Given South Africa’s current economic woes, one would think that China’s recently announced investments in the country — the R33-billion loan from the China Development Bank to Eskom and the R370-billion toward a stimulus package — would have resulted in jubilation. But, bar the praises of a few government ministers, the news has gone down like a lead balloon.
Talk of a “debt trap”and “neocolonialism” have pervaded the media and the Democratic Alliance has drawn on the Promotion of Access to Information Act to compel President Cyril Ramaphosa to reveal the terms of the loans.
Such anxieties stem, in part, from far broader shifts on the African continent. The rise of China over the past four decades, coupled with an aggressive “going out” policy, has increasingly brought to the fore discussions about a declining Western order and an ascending Chinese one.
The decline of Europe and the United States, in the grip of anti-immigrant populist nationalist movements, has occurred in tandem with a waning influence in the developing world. While the lion’s share of trade and development assistance in the global South now emanates from China, many Western leaders, out of touch with this groundswell, still act as if it were the 1980s, when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank set the agenda.
Thus, when US secretaries of state, such as Hillary Clinton and Rex Tillerson, lecture Africa on the hazards of Chinese influence yet do little to match their investments, African leaders increasingly scoff. This is compounded by the fact that while the West has traditionally been Africa’s largest economic partner, they were also Africa’s colonial masters.
The China alternative offers African leaders an opportunity to shake off what is perceived as a demeaning post-colonial dependency. Furthermore, Chinese investments lack the “strings attached” dimension of Western aid, such as cutting bloated bureaucracies, improving human rights, opening markets to foreign competition and buckling down on corruption.
But to think that Chinese investments don’t come with their own set of attendant ideologies is a mistake. On first glance, this is easy to overlook. In many respects, Chinese engagements appear as economic pragmatism.
For instance, Africa desperately requires infrastructure for economic growth and Chinese state-owned enterprises can offer this at competitive prices; Africa requires funding for these projects and China’s deep-pocketed policy banks can shoulder the risk.
This is the essence of Beijing’s “win-win” mantra — a kind of apolitical reciprocal altruism of willing buyers and sellers in the international market place with an ideological dollop of “South-South” development assistance as the icing on the top.
But, despite rhetoric that emphasises the equality of the relationship, the truth is that it is economically asymmetrical. In the language of world systems theory, China is a core and Africa is a periphery. If China were not to use this imbalance to exert geopolitical influence, it would probably be the first in history to do so.
Unlike the forced political liberalism, which is part and parcel of Euro-American assistance, Beijing’s approach is quite different. One increasingly evident facet of this is China’s growing insistence that African actors represent China in a particular way — Beijing’s way.
For a long time, this was limited to adherence to the “One China” principle, an acknowledgement that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese motherland. But in recent years, this has expanded to a more general insistence that African counterparts portray China’s Communist Party and the state, companies and people, which are subordinate to it, as pure as driven snow, both in terms of China on the domestic front, as well as in its engagements abroad.
For instance, in early September, just prior to the Forum on China–Africa Co-operation (Focac) meeting, it is alleged the Chinese ambassador to Namibia, Zhang Yiming, attempted to influence President Hage Geingob’s speech by suggesting that he speak highly of China-Namibia economic relations and affirm Africa’s political support for China. (Geingob responded that he has his own speech writers and that he is “not a puppet”).
Also in September, journalist Azad Essa wrote an article circulated in South Africa’s Independent Media group outlets on the recent rise of secretive re-education camps in China’s western region of Xinjiang, in which an estimated one million Muslims (mainly Uighurs and Kazakhs) have been detained.
The Independent Media group, with a 20% stake held by Chinese companies, allegedly declined to put the article online and cancelled his weekly column the next day, citing that a redesign of the paper could no longer accommodate it.
A few months ago, I myself encountered a similar situation. Upon being denied an entry visa to China, I was informed by Chinese officials that the classes I teach in Chinese history at Stellenbosch University should exclude discussions on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Cultural Revolution. Once my classes focus more on the achievements of the “New China”, my visa entry issues would be reconsidered.
Such actions are reminiscent of what international relations and military strategist Edward Luttwak has called “large state autism”.Because of such powerful states’s extensive political and economic influence, they are increasingly able to determine how weaker states officially speak about them, at the expense of the diversity of opinion that actually exist.
In post-apartheid South Africa, one value most people embrace across the political spectrum is freedom of speech. This principle, inherited from Western legacies, is, however, inextricably bound to other Western legacies, not least of all brutal settler colonialism and post-colonial economic exploitation.
As Chinese largesse increases, there are constituencies which believe that this offers an opportunity to finally shake off Euro-American shackles. Compromising on few aspects of independent thinking and critical opinion is a small price to pay.
But to do so would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For one thing, we don’t know whether such meddling will plateau or continue to grow; certainly, the vast sums of money injected by Beijing entail a lot more leverage from their side.
It is now of crucial importance that South Africans learn as much as they can about China, given our historical lack of knowledge of the region and the country’s undeniably strategic economic importance.
Tolerating censorship from Beijing in how we arrive at this understanding is effectively to short-change our own understanding and subsequent strategies of engagement. Rather, we need to understand China in the same way we, ideally, strive to understand our own country — dispassionately and with a healthy scepticism toward self-justifying power.
Anything less would be a betrayal of Beijing’s plea for “mutual understanding”.