By Kwesi E. Baako
“If African governments are going to sell out cheap to them and not project their own worth; if they are going to treat their trade as alms (when in fact they are also getting something back); if they are going to go back down that road of letting down their guard to ‘strangers’ at the peril of their own people as our forebears did when the European adventurers set their foot on African soil, then China will not become a prestigious trading partner but a brand new colonial master”.
China is indisputably making its presence felt in Africa. There is not a single day that one would do anything meaningful in Africa without coming across a Chinese implement or item of some sort; from flip-flops and toothpicks to cell phones, household appliances and generic ‘designer’ clothing and fashion accessories.
Back in school, we used to have a joke about the industriousness of Nigerians which goes thus: ‘If you went to a Nigerian petty trader and asked to buy something he or she doesn’t sell, they will tell you they just run out so come back the next day. In their estimation, there is a market for that item and so they would start stocking it and lo, the next time you call, they will have the item to sell to you’. Lesson, they never want to lose business. There was also a joke about the Chinese; that if you went to China to order goods, instead of telling you how much it costs, they would rather ask how much you have and make the goods to suit your budget. Thus if you have $1000, you will get goods to that tune (quality-wise) while if you had a million dollars, you would likewise get goods to that value.
No wonder you find people wearing Sean Johns and Guccis, using Chanels and Pierre Cardins in parts of Africa where three square meals is a major issue.
Back in the Cold war era Africa and other so-called Third World countries had a way of getting the West to act. They virtually held countries like the USA and the European giants by the balls by simply striking lucrative deals with Russia. Some of these countries actually formed a Non-Alliance Movement and thereby benefitted from both the East and the West while maintaining their supposed neutrality.
Today, after the dismantling of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, China has stealthily crept into the place of the Soviet Union without the trappings of the Cold War. China does not seem as aggressive as the Soviet Union used to be. It doesn’t seem to be making a claim to World power status, but China is surely a World Power now. And it has not achieved this status through aggression and territory seizing but through trade and salient colonizing tactics.
Today, many African countries hail China as a ‘friend’. Tendai Moyo, a Harare-based social commentator, praised China describing Chinese investments in Africa as “extending its genuine philanthropic hand to Africa”. He juxtaposes the Chinese with the West who he claims is “busy extending their brazen iron fisted imperial hand that continues to foment a myriad of destabilizing activities in the continent”.
Why would African governments not open up to China? What with the openly racist attitudes exhibited to genuine business people trying to travel to the West to do business? (Another school joke of an African man who was asked by the US embassy to produce his own death certificate as part of the required documentation to allow him travel and who duly provided it comes to mind). What with the cultural incursions attached to the so-called loans the West gives to African countries? Recently some African countries were threatened by Britain to institute “Gay rights” or risk losing aid from the benevolent ‘Big Brother’. If Africans want Gay rights, should they not be left to decide for themselves? What of the winner takes all nature of Western investment as opposed to what some African governments describe as ‘win-win’ from China? And what of the fact that some of these Western nations themselves are heavily indebted to almighty China!
But is China the ‘Mr. Really-Nice-Guy’ that we are being told it is? Is the portrayal of rectitude real or is it a ‘snake under grass’ posture? Are the freebies really free? Or is China simply the new reformed colonial master?
While I leave that question on the table for everyone to make a contribution on, I would just start the debate by offering a few examples of Sino-African relationships that leave me with mixed feelings.
A Chinese construction worker was deported from Ghana after spitting on a Ghanaian subordinate and calling him something to the equivalent of the ‘N’ word. To their credit, this is a one off incident. The Chinese have been in Ghana for a long time and this hardly happens so I personally am ready to let that pass as the bad nut among the good nuts.
But more worrying, recently, some Chinese nationals were found in Ghana engaging in illegal gold mining. At first, the peaceful people of the village they were mining in did not even bother them (probably taking it for granted that they had a license) until they actually started mining the local school’s football field! When no mean a personality than the Chief of the village with some elders and youth representatives went to confront them to enquire what was going on, the recalcitrant miners brought out pump action guns and scared the Chief and his entourage away. Sadly, when the police came in, they were not too sure what to do since obviously our friends had other friends in high places.
There were rumours of them funding the ruling party’s campaign. Inasmuch as these are unsubstantiated, what bothers me even more is the fact that the opposition could not hold the government accountable for such an unthinkable occurrence. So, are our friends sponsoring the opposition too? That is if we should give the funding allegations any semblance of credence.
That is where my worry is. The Chinese government may be the ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, but if African governments are going to sell out cheap to them and not project their own worth; if they are going to treat their trade as alms (when in fact they are also getting something back); if they are going to go back down that road of letting down their guard to ‘strangers’ at the peril of their own people as our forebears did when the European adventurers set their foot on African soil, then China will not become a prestigious trading partner but a brand new colonial master.
This article was first published on www.saharareporters.com.
PHOTO COURTESY: Ghana News Agency