Why do western people misunderstand the Chinese?

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Why are we so critical of China in Africa?

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Berger, Axel / Deborah Brautigam / Philipp Baumgartner
The Current Column (2011)

Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) (The current column of August 15, 2011)

Bonn, Washington D.C. 08/15/2011. We Germans are skeptical about China's engagement in Africa - why? China's growing importance for the African continent is attracting a great deal of attention from all traditional donor countries. Almost everywhere in Europe and North America, the public discussion has a derogatory undertone, but in Germany media coverage is particularly critical. Headlines like "Guns, oil, dirty deals - how China is pushing the West out of Africa“Of the magazine The mirror suggest to the reader that China's activities in Africa would only have negative effects.

We disagree. Despite all the challenges that China's development cooperation is facing in Africa, it has astonishingly much to offer for the development of the continent.

Public opinion of China's development policy is wrong in three ways: the scope of aid, the role of raw materials, and its influence on governance and human rights.

First, China's financial cooperation is much less than we are led to believe. The estimated US $ 1.6 billion in government development aid that China provided in Africa in 2009 lags far behind the grants from traditional donors such as Germany. In total, Africa received almost USD 30 billion in official development aid in 2009 (Official Development Assistance - ODA) from the west. On the other hand, if one looks at trade promotion and other government loans, which China also regards as development cooperation in the broader sense, the situation is different. Western governments only granted 3.2 billion USD of such loans, which are generally given on less favorable terms as official development aid . According to estimates by the authors based on Chinese data, China had pledged more than USD 6 billion this year, including to finance exports worth USD 50 billion. Before the financial crisis, western private banks transferred billions to Africa - since 2008 these sources have completely dried up. That China could sustain the flow of funds was vital to the African economy.

However, these numbers can hardly serve as evidence that China is pushing the West out of Africa. On the contrary: the commitment of the world's second largest economy should be welcomed, especially in view of the financial hardship in the West.

Second, it is said that China's alleged hunger for raw materials is the main driver of Chinese development policy in Africa. A closer look, however, shows that China's development aid is relatively evenly distributed across the continent and either serves diplomatic purposes or is granted within the framework of economic cooperation. In fact, China's commitment complements Western aid, as sectors such as infrastructure and smallholder agriculture are often neglected by many traditional donors. No question about it: access to resources, often in return for infrastructure projects, is a core element of both Chinese and Western engagement in Africa. However, the raw material infrastructure packages that we have seen rarely use Chinese development funds, but mostly other government funds. It will of course only be possible to judge in the future whether these barter deals are of any use to the African countries. Ultimately, Chinese companies are active in a number of other sectors, such as construction, manufacturing and telecommunications.

Third, one often reads in Western media that China is undermining Western attempts to promote good governance and human rights in Africa through development policies. A closer look would show that Beijing voted in favor of sanctions against Libya, urged Sudan to allow a joint UN and African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, and moved Robert Mugabe to join the Zimbabwean opposition in forming a government of national unity. Gaddafi's Libya does not receive any development aid from China, while Sudan and Zimbabwe receive little. However, Chinese companies and banks are not prohibited from doing business with these three pariahs. In general, there is no evidence that Beijing in Africa prefers to work with authoritarian and poorly governed regimes rather than democratic governments. On the contrary, China's most important business partners in Africa include stable democracies such as South Africa, Ghana and Mauritius.

These three examples show that the public discourse is wrong about the basic patterns of Chinese engagement in Africa. Of course, that's not to say that China's record is flawless. China's development policy in Africa faces a number of problems, including environmental and social impacts, the general transparency of aid and coordination with other donors. And complaints from African workers about poor pay and poor working conditions increase as the number of Chinese employers grows.

We therefore understand the critical public discourse in Germany primarily as a reflection of different views on what development policy is and what its goal should be. For China, which is still grappling with enormous development problems in its own country, development cooperation is a means by which economic cooperation that is beneficial for all parties can be initiated. From a German point of view, this emphasis on economic (self) interest is apparently suspect. The West often only sees one in Africa A continent of poverty and violence - more of a charity than, as the Chinese see it, an investment opportunity. Last but not least, the criticism may be influenced by the persistent paternalism of many Western aid workers who believe they know how “Africa is to be developed”. So if China does anything else, it must be wrong.

Even more, however, we see the tendentious presentation of Chinese development policy in Africa by the German media as the result of a widespread negative image of China. A recent BBC survey showed that the citizens of Europe, above all the Germans, view China with great suspicion - primarily because of its growing economic power. With this in mind, it is not surprising that so many media reports are riddled with fears that rub off our views on all aspects of China's growing global presence. Surprisingly, the German public almost completely ignores the growing engagement in Africa of other (democratic) emerging countries such as India or Brazil, although their patterns are more similar to those of China than those of Western development cooperation.

Our negative attitude towards Chinese development policy tarnishes our view of the role that African governments and societies play. In fact, they should be the ones who are in control and who decide what kind of international help they need and what partnerships they enter into. Instead of pointing the finger at China, we should talk about how we can strengthen African governments and societies in such a way that they meet traditional and emerging donors on an equal footing and ensure that their offerings are aligned with their national development strategies.

Axel Berger, Department "Training ", German Development Institute (DIE)

Prof. Deborah Brautigam, PhD, Development Strategy and Governance Division, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, D.C.

Philipp Baumgartner, Department "Economic and Technological Change", Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn

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