The “InBev-Baillet Latour Chair of EU-China Relations” at the College of Europe in Brugge, Belgium (an EU policy outfit) held a conference on 4-5 February entitled “The EU and China: Partners or Competitors in Africa?” Some participants were the usual suspects, but there are also some EU and Chinese diplomats and journalists — including the Brussels correspondent of China Youth Daily — as well as some academic newcomers to the scene, such as Suisheng Zhao, a political scientist who has previously been known mostly for his work on Chinese state nationalism.
Most speakers took the balanced tone that is now becoming mainstream in academic discussion of the subject; positive or neutral evaluations of China’s African presence dominated. Martyn Davies, who now heads a new China/Africa research programme at the University of Pretoria, set the tone in a forceful talk in which he half-jokingly expresses hope that Western governments continue to block large acquisitions by Chinese companies, as that money is then likely to flow into Africa (he says Sinopec’s large Nigerian investment was a result of the company’s failed bid for Unocal).
The nuanced evaluations were absent from most contributions by speakers from China. Li Anshan of Peking University talked about how Confucian values (he proceeded through them one by one) influence Chinese policy in Africa. Liu Lirong of Fudan purported to compare U.S., European and Chinese foreign policy in Africa, starting from the premise that the first is interventionist, the second normative (based on the morality of norms) and the third consultative (based on the morality of values). Such self-Orientalizing talks would hardly pass the scrutiny of serious Chinese academics, but unfortunately in a Western policy research setting they seem to be accorded as much weight as the Orientalist views that they have replaced. (There are some similarities here with the export of Chinese cultural products.)
The most colourful speakers was certainly Philip Idro, a former Ugandan ambassador to China who now owns a rice mill he had purchased and shipped from China. I sounded him out on the fascinating Lake Victoria East African Free Trade Zone, which he confirmed existed, although due to the recession development was on hold. The land was owned by Ugandas but the management was Chinese, and the legislative rights the special zone received were, in his view, real. In contrast, he did not know of any Chinese farms in Uganda, but said he was in favour of land concessions to Chinese in order to develop agriculture.