So the Chinese, with their increasing hunger for raw materials, have been scouring the African continent looking for all manner of trade partnerships – all in an attempt to secure the supply of the essentials needed to fuel the East Asian monolith’s fast growth.
A stroll through many an African capital – at least in the East of the continent – will reveal a number of things Chinese. You won’t miss the Chinese workers laying out fiber optic cables or paving roads or even selling food in a Chinese restaurant. After years of living worlds apart, the lion and the panda have decided to become bosom buddies.
But is the relationship symmetrical? Can the panda and the lion cohabit in a sustainable and mutually beneficial manner? Many people have complained that the coming of the Chinese to the African continent will only serve to exacerbate the continent’s position as a mere source of raw materials. I beg to differ. This stance assumes that Africans and their leaders do not know what is good for themselves and are easily fooled – in the past by the Europeans and now by the Chinese.
The Africa that Europe encountered back in the nineteenth century is very different from the one that the Chinese are engaging with today. Furthermore, the Chinese are not here to merely take away things the way Western Europe did, they pay for the stuff they take. They may not pay well enough but the point is that they pay, plus there is no hand-chopping bula matari or a pontificating Smith Hempstone. On top of that the Chinese have created numerous jobs for the local people, be it in manual construction work or in higher level management and consultancy.
As the West continues to shy away from Africa because of the continent’s lack of or perceived lack of democratic institutions, the Chinese are taking advantage of the situation and reaping the benefits. The Africans are benefiting too.
It is high time the rest of the world took the pragmatic approach that China and increasingly India have taken in their relationship with Africa. Democracy and good institutions can only be supported by good economic outcomes and vise versa (Read scholars like Dahl, Moore, Przeworski, etc). The deepening of democratic beliefs and practices necessarily require economic development. Democracy’s proselytizers in Washington and Brussels should be informed that their lectures on liberties and human rights that are not backed by cranes, computers and jobs are akin to playing guitar to a goat.
So overall, I think that the new-found friendship between the lion and the panda is, at the macro level, a good thing. Darfur and other atrocities may tarnish this relationship but down the road we shall someday look back and with hindsight appreciate China’s contribution to Africa’s economic take-off. A word of caution for the panda though, the lion may seem lazy and unconcerned in the heat of the Savannah, but never take him for granted. He can pounce without warning and has the habit of switching lionesses with wanton abandon.