Why the West is so worried about energetic Chinese foray into Africa

Thursday June 6 2013


As American President Barack Obama comes calling hot on the heels of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jingping, insular Kenyans have chosen to view the visit through a narrow prism.

Commentators have only focused on why Kenya went missing from the itinerary, and concluded that it can only be due to the pending ICC trials.

However, these cases are probably Mr Obama’s least worry. His visit comes barely three months after Mr Xi’s highly-publicised African tour.

It is no coincidence that while Mr Xi visited Congo Brazzaville, Tanzania and South Africa, Mr Obama will tour Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.

The growing China-Africa relations have caused jitters in the West. The neo-liberal Western model is suffering identity, financial and governance crises, the complete opposite of China’s.

China is assuming an increasingly important global role and aims to become a superpower. For all its weaknesses, it has forced the West to re-examine its attitude towards Africa.

As a result, the West has woven an elaborate narrative that portrays China as a malignant partner, a bogeyman only thirsty for Africa’s precious resources.

This narrative has been echoed by a number of Western-leaning African elite, who have not interrogated the merits or demerits of the Sino-African relations beyond parroting Western clichés.

At home, Western countries treat China with cautious optimism, welcoming it as a serious economic partner likely to resuscitate flagging European economies.

Yet, the same West has resorted to portraying China’s influence in Africa as pernicious. But the African narrative is missing in this whole geopolitical and geostrategic issue.

Chinua Achebe once declared that “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.

Our formidable intellectuals and scholars have largely left the Sino-African narrative to Western scholars, commentators and diplomats who are not objective.

For once, Europeans and Americans have woken from their complacency, the smug guarantee that Africa’s markets were safe and theirs for years to come.

Senegalese Adama Gaye is one of Africa’s intellectuals, who have attempted to address Sino-African relations.

A scholar and analyst, his book, China-Africa, the Dragon and the Ostrich, has resonated with Western voices, eager to find a “friendly” African voice.

Mr Gaye has castigated Africa’s ruling elite for turning a blind eye to the Chinese way of doing things. He views our elite as driven by selfish interests and not those of the masses.

China’s relations with Africa largely involve State-to-State operatives. Western governments operate through governments (hard power) and the civil society (soft power).

China’s exclusive reliance on governments excludes the civil society from its financial orbit, which explains why it does not portray China positively.

Africa’s ruling elite and civil society are largely the product of Western education, and therefore view Sino-African relations differently.

Generally pragmatic, free from complexes, the power elite are confident about working with a less vexing and nosy China.

The rise of China may have provided a safety valve, albeit temporarily, for our ruling elite, as a means of escaping Western pressure.

Civil society organisations also hold their own power, which, in the absence of a benefactor, may leave them exposed.

Being beneficiaries of Western largesse, it is only expected they will parrot a euro-centric discourse, eschewing informed debate on Sino-Africa relations.

Africa’s intellectuals need to intensify the debate and pull it away from euro-centrism.

Adama Gaye, Sanou Mbaye (both of Senegal) and Sanusi Lamido (Nigeria) have already paved the way.

More African scholars need to join the debate. And the debate should not be restricted to economic-structural issues; rather it should delve into international relations and even culture.

On its side, China should cultivate closer links and open up its heart to African opinion-shapers who will then tell the story to Africans and help coin our own informed narrative. Let our griots tell us the story.

Mr Macharia is a Nairobi-based freelance French-English translator and analyst with an interest in geopolitics and international relations. ([email protected])