Axel Harneit-Sievers, Stephen Marks and Sanusha Naidu, eds., Chinese and African Perspectives on China in Africa

(Nairobi and Oxford: Pambazula Press, 2010).

In the 1960s and 1970s, socialist China (under the leadership of Mao Zedong) actively supported African national liberation movements and provided economic assistance to newly independent African countries. Both China and African countries have since then abandoned socialist modes of national development. As China becomes a rising global economic power, it has deepened trade and investment relations with Africa.

The value of trade between China and Africa (sum of imports and exports) increased from $5 billion in 1995 to $106 billion in 2008. China’s investment in Africa rose from less than $500 million in 2003 to $7.8 billion in 2008. The massive expansion of the Sino-African trade reflects China’s export-led growth strategy which is dependent on energy and other natural resources. China’s new economic role in Africa has caused concerns in areas such as human rights, labor, trade, and environment.

This book is a collection of essays presented at a workshop held in Nairobi in April 2008, co-hosted by Fahamu with the Heinrich Böll Foundation (Kenya). The workshop was intended to promote dialogues among “non-state actors” or “civil society organizations.” The concept of “civil society” is said to include “independent media, university scholars and research centers, human rights and women’s organizations, advocacy groups and numerous service-delivery NGOs [non-governmental organizations]” (x). However, on the Chinese side, participants mainly came from universities and official research institutions.

The book includes five parts. Part I reviews mutual perceptions between China and Africa. Li Anshan reviews the historical development of African studies in China and identifies possible future research agendas. This is followed by two interesting contributions that take a critical perspective on China’s growing economic influence in Africa. Sanusha Naidu suggests that China’s global aspirations require China to work closely with the US and other western capitalist powers, and these aspirations “may sometimes be inconsistent with Africa’s interests” (32). Naidu raises the question of whether the China-Africa engagement creates an enabling environment for African development or perpetuates class conflict and widening inequalities within African societies. Sanou Mbaye criticizes China for having supported authoritarian regimes and encouraged business corruption in Africa. According to Mbaye, “China’s win-win paradigm … sounds increasingly hollow,” and can be viewed as a “disguised neocolonial market penetration strategy” (47). African countries sell raw materials to China while buying manufactured goods, reinforcing Africa’s role as a provider of low-value-added primary products in the world division of labor.

Parts II and III of the book discuss macroeconomic issues in current Sino-African relations, with Part III containing six country studies. Paul Kamau raises concerns including trade imbalances (for example, China’s textile exports are endangering local manufacturing in African countries) and the low quality or “fake” manufactured goods sold by Chinese private companies. Claude Kabemba points out the risk of severe environmental damage caused by China’s mining activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Part IV analyzes China’s growing geopolitical role in Africa. He Wenping looks at China’s role in Sudan with a focus on the Darfur Crisis. He argues that China maintains the principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries but has also been responsive to international criticism. Disire Assogbavi, however, contends that “China has so far played a largely negative role in the crisis” (196).

The last part of the book explores the possibilities for more intensified engagement of “civil society organizations” from Africa with government, business, and academic players from China. Antony Otieno Ong’ayo argues that civil society curbs and monitors state power, stimulates political participation by citizens, and is essential for democratic culture. He advocates more sharing of experiences between Chinese and African civil society organizations. Xiao Yuhua points out that awareness of civil society remains limited in China and that civil society organizations should take notice of China’s political and cultural specifics. Zhi Yingbiao and Bai Jie discuss how environmental NGOs work with the Chinese government to improve environmental standards for Chinese overseas enterprises.

This reviewer finds the whole discourse of “civil society” rather problematic as it focuses exclusively on state-society conflicts while obfuscating class conflicts and the class nature of both states and the so-called civil society organizations.

Overall, the book provides useful information for people interested in the evolving Sino-African relationship. It offers a perspective different from that of official or business sources. The African participants represent various civil society organizations. Some of the African participants may be considered politically progressive. Overall, the African participants are aware of the social conflicts and environmental damages brought about by deepening integration with the global capitalist market, including deepening integration with Chinese capitalist industries.

By contrast, the Chinese participants generally take semi-official positions, justifying China’s current political and economic strategy and playing down social and environmental concerns. The “dialogue” between the two sides is thus limited by the different perspectives and interests that each strives to represent.

Reviewed by Minqi Li
Department of Economics, University of Utah

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