An Evolution in China’s Development Model in Africa?
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China’s investment and development projects in Africa have steadily grown as Chinese companies and entrepreneurs have sought new markets and opportunities abroad.
Duke Kunshan’s Yuan Wang shares with the U.S.-China Nexus how a one-way ticket to Kenya set her on a path of studying the varying outcomes of Chinese-backed projects on the African continent. Macro views of China’s growing presence tend to be positive, but on a more granular level, they tend to be contingent on how the lives of locals are ultimately affected by projects, be it a new road or a railway. While there are often mixed experiences, increasingly local communities are voicing concerns about social and environmental impacts, labor, transparency, and community engagement. Moreover, in the coming years, Wang is keeping an eye on how different African countries exercise their agency in their dealings with Chinese development projects.
Eleanor M. Albert: Today our guest is Yuan Wang. Yuan Wang is an assistant professor of international relations at Duke Kunshan University in China’s Jiangsu province. Your research interests include global China, African politics, and the comparative political economy of development. Your book project investigates why Chinese-financed and -constructed projects develop into starkly different trajectories in different African countries. Before Duke Kunshan, you were a fellow at the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program and at Columbia’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. You also previously served in the China office of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and at the Sino-Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation in its Nairobi office.
Yuan, welcome to the show. It's a pleasure to have you.
Yuan Wang: It's a pleasure to be here.
Eleanor M. Albert: To start, I wanted to ask you how you entered this research space, and how did Africa become the place that you wanted to focus on in terms of China's relationship to it?
Yuan Wang: How did I enter this space? It's a good question. I started the journey with an interest in development. After the Kennedy School, I bought a one-way ticket to land in Kenya and decided to stay there for two years without any idea what I wanted to do with my life afterwards. But random decisions in our early 20s could significantly influence our life, especially the career. So, it was back in 2013 and '14 and I was in Kenya, I saw [much] construction going on. On the gate of these construction sites [was written] "We are China Road and Bridge Corporation."
I grew close to the Chinese circle in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. When hanging out with those Chinese entrepreneurs, state-owned or private company managers, engineers, youth volunteers… I listened to many stories of the Chinese in Africa and eventually I became one of them. When I finally decided to pursue an academic path, my research was mostly inspired by the stories of my friends and myself.
Eleanor M. Albert: That's fantastic and so interesting. You were saying how you were plugged into the Chinese community in Africa, but I'm actually curious to look at the flip side of it, too. How is China's clearly growing regional presence viewed across countries in Africa? Who are China's most prominent African partners?
Yuan Wang: How do Africans perceive China's presence? We can actually look at this question from the most recent results of the Afrobarometer and my own experience talking with people in Africa. According to the most recent round of Afrobarometer's national surveys, which covers 34 countries, it was released in 2021. It shows that Africa actually holds positive views of Chinese influence on the
So as I remember, [about] 60% of respondents said that China's influence is somewhat or very positive, but compared with the data from the previous round, which is around 2014 to 2015, African perceptions of Beijing influence have declined a little, and China still remains second to the United States as the preferred development model for Africans. So that shows a lot, although a majority of those who are aware of Chinese loans and development assistance to their countries are concerned about [being] heavily indebted to China.
My own experience talking with people in several African countries when I was doing fieldwork or living there shows that their perception really depends on where they live, whether their lives were positively affected or negatively affected by Chinese-sponsored projects or Chinese people. The local residents whose land was confiscated for the construction of a road or a railway sponsored by the Chinese can hardly have a positive view towards the Chinese, even though the land acquisition was not necessary the responsibility of the Chinese company. But those who could enjoy the newly built airport or standard gauge railway by Chinese companies to travel or some of those who had good experience working in [a] Chinese company tend to think much [more] positively about China.
And interestingly, when I walk on the street of Nairobi, I was frequently called mzungu a Swahili word for white people, but my white friend walking on the street of Addis Ababa in neighboring Ethiopia was sometimes called “China.”
As for the important partners of China, if you look at the BU (Boston University) Chinese loans to Africa data, then top borrowers have been Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya, and Nigeria. The database also shows over the past two decades, at least 80% of these Chinese loans finance the economic and social infrastructure projects, mostly transport power, telecommunications, and water. In terms of investment, it's South Africa, Zambia, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) [who] attracted the largest Chinese FDI [foreign direct investment] in stock according to the data.
