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China in Africa: The Real Story

China in Africa: Really Rubbery Numbers

Deborah Brautigam

An article in the South China Morning Post "Rubbery Numbers Add Up to Big Role for China in Africa," (March 29, 2013) illustrates the pitfalls of journalists relying on "experts" who parrot the conventional wisdom but don't really know what's going on. Here are three examples:

According to "expert" #1:
the cumulative Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa totals US$220 billion.
I hope the reporter simply got this quote wrong. It's actually quite close to the figure for China-Africa trade for 2012. But FDI?! 

The Chinese official figures are around $16 billion for cumulative investment in Africa. This is certainly an underestimate, but the real figure is nowhere near $220 billion! Even the figures provided by Derek Scissors' China Investment Tracker at Heritage, who tracks the value of all deals at $100 million and above (i.e. the expected value, not the actual investment flows), has a value of about $40 billion. It's silly figures like this that continue to create a distorted image of a frighteningly enormous dragon hoovering up resources across the continent.

Then we hear from "expert" #2: "There had been anti-China sentiment in African countries like Zambia, because of the Chinese workers brought in for large construction projects."

Yes, there was anti-China sentiment in Zambia, but it was largely over labor and safety standards in Chinese mines (Zambian workers were protesting this) and the presence of Chinese traders. It was not about Chinese workers brought in for construction projects, because most of the workers on those projects are Zambian. The film "When China Met Africa" illustrates those conflicts beautifully.

The SCMP article ends with this quotation from "expert" #3:
"The problem for China is it prefers to cultivate relationships with African leaders who kowtow like deferential courtiers. When the people in these countries feel left out and vote out their disconnected leaders, what will China have?"
It's a good sound-bite. But what evidence do we actually have that "China" prefers to cultivate relationships like this? And what evidence do we have that regime change away from governments friendly to the Chinese leads to losses for "China" or its businesses? 

I'm not sure how we should measure the cultivation of relationships in Africa: frequency of visits by top leaders? Size of economic engagement? From frequency of visits, the top countries are Egypt, Tanzania, South Africa and Morocco -- they've each had four visits from China's top leaders (president or premier) since 1995. From the economic data, it looks as though China's largest economic relationships in Africa are with Angola, South Africa, and Algeria. These don't strike me as countries led by China's "deferential courtiers". 

And contrary to the assumption in this quotation, when governments viewed as friendly to the Chinese have been voted (or thrown) out, the Chinese do not seem to experience business losses. Zambia, Ghana, Niger, and Guinea are all good examples of this. On the other hand, the Chinese have had huge losses in Libya, but they had a very sour relationship with Gadaffi, so this doesn't fit the assumption either. Reporting that confirms prejudices rather than investigating the reality of a situation does no service to our understanding of this complex relationship.