“China is the largest developing nation,” started the information panel at an exhibit on Chinese development assistance. “And Africa is…” continued the text. I held my breath, waiting for the usual putdowns: we’re the poorest, we’re the worst off, we’re just a charity basket, and so on. After all, China has become a world power. I guessed it would only be a matter of time before they started seeing themselves in the hierarchy of nations. But no, the text read, “And Africa is the continent with the most developing nations.”
A neutral statement, just brotherly sentiments from one developing nation to another. I breathed a sigh of relief. Such a simple statement, but I felt respected, whole. The West wonders why we Africans don’t see China as evil-incarnate. For me, it was all summed up in that statement.
For almost 15 years the West has been complaining about China in Africa. First they said the issue was China paid no attention to governance, which is an interesting argument considering the governments the West has propped up. Then they said Chinese goods were inferior, their roads fell apart, and that we would all be better off using European and American firms. Perhaps so, but where was the West in the mid-1990’s when the World Bank and others decided to get out of infrastructure?
China understands us. They know infrastructure is the key to development. And when they started investing in our infrastructure, suddenly everyone was interested in infrastructure. Maybe American or European built roads are better, but a road with a few problems is still better than a road that is endlessly discussed but never delivered, or one that comes bound by so many strings attached.
We are not naïve. We know why the Chinese are in Africa. We have oil, diamonds, copper, gold, coltan, and other precious and non-precious minerals. We Africans often think we need the international community. The truth is the world needs us. The Chinese and many others have understood that, and we appreciate that they treat us as partners and with respect.
Our recent election in Uganda shows the difference between China and the West. China thinks we are adults, capable of making our own decisions. They respect our sovereign rights to determine our own destiny. They might have preferences as to one candidate over another, but they keep it to themselves. Not so for the Americans and Europeans. Do they think we are children, incapable of handling our own country, and in need of our Big Daddy in the West to tell us how to run our own affairs?
The Chinese don’t come to Africa to meddle. They just come to do business. And thank goodness they did come, because with the Chinese came one of the most capitalist elements ever seen in Africa: competition. Suddenly, Africa had choices. As Americans know, competition brings out the best. The deals started getting better, more beneficial for Africa, and with bonuses attached, like roads, capacity development, or manufacturing.
The West looks at China in Africa with the lens of the Cold War, thinking it’s either the West or China. We don’t see it as a menu from which we can choose only one. We see it as a buffet, from which we can take some of everything. Wouldn’t it ultimately help everyone if there were cooperation? If the West and China worked together on major initiatives, like power or infrastructure?
The former President of the African Development Bank once said, “My only problem with Chinese investment is there isn’t enough of it.” It was the same problem, he added, that he had with investment everywhere. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, Africa just needs more. The Chinese are here, and we are glad they are here. As are the Indians, Japanese, Indonesians, Americans, Europeans, and many others.