Eleanor M. Albert: It seems to be that trade and investment focus on development seem to be the things that really bind China the most to the continent. But is there variation? Africa is a very large continent. There are lots of different countries. Some are landlocked, some are on the coasts of different oceans, and some of them have different resources. There is always a lot of talk about resource acquisition being part of China's pursuit of relationships there. What are the policy areas that really bind China to it? And then are there wedge issues? Are there issues that create problems or are politically charged?
Yuan Wang: Wedge issues change with time and differ across countries. As you said, [it] is such a big continent of 54 countries. At some point, it was China's motivation to Africa, whether it was win-win or China's win [to] obtain natural resources and export overcapacity at the sacrifice of African development. Then the social environmental impact of Chinese-sponsored projects was hotly debated and China's peacekeeping and security issue arise when there's a conflict on the continent and there's [a] request for China to be playing a bigger role in these activities. And recently, it's a sustainability issue that draws people's attention.
Eleanor M. Albert: On a related note, in terms of anxiety, there's a lot of talk about how Belt and Road and China's practice of loans as far as backing a lot of these projects. There's this term of debt trap diplomacy accusations and concepts of neo-mercantilism, but China's attention to Africa is also not entirely new. The Tanzam railway dates way back to the seventies and there's been an update of that. How much of the narrative of China as a malign or bad actor and as a donor, perhaps not in good faith, is that a reality in Africa?
Yuan Wang: Well, it's probably difficult to tell if a country is a benevolent or malign actor, just like it's difficult to tell if a person is good or bad. In [the] majority of the cases, there is not a black or white answer even to the question of whether China is helping or not helping Africa. But gray is probably closer to the reality.
So, infrastructure, development, employment, opportunity, or at least some levels of technology and knowledge transfer, seem to be the commonly agreed upon areas where China contributes to host country development in Africa, but even these ones are not without contestation.
And the more contested areas, as [I] mentioned before: social environmental impacts, labor, welfare, racism, corruption, transparency, community engagement, et cetera. And oftentimes these issues were politicized in host countries, at the domestic level and international level.
Eleanor M. Albert: I want to also highlight, there have been successes of projects, right? Could you provide perhaps an example or two of projects that have been successful in terms of completion with host country and communities, and then perhaps an example where a particular project has been politicized, whether it was for environmental reasons or social issue reasons?
Yuan Wang: That can be from one project actually. Both sides, it depends on how you perceive it. Going back to my very familiar case of the standard gauge railway that China constructed in connecting Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa in Kenya, it was heavily politicized. During the construction, there were a lot of issues [that arose] such as the social environmental impact, whether the environmental impact assessments were properly done. And how was this project initiated in the first place? [Was] there corruption, and was there a proper tendering process? And all of these issues became spotlight before the 2017 presidential election.
And when the incumbent president Jomo Kenyatta wanted to capitalize on his campaign capital, while the opposition criticized the railway as a way to criticize the government. And then local grievances like land acquisition issues and environmental issues were politicized by oppositions as a way to attack the incumbent who's trying to seek a second term.
But in the meantime, the construction of the railway took only two and a half years. Originally it was contracted to be completed within five years. And then it was good quality and shortened the travel time from the capital city to the Mombasa port to four hours. And the passenger ticket was so in shortage that we had to book three days in the advance to go to Mombasa or to come back. And it was very popular and it was much cheaper than the flight and much safer than the road, which was called “Death Road” because of the high casualty car accident caused between Mombasa and Nairobi. So, it did bring people some benefits.
Eleanor M. Albert: Beyond the bilateral level, China has a lot of different relationships with different countries, and I'm curious what role multilateral platforms have had? The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has been around for two decades now and it is lauded as this platform for dialogue. Also, China has valued its relationship with the African Union. What role do these entities play in China's overall approach to its engagement with Africa?
Yuan Wang: I'm actually recently collaborating on a paper with a Japanese colleague on the comparison of TICAD, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development and FOCAC and the role of African agency and respective origin and the convergence. So FOCAC indeed provides a concentrated opportunity for Chinese top leaders to meet with multiple African leaders during FOCAC meetings or summits. And meeting bilaterally, there are very limited times that Chinese top leader could visit Africa and receive Africa leaders [in] China.
FOCAC provides a very nice platform that these can be done in a short period of time. It itself also became a brand both for subsequent Africa+1 and for China+1 platform. Not only limited to China and Africa, but also China with European countries… So the great success of FOCAC Beijing Summit in 2006 especially was greatly discussed in Japan. Subsequently, TICAD also followed FOCAC and changed from hosting every five years to annually and from hosting only in Tokyo to hosting alternatively in Tokyo and Africa. So this proposal to change, however, was made by Africans to Tokyo. So you can see how Africans play an agency in these changes.
