“China in Africa” will always be a hot topic it seems, however recently more voices have been calling for African leaders to implement more holistic strategies in their dealings with China.
Critics of China's activities in Africa prefer to rely on sensationalistic terms, referring to China's engagement with Africa as “neo-colonial” and inherently suspicious. They point out China's search for natural resources, its exportation of substandard products and its use of Chinese migrant workers in Africa. While it cannot, and indeed should not, be ignored that Chinese-owned small and medium enterprises frequently undercut local African businesses that cannot compete with their cheap products, we need to ask what African government are doing to protect their citizens and interests.
In 2006, the Chinese government officially released its Africa policy. This policy is accessible to the public and can be read by anyone who has an internet connection. African governments should already have designed strategies to guide their engagement with China in order to ensure that deals entered with China offer the best economic and social value for African countries. More than six years after the launch of China's Africa policy, China is now Africa's largest trading partner yet we still are not sure what exactly it is that African governments wish to gain from engaging with China. There is also no knowledge of Africa's agenda for China or what Africa seeks to gain from its partnership with China. The whole world seems to know what China wants from Africa but not so much what Africa wants from China, not in the long term.
The Chinese government and Chinese people in Africa are here for business, not as long lost relatives or friends. If China-Africa relations will be “win-win”, as per one of China's mantras for its engagement with African countries, it will depend on how the relations are managed by Africans and African governments. It is up to Africans to clean up our acts and prepare to engage with foreign powers, including China, so as to create an equal playing field. African governments especially need to create strategies that would ensure that their citizens truly reap the benefits of engaging with China.
The reason why some Chinese companies get away with abusing local employees is because African governments are not doing enough to protect their citizens via labour laws, and also because of inadequate or unenforced environmental regulations in many African countries. China has previously been accused of not obeying local laws, but what wasn't mentioned was the question of whether local laws existed in the first place and if they existed, why they weren't being enforced.
Last month on May 25th, BBC Africa hosted its monthly debate discussing China's engagement with Africa, particularly in Zambia, during which African countries were called upon to take advantage of the interest in African resources. During the debate, it was mentioned that the Chinese have no standard to work by in some of the African countries they operate in, so they work without standards or regulations; there are none to follow. A group of Chinese citizens were recently deported from Nigeria for illegally trading textiles in Kano. This may be too little too late considering the damage Chinese companies have caused to the African textile industries (see also Chinese textile 'tsunami' hits Africa and Asia).
The easiest answer to the question of why African governments are not bargaining harder with China is the same old one: corruption. The people sitting down to negotiate with China on behalf of Africans are the same people who spend the hard-earned money of their citizens on extravagant lifestyles.
China, worried about negative portrayals of its activities in Africa, is fighting back. At the same time, it is also seeking to “tighten” its relations with Africa by hosting conferences under the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), continues to promote its interests in Africa, and wants to revise its African foreign policy. In the face of such concentrated effort, it is a pity that African governments, blinded by short-term goals and/or plundering tendencies, are not making an effort to use China's interest in us to grow.