A review of China Returns to Africa

In the last three years, I reckon there have been at least half a dozen publications with titles like this. Still, China Returns to Africa (Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, eds.; Columbia University Press, 2008) somehow marks a new stage in the academic preoccupation with the topic: it has been published by a major university press and its chapters are of a more even quality than those of previous similar collections (Chris Alden’s small but very well written singly authored book China in Africa is another matter). This book focuses on analysis, not on uncovering yet more empirical evidence of China’s presence in Africa. At the same time, it continues to reflect a relative paucity of ethnographic studies to date: of the 19 chapters, only four can be said to be ethnographic, those on Chinese shopkeepers in Namibia (by Gregor Dobler) and Cape Verde (by Joergen Carling and Heidi Oestboe Haugen), Chinese doctors in Tanzania (by Elizabeth Hsu) and on Tanzanian workers’ memories of building the Tazara railway in the ’70s (by Jamie Monson).  Although these chapters are based on earlier research,  the follow-up is interesting: in Cape Verde, locals are still enthusiastic about the Chinese, whom more consider to be contributing to development than Europeans; but in Namibia, where Dobler earlier reported positive attitudes, anti-Chinese sentiments are on the rise despite (or perhaps because) restrictive immigration measures. It is noteworthy, too, that none of these ethnographies concern today’s large infrastructure and agriculture projects.

The editors note that since the “China in Africa” craze began a couple of years ago, China’s Africa policy has already shifted:

It moved beyond its primary focus on resource acquisition into areas like financial services and an expansion of acticity related to agriculture. It attempted to build islands of Chinese investment in the form of Economic Cooperation Zones in selected African countries; and it modified its conventional investment packages to include greater emphasis on social and community outreach (22).

Inevitably considering the length of the production process, this book does not yet reflect these shifts, which clearly present an even greater need for ethnography.

I found several of the chapters on politics interesting, for example the one by Ana Cristina Alves on China’s use of Macau and its membership in an organisation of Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries to further its diplomacy in Africa or Roland Marchal’s on the French view of Chinese-African relations. But I think the book’s most important achievement is that it drives home forcefully the kind of nuanced perspective that its editors have represented. Soares de Oliveira argues, for example, that the appearance of Chinese oil industry is likely to have detrimental effects for Africa, but that this is because of the track record of oil industry in Africa rather than because of China’s specificity. Christopher Clapham, too, cautions against exaggerating the exceptionalism of China, pointing out that many African leaders are so happy to welcome Chinese investment not because of a new model it provides, but precisely because “it fits so neatly into the familiar patterns of rentier statehood,”  in the same way as support from European patrons did in the recent past.

Chris Alden’s and Cristopher Clapham’s concluding, conceptual chapters are among the strongest in the book. Alden discusses the “possibility of Chinese imperialism” and concludes that this might arise if, in the future, Chinese involvement moves “away from seeking … spheres of influence based essentially on trade to the need to capture markets … by gaining territorial control,” as evidenced by the planned five Special Economic Zones (of which the one in Zambia has been completed and the ones in Mauritius and Benin are due to open soon). However, he  points out that in the case of Western imperialism, “one of the overriding arguments for territorial control” has been the presence of “salvation merchants'”, an impulse that is lacking from China today (as JJ argued in the previous post). I think that Alden may be underestimating the discursive power of the Chinese civilizing mission, as well as the popularity (on the Chinese Internet, at least) of calls to copy current or former Western practices such as backing the presence of state enterprises by a military presence. Alden’s chapter, “Africa without Europeans,” concludes with the perhaps premature but gripping observation  that the ascent of the “Pacific century” can be best seen in the Asia–Africa relationship, where

a ‘brave new world’ is emerging in which Europe and the United States are merely bystanders. This impotence is felt perhaps most acutely by Western NGOs, in some ways the contemporary version of imperialism’s salvation merchants, for whom the loss of influence over African lives is deeply troubling.

Unfortunately, the “Chinese” contribution to the volume, by He Wenping of the CASS Institute for African and West Asian Studies, remains in the time-honoured position of “the native informant,” presenting as it does “the Chinese perspective”. Nonetheless, if one is to believe those who claim that her institute plays a growing if modest role in the formulation of government policy, it is noteworthy that she calls for the promulgation of a Law on Overseas Investment with appropriate social and environmental guidelines. This would fit into the current trend, though whether it will actually make a difference is not certain. He also argues for a greater involvement of private Chinese enterprises in aid projects.

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