The good success of FOCAC also serve as a model for Chinese multilateral diplomacy for the subsequent China's 16 +1 platform in 2012 made up of Central and Eastern European countries, China-Arab State Summits. For this FOCAC also serve as a reference to draw lessons from.
I do see the role of African Union in FOCAC or at least they try to play a role. But FOCAC was hesitant to have African Union as a co-organizer, which African Union strongly proposed. However, in TICAD, the Japanese forum, African Union was a co-organizer and played a significant role. Although, yeah, it's not a lesson that China learned it from TICAD.
But there was also a trend that my Japanese colleague observed. Before African Union joined TICAD, individual African countries voice were stronger. But now because there is this union that was supposed to speak for the whole continent, the individual African's voice in the forum could be softened a little.
Eleanor M. Albert: I want to talk a little bit about the role that the U.S.'s relationship has in a triangular sense. There used to be much more of a focus in American foreign policy towards development. That's been kind of sunset for a while, but I know that there have been efforts to reengage. And I'm curious the differences in the American approach to engaging with Africa compared to China’s.
Yuan Wang: A lot of differences, although I would say two things. The first is the concentration of areas. So in terms of aid and China-sponsored projects is still mainly infrastructure based. And that was something that multilateral donors, including the U.S., had not been focusing on for a long period. It was more of good governance, soft side of things, for a long time. But although recently there has been this trend of also doing business and mutual equality and less emphasis on aid hierarchy also going on. And that is not only in the States but also in Japan as well. That's one thing.
The other is how influential U.S. media is versus Chinese media and that I think could play a significant role in how the activities were perceived. Xinhua News Agency and CCTV or CGTN or China Daily were not as influential as Reuters or VOA or New York Times or Washington Post. And as we mentioned before, there could be a market for anxiety towards China in the States. So these added together make it a little bit difficult to, how should I frame it…
Eleanor M. Albert: The media narrative certainly has framed Chinese activities in particular ways. Is that something that is influential in African publics?
Yuan Wang: Oh yeah. A lot of African journalists were trained in Western curricula at least, if they were not trained in Western countries, especially those influential media in more democratic country like Kenya, Zambia, et cetera.
Eleanor M. Albert: That's super interesting. To wrap things up, in the short to medium term, if you were watching just one particular trend in the development space, in China-Africa relations, what would it be and why?
Yuan Wang: African agency I would say, although my last field trip to Africa was more than three years ago, so I can't say that I have an imminent sense of what's the trend now in African relations on the ground. But, there are [an] increasing number of Africa+1 platforms. In addition to FOCAC and TICAD there are Turkey-, Korean-, India-, Indonesia-, Middle East-, France-, and UK-, and Russia- African summits. And recently Ukraine proposing also. All have already planned, hosted, or plan to host an African+1 summit.
Folashadé Soulé, a scholar based at Oxford, had an excellent paper on this showing the African agency through summit diplomacy. And I fully agree. Invitation to these summits provides African actors with the opportunity to exercise their agency, but whether their agency can be realized or not is not guaranteed. So in other words, agency is an opportunity, but whether and how countries take this opportunity differ.
Eleanor M. Albert: What are some of those differences?
Yuan Wang: In the paper we were looking at, South Africa was very vocal in terms of their participation, pursuing their own and regional needs, inserting their own and regional needs into FOCAC…
Eleanor M. Albert: The agenda setting?
Yuan Wang: Yeah, but at the same time there are countries that, shared with me by a retired ambassador, that the person who was invited to travel to FO CAC was just not interested at all. So the Chinese ambassador had to constantly ask him, did you bring the documents? He said, "Okay, I will bring." And then on the day, he forgot, so the Chinese ambassador said, "Okay, I brought one for you." And then he was late. So the ambassador had to stop the plane for him to be able to catch on the plane to go to FOCAC. He was just so reluctant…
Eleanor M. Albert: There's not an equal appetite in engaging in FOCAC? It varies?
Yuan Wang: Yeah. And also there were somehow smaller countries like Benin and Madagascar were the ones that proposed the initiation of FOCAC in the very beginning.
Eleanor M. Albert: Was that an attempt to raise their profiles to be seen on equal footing with other big power players?
Yuan Wang: Mm-hmm, in the region at least.
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