So what are those inscrutable Orientals really up to, and what are they doing in Africa?
The answer seems to be fairly simple. China wishes to expand its economy over the next five years by about 35%. Most of this expansion will be in manufacturing, since the Chinese government is rightly suspicious of the financialisation which drives the expansion of the Anglo-American economic nexus. Such an expansion also requires a massive investment in infrastructure, to provide the power, transport, educational development and social cohesion required. All this requires an immense amount of raw materials, more than China alone can produce. Hence China must expand its imports of basic raw materials, and also, quite possibly, of partly finished goods which can be obtained relatively cheaply from abroad, assembled or finished in China, and sold on to the world market.
Africa can provide raw materials, and can also provide partly finished goods in some cases because of its very low labour costs and high unemployment, making African governments willing to accept the building of Chinese factories under conditions which countries outside the continent would view as exploitative.
So, what Africa stands to get out of this situation is a reliable market for minerals and agricultural produce and a limited amount of capital investment for beneficiation of minerals and agricultural produce and also investment in (perhaps) low-level manufacturing. Also, in order to get the goodies out of the continent, China is willing to invest in transport infrastructure — roads, railways and ports. This all provides, potentially, a small expansion in employment, and a fairly large expansion in trade which might help African countries overcome their chronic trade deficits.
All this sounds pretty good, of course. It’s a bit embarrassing, the rounds of applause at the summit, the droolingly supportive rhetoric from Mugabe (not that anything he said was wrong — periodically it seems he’s the last sane political leader left in the continent) and so forth. And we should, obviously, be suspicious that the Chinese will either not cough up with the investment or that there will be all sorts of hidden strings attached. Plus there’s no guarantee that the Xi faction in the Chinese Communist Party will be able to stand up to the corporate oligarchs and prevent them from financialising the system and wrecking it — only a few months before those oligarchs nearly brought down the Chinese banking system Xi was talking about making things more oligarch-friendly.
In other words, it’s good, but it’s not going to bring the millennium. Even the full US$60 billion, divided up between several African countries, amounts to well under $100 per capita over three years — not totally insignificant, especially for the highly impoverished states, but not gigantic. But a useful kick-start, potentially, and something which could possibly be leveraged further.
What the Chinese expect to get in return, apart from the raw materials and parts, is a network of contacts with African politicians, most of whom are pretty much up for sale. So it’s entirely possible that the Chinese deal will corrupt African politicians. To which one could say, big, fat, hairy deal, they’re already corrupt and the Chinese are not going to make matters worse. They might even make matters better, because the Chinese have things which they need to do and will not want African corruption to get in the way.
So, this being the case, why should it be that so many people are panicking and complaining and whining about all this?
One reason is, surely, that the Chinese project might, to some extent, benefit the ANC government, which most of those who are complaining about the Chinese dislike. The ANC naturally basks in the reflected glory of the Chinese involvement in Africa, since South Africa is one of the BRICS countries and can plausibly (although untruthfully) claim that it has played a significant role in inviting China to Africa. Indeed, China plays along with this by allowing South Africa to behave as if it is China’s gateway to Africa. (In fairness, South Africa is certainly a more congenial place to do business than Ethiopia, Kenya or Nigeria, the alternatives which China might use; also, although the South African government is deeply pro-American it is not so supinely so as those three countries which are little more than American puppets.)
Another reason is that people are naturally suspicious, which is fair enough, but it’s worth asking why the same people are so much less suspicious when anybody else invests in South Africa, or indeed elsewhere in Africa; foreign investment by Europeans almost always seems to be front-page news as if it were a kind of charity, and the more rare foreign investment by the United States is welcomed as if the Pope had come to town, but substantial Chinese investment is viewed with narrowed eyes and scrunched-up noses. (For the benefit of Middle Kingdomites, this is not an unsuccessful attempt by Caucasians to look Chinese; it signifies distaste.)
In fact, however, the big reason for the complaining is surely that the Chinese are in competition with the Americans, and in this instance as in so many others, are plainly winning the struggle for hearts and minds. The Americans have more military bases, but if the Chinese have more financial and political clout then they will be more likely to succeed in the long run — especially because the Americans seem incapable of using their military power for any productive political purpose. And this upsets the South African elite, who naturally side with the Americans against the Chinese. And, when the white elite sneeze, the black hangers-on under them rush forward bearing hankies, and that’s why so many black pseudo-pundits are delivering various levels of Sinophobia — that is, racism — against alleged Chinese imperialism.
This also obviously explains the hostility to teaching Mandarin in South African schools. The Chinese understandably would like some South Africans to be able to speak their language, and rather than hire only South African Chinese translators — after all, the South African Chinese are often pro-Taiwan — they’ve offered to teach Mandarin to South Africans who aren’t Chinese. Well, we can’t have that, can we? No indeed, if the Democratic Alliance has anything to do with it, which, perhaps fortunately, they don’t.
In the end none of this matters. China will continue becoming a global power whether Africa participates or not, and probably will begin to dominate Africa whether South Africa has any input in the process or not. The only difference is whether we manage to get out from under the yellow bulldozer and perhaps can make some productive use of the levelled playing-field (which, though the bulldozer may level it, will always be tilted in favour of China) or whether we just get squashed. The Americans and their hangers-on in South Africa would prefer us to get squashed. Unfortunately, however, they are not the ones who will be left a gory pulp in a muddy plain.