) and nor do Chinese experts take away a good proportion of the money that comes in, in the form of high salaries (p. 157).

China’s approach to aid also differs from that of the West in other aspects such as in the emphasis on infrastructure, the mix of aid and other forms of economic engagement, the reliance on debt-financed infrastructure despite the poverty of many African countries and the ease of debt cancellation (p. 148). Aid is also almost never dispensed in the form of cash (p. 124). China’s loans that are backed by African natural resources do not qualify as aid but because they are tied to infrastructure projects such as roads, schools or clinics also allow for at least some of the wealth generated by resource-rich African countries to be channeled into development goods useful for the wider population rather than being diverted into the bank accounts of elites (p. 161).

While Chinese figures for aid to other nations remain state secrets with no available records of breakups by countries or regions, sector or purpose, the fact is that ‘rogue regimes’ like Zimbabwe and Sudan actually receive very little aid (p. 12). China has in fact, changed its policy towards Sudan over time putting pressure on Khartoum on accepting UN-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, for example (p. 282). Further as the author says, even if China is secretive by Western standards, private banks and enterprises in the West have been no less secretive about their deals with African leaders. As Brautigam declares, “Transparency is good, but the West should lead the way” (p. 310).

Interestingly, the early Chinese insistence on respecting the sovereignty of the host nation created several problems. The “sovereignty trap” meant that Chinese experts would construct a project and train local people how to manage it but would not directly involve themselves in management as this implied ‘interference’ in their host’s internal affairs. However, a Chinese team had to return to conduct further training or direct on an average one out of every six turnkey projects, owing to weak local capacity and skills. Thus, in the late 1980s, the Chinese took the pragmatic step of declaring that offering management and technical cooperation for completed projects was not “interfering in internal affairs” but “helping them to build self-reliance” which was just as important a principle as respecting sovereignty (p. 57).

There are several other interesting insights that emerge throughout the book as Brautigam describes the workings of China’s aid bureaucracy. For instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it emerges, has very little say when it comes to disbursing aid with the Ministry of Commerce being in the driving seat and all the more so when it comes to large package deals involving mining investments (p. 111). It should therefore be no surprise that some of China’s choices of investment locations are fraught or foolish as far as its global image goes. The author also dismisses stories of Chinese workers arriving in Africa by the planeload, pointing out that the number of Chinese workers varies depending on how long a Chinese company has been engaged in a particular country with the proportion of local workers increasing over time. Further, African governments also keep a strict control over the influx of Chinese labour (pp. 156-57).

Equally worth noting is the fact that, China gives aid to every country in sub-Saharan Africa that follows the One China policy and not just to the resource rich (p. 278). Just as important is the reality that unlike Western companies, Chinese enterprises are heavily involved in more than just the oil and natural resources sectors (p. 279). This latter forms part of China’s “going global” strategy and what Bo Xilai, China’s former Minister for Commerce has called “crossing the ocean by feeling the stones” (p. 103). The Chinese are also hoping that the profit motive will make their aid efforts sustainable, (p. 310) and thus Chinese companies involved in aid projects try to operate on profit even though the margins are usually very slim (p. 148). Also rather uniquely, China has encouraged governments and enterprises at the provincial and municipal level to have a stake in economic engagement with Africa, with Chinese provinces being paired with specific African countries for purposes such as medical aid and economic and trade zones, for example (pp. 315-16).

At the same time, the Chinese have been conscious of the need to improve the performance and sustainability of their overseas projects, avoiding the waste of resources and of the need to target their aid in such a way that it also helped China’s modernization. While political calculations are no doubt part of the process (such as the effort to wean away Taiwan’s diplomatic allies), China has also over the years considerably modified its conditions for the dispensation of aid with rigorous economic analyses and feasibility studies before agreeing to start a project (p. 55).

For India, there are several notes of caution as well as lessons to be learned from the Chinese experience in Africa. India’s African engagement is on the whole quite weak in substantive terms despite institutional structures such as the Commonwealth and centuries of closer contact than the Chinese ever had with Africa. India’s vaunted soft power and extensive training programmes of various kinds for Africans have not really formed part of a focused and coherent engagement policy towards Africa. Meanwhile, the private sector seems today in the lead in India’s engagement with Africa. This has its advantages but also creates concerns similar to those that have surrounded Western and Chinese enterprises in Africa. There is little evidence that New Delhi has spent time thinking through the policy implications of China’s rise in Africa and of its private sector holding the torch for the country on the continent. India’s fast friends in Africa are liable to look elsewhere if New Delhi cannot come up with greater decisiveness and openness in its Africa policy. For instance, this is what one Mauritius official had to say, “People in Mauritius talk non-stop about the double taxation treaty between India and Mauritius. But this opening toward China is much bigger” (p. 7).

The book deserves to be widely read for an understanding of ‘rising’ China’s foreign policy – economic and political. Contrary, to popular opinion in India, the Chinese can make mistakes and several reports of Chinese actions in Africa that look clever or strategic have turned out to be either exaggerated or given them cause for regret. This systematic study of China’s aid and state-driven economic engagement in Africa also shows up the lack of a similar work on India’s aid policies and their impact in Africa. Hopefully, this will be a lacuna that somebody will address sooner rather than later. Brautigam, meanwhile, continues with her myth-busting ways in her blog