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China in Africa: The Real Story

Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, China in Africa, and The Dragon's Gift

Deborah Brautigam

Saturday last week The UK's Daily Mail posted an interview with Bill Gates in which he mentions that he was reading The Dragon's Gift in preparation for an upcoming visit to China:
His passion for aid is such that he devotes his spare time to reading about it: ‘At the moment I’m reading Getting Better by Charles Kenny, and I’m going to China soon, so I’m reading The Dragon’s Gift, about the history of Chinese aid to Africa.’
After attending a small informal dinner last week in Beijing with Bill Gates, a couple of Chinese experts, and a trio of Gates Foundation staff, I can confirm that he did read The Dragon's Gift. He sprinkled analysis, and references to it throughout the evening's conversation. If it had been a seminar, I would have given him an A. :).
Clinton and Banda in Zambia. Photo Credit AP: Susan Walsh
So now Donald Trump and Bill Gates have read The Dragon's Gift, and The Guardian recommended it to Britain's new Conservative-Liberal government. Yet it's clear from media coverage of Secretary Clinton's visit to Zambia that Mrs. Clinton is probably not among those who have read it.

Below are a few clips from her press conference in Lusaka (emphasis added):
"Acknowledging that China, the world’s biggest energy user, has extended its influence across Africa, the top U.S. diplomat said she recognized that while its size accounted for its presence in the continent, she had reservations about its reach: 'We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.' ...  The U.S. is 'concerned that China’s foreign assistance and investment practices in Africa have not always been consistent with generally accepted international norms of transparency and good governance,' Clinton said yesterday at a news conference in Lusaka after meeting Zambian President Rupiah Banda. Clinton pointed to U.S. efforts to improve political and economic governance in countries like Zambia as an example of a different approach. 'The United States is investing in the people of Zambia, not just the elites, and we are investing for the long run.'*
The implication that China is not investing for the long run, or is only interested in narrowly investing in Zambian elites would be hard to argue for anyone who has read my book. Chinese leaders' multiple visits to Zambia over the past five decades, numerous aid projects including the iconic Tan Zam railway (which is still being supported by Beijing as it limps along), and business investment in multiple sectors, suggest a much longer, deeper, and broader set of interests than Secretary Clinton appears to be aware of.

And while the Secretary's concern about Africa's political and economic governance is commendable, I wish she had shown the same concern about US foreign assistance and investment practices in Africa. Our foreign aid is transparent -- and China's is not -- but this same transparency makes clear that even after the end of the Cold War, several countries with poor records on democracy and governance -- Mubarak's Egypt and Ethiopia -- have been the largest US aid recipients in Africa. This support is clearly not "consistent with generally accepted international norms" of good governance. As I have noted before in this blog, it is a sad fact that energy security concerns trump good governance in relations between the Obama administration and the notoriously corrupt human rights abusers heading the Obiang government in Equatorial Guinea.

China has a long way to go in improving its multi-faceted engagement on the continent, but the US is not there yet either. The difference is not as complete as Secretary Clinton would have us think. Pointing to the principles that do generally guide our aid, ignoring US companies happily investing with a pat on the back from the Obama administration in places like Equatorial Guinea, and then comparing our aid to Chinese aid and investment is a common debate tactic among op-ed critics (Michael Gerson did this recently in the Washington Post). I would have hoped that Secretary Clinton would do better than this. But perhaps as her major advisor on Africa (and, probably, on China's role there) is Ambassador Johnnie Carson, the person who, in the Wikileaks cables, famously dismissed China in Africa as "a pernicious economic competitor ...[with] no morals", it's not a surprise.

As many of the comments on the Zambian Watchdog reposting of this story make clear, Africans are under no illusions about Chinese -- or US -- goals in their neighborhood.

A hat tip to Calestous Juma for the Zambia story and to Joe for the story of the Times interview with Bill Gates.

*The quotation comes from a different news story on the visit: