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China in Africa: The Real Story

International Affairs

Deborah Brautigam

Book reviews
International Affairs 86: 3, 2010: pp. 803-804
© 2010 The Author(s). Journal Compilation © 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Sub-Saharan Africa
The dragon’s gift: the real story of China in Africa. By Deborah Bräutigam. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. 2009. 300pp. Index. £18.99. isbn 978 0 19955 022 7.

Policy-makers and pundits from the member countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) are perplexed as to what China means for Africa. Should they be worried about the massive flows of Chinese aid and investment into the continent, or is
this something to be welcomed? Deborah Bräutigam’s superb book, the fruit of decades of
research and travel throughout Africa and China, is precisely the sort of careful treatment
of the subject that they need to guide their deliberations. Indeed, this highly accessible and
rigorous book may come to be viewed as a canonical text in the China–Africa development
debate.

The central theme of Bräutigam’s book is that the Chinese government has taken a longterm
view of what is involved in national development, which differs from the approach
typically found in OECD–DAC member development agencies. In a phrase redolent of the
‘outward development’ logic found in Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile and
Peru, Bräutigam tells us that China decided in the mid-1980s that national development
required the country to ‘go global’. Policy-makers in Beijing examined their own experience
during the post-Mao opening, and noted that their economic revival was precipitated
by massive inflows of Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) seeking to exploit first
Chinese natural resources like iron ore, and then human resources such as abundant cheap
labour. Underpinning this development was a period of resource-backed financing that saw
Japanese loans and investments for Chinese physical infrastructure secured against guaranteed
rights for future purchases of commodities such as iron and coal at market prices.
This is the model that is being replicated by the Chinese in Africa, and which is leading to
western concern that China is a new imperialist economic power. Bräutigam argues that
this concern is misplaced and that it misses the point of Chinese engagement in Africa.
Reflecting on the antecedents for their country’s accelerating economic growth, policymakers
in 1990s Beijing placed China in the context of the wider South-East Asian development
experience and noticed that there was a process of ‘creative destruction’. With
economic development came a change in the underlying cost-base of production that would
cause one industry to die out domestically
and to move to another country, while another,
higher-value-added industry rose to replace it. The result is a cascading chain redolent
of the ‘V’ pattern made by a chevron of flying geese, which is the metaphor Kaname
Akamatsu used to describe South-East Asian industrial development: inflows of imports
and FDI start a process whereby concentration on primary resource extraction comes to
be replaced by preliminary manufacturing and eventually more complicated production
processes. Bräutigam argues that this is the understanding of the national development
process that lies at the heart of Chinese engagement with developing areas such as Africa.
Development is thus viewed as a cooperative process, which will generate returns for both
the investor and the recipient.
Bräutigam explains that development financing—termed cooperation by the Chinese
government—is not provided as a stand-alone good; rather, it is used to advance Chinese
investment penetration into the recipient economy. This creates a complex mix of advantages
and disadvantages. On the negative side is the reality that a significant portion of
Chinese aid is tied, which reduces its efficacy. The counterbalancing positive is that much
of this tied aid is linked to economic development projects that are supported through their

formative or regenerative phase by a variety of Chinese national, provincial and private
financing mechanisms. Ultimately, these projects, which are often joint ventures, must
become self-sustaining and profitable. The national prestige factor attached to the projects
means that significant efforts are given to making new projects a success, which has resulted
in rapid Chinese re-entry into countries as challenging as Sierra Leone and the Democratic
Republic of Congo. The danger is that African or Chinese entrepreneurs do not always
apply due diligence to a project and wrongly assume that the Chinese government will
continue to support a money-losing venture. Equally problematic is the alarming rate of
shoddy workmanship in infrastructure and physical plant built by Chinese investors.
The valuable conclusion for western readers to be drawn from Bräutigam’s book is that
China’s involvement in Africa cannot be understood if viewed strictly through the lens of
OECD–DAC approaches to development assistance. Rather than viewing the continent as
needing development assistance, Beijing appears to have simultaneously cast the region as
a source for needed natural resources; the next location for outsourced production; and a
market for goods produced in China and by locally based joint ventures. The underlying
business focus is critical, because it suggests that while China is staunchly avoiding the sorts
of conditionality seen in western development programming under the guise of respecting
sovereignty, the imperative that ventures be self-sustaining and profitable pushes evolution
of the underlying governance structures that have emerged as the focus of development
discourse. The reader is eventually left with the impression that a patient approach to the
evolution of these structures combines with an emphasis on the physical infrastructure that
forms the backbone of a developed economy to suggest that China has decided to invest and stay in Africa, not take a place as simply another development donor.


Sean Burges, University of Ottawa, Canada