Justin Podur on Trevor Noah on China in Africa. Why Comparing Chinese Africa Investment to Western Colonialism Is No Joke.
Commented by Kiji Noh in SF: South Korea has been building ports, roads, infrastructure for Middle Eastern countries (Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Oman, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, etc.) for 45 years. How many of those countries are now South Korean colonies? Zero. Trade, infrastructure development are not colonialism. China is not colonizing Africa, anymore than South Korea was trying to colonize Iran.
The West colonized and enslaved Africa for centuries at the point of a gun, and then sought to continue its colonization through financial weapons. The wealth and power of Europe was created through extraction and colonization. China has no history, need, or desire for colonization. It developed independently and has had amicable and equal relations with Africa for millennia. The CPC has supported African liberation movements, unlike the west, which violently suppressed them.
“Why China Is in Africa” (12/16/21) is a question Trevor Noah took up last month for Comedy Central‘s Daily Show. As with many of the topics taken up by the Daily Show, the issue is no joke: China has a large and growing economic presence in many African countries. The China/Africa deals cry out for analysis: Are they different from the deals on offer from Western countries like the US, Britain or France?
Post-independence Africa’s economic relationship with the West has been mediated through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Funding for projects comes with a range of conditionalities; when Western loans come due, the IMF demands painful cuts to health and education programs as the price of refinancing. In the past, the IMF has taken outright control of African governments. At other times, the US has sponsored coups, assassinated leaders and fomented civil wars on the continent.
China, meanwhile, does not attach political strings to its loans. China is known as a “patient” investor, making deals that take decades to pay off. When the Chinese loans come due, China reschedules or restructures debt payments. Ex-Minister for Public Works for Liberia, Gyude Moore, cited 87 cases of restructuring or rescheduling of such loans between 2000–19.
Which of these two approaches sounds like neocolonialism, and which like economic development?
China offers Africa terms that the West isn’t interested in matching. Instead of improving its own offers, the West presents scary tales to try to infantilize Africans and frighten them away from doing business with China. Examples of these scare stories abound, from Mike Pence (USA Today, 11/17/18) and John Bolton (Guardian, 12/13/18) to Foreign Policy (4/25/19) and Al Jazeera (5/17/17).
But even in the Wall Street Journal (5/2/19), readers can learn that “the real political purpose” of China’s deals “isn’t a debt trap but building goodwill and high-level relationships.” The New York Times (4/26/19) published an opinion in 2019 that “the idea that the Chinese government is doling out debt strategically, for its benefit, isn’t supported by the facts.”
The format of the Daily Show and comparable shows (e.g., Last Week Tonight With John Oliver) makes it possible to deliver political commentary and news with plausible deniability about political viewpoints (“it’s only comedy”). Noah, a New York-based comedian who grew up in South Africa, did his best to spin Chinese investment in Africa into neo-colonialism—regardless of the underlying reality.
‘With the stroke of a pen’
Trevor Noah: ‘To take over another country with the stroke of a pen’“Back in the day,” Noah begins,
when one country wanted to take over another country, they had to beat them in a war…. But now it looks like a country might have found a way to take over another country with the stroke of a pen.
Noah presents a clip from BBC World News (11/30/21), in turn quoting the London Times (11/30/21): “China has recently been accused of trying to take over Uganda’s sole international airport if the East African country fails to pay a $200 million loan for the expansion of the site.”
Debunked in Asia Times (12/8/21), the “Uganda airport takeover” story was based on a tendentious reading of a 2015 loan agreement between the government of Uganda and the Exim Bank of China. The grace period for the loan ends in December 2022, at the end of which, if 87 previous examples over the past 20 years are indicative, China and Uganda will presumably renegotiate the terms.
Noah quotes the Chinese embassy’s statement: “Not a single project in Africa has ever been ‘confiscated’ by China because of failing to pay Chinese loans.” But Noah does not find this reassuring, saying: “‘We have never confiscated an airport’ is very different from ‘we are never going to confiscate an airport.’”
In fact, past behavior is a pretty good indicator of future behavior. The Western record in Africa—an indicator of future behavior there—is appalling.
The simplest Western strategy of all is to withhold investment until African countries are ready to accept terrible conditions—including demands to privatize national industries that amount to across-the-board confiscation by Western corporations. The strategy has worked in the past because, as Noah says, Africa needs financing:
Ever since the age of colonialism ended, Africa has been working hard to modernize its economies and catch up with the rest of the world. But to do that it needs lots of new infrastructure: roads, railways, ports, dams…. You name it, Africa needs to build it. The problem is, that stuff all costs money. Money that most African countries don’t have. But in recent years, many African countries have found themselves a new sugar daddy: China.