In late January, the French paper Le Monde reported that China had been secretly transferring data from the headquarters of the African Union (AU), a building it has built and financed as a gift to African nations, to a server in Shanghai.
The reveal created little turmoil and was quickly denied by Chinese officials, while African leaders reacted rather coolly. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who recently assumed the AU chairmanship, said he had no knowledge of the Chinese regime’s surveillance and that in any case, “African should have been able to finance the building itself”.
By contrast, most of the European media that shared the news promptly presented the alleged spying as further proof of China’s traitorous intentions towards its African friends. This reaction is part of an old narrative of a growing Chinese threat in Africa, based on fundamental misconceptions about China and Africa relationship.
No Chinese scramble for Africa
According to the conventional wisdom prevalent in Western countries, China is only making significant investments in Africa to procure raw materials, all the while supporting authoritarian regimes and using its financial and political power to promote China’s agenda.
In May 2017, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani warned in an interview that Africa “risks becoming a Chinese colony […] the Chinese need only natural resources, they’re not interested in stability”. Beware of China’s poisonous gifts and generosity, repeats the EU like a mantra.
But such views are not aligned with the realities on the ground, and the evidence suggests that Beijing’s African foreign policy is actually very normal. China has been active in Africa for decades; it just took a while for the EU to notice it.
From the 1960s onwards, Maoist China started providing development aid and technical assistance to its ideological allies. Since the 1980s, China’s activities in Africa have a three-pronged strategy: expanding into new markets, obtaining new resources to sustain its rapid growth, and making sure that African countries recognise Beijing instead of Taiwan.
Recent studies have also showed that we tend to overestimate Chinese aid and financing and that the bargaining power of traditional donors is not systematically declining across Africa because of the increasing presence of China.
In other words, China is not a voracious new player hungry for natural resources sometimes described in the media, but rather a rational actor that relies on African partners for its prosperity. Regarding the spying itself, Le Monde noted that China is not alone in spying on the AU (British and French intelligence services had previously targeted the organisation).
Let’s not forget that the United States has been spying on its allies for years, while Germany had occasionally done the same to France, the European Commission and the US. Even if the alleged spying activities were proven right, this would just confirm the status of China as a regular on the global stage.
Africa not a helpless victim
It would also be wrong to misinterpret Africa’s warm embrace of China as the result of the whim of a handful of dictators or active rejection of traditional donors. The renewal of the Chinese presence in Africa coincided with Europe’s disinvestment from the continent.
Whereas the foreign policies of the European Union had been focusing on its former colonies since the 1950s, Africa lost its strategic importance after the end of the Cold War, as Europe became ever more focused on integrating new member States that had little interest in the continent.
If total ODA to Africa rose steadily in the 1990s, funding for agriculture, which in the late 1980s received more than a quarter of total aid to Africa, fell to only 4 percent, while development aid for manufacturing and infrastructure dropped to historic lows.
All this take place while new generations of leaders emerged in Africa and economic development became a political priority in countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Ghana. At the turn of the 21st century, the continent experienced an economic revival and started aiming at achieving a structural transformation of their economies, and Chinese stepped up to fill the vacuum.
In countries like Ethiopia, China is building railways, opening factories and training personnel. Research on Africa reveals Chinese managers increasingly implement technical skills-training programs for their African workers, who often make up over 80 percent of the factory workforce.
Between 2004 and 2009, China-Africa trade grew at an annual rate of over 40 percent. We observe that since then, Chinese exports to Africa have grown steadily, reaching about $103 billion in 2015.
It is worth noting that all this is not the result of an “Africa obsession” from the part of China, as Beijing has similarly become the largest trading partner of several countries in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru) and across Central and Southeast Asia.
Finally, it is likely that China’s audacity to invest in Africa when it was still described as a “hopeless continent” played some part in the arrival of new actors, with Turkish, Indian and Saudi’s investments quickly rising on the continent.
Because of their imaginary competition with China, Westerners, and Europe in particular, felt dispossessed of their historical backyard. Coverage like Le Monde is a further proof of Europe’s discomfort and difficulty to find its place in the new world dynamics.
No one is fooled that investments and better infrastructure alone will be enough to solve Africa’s old woes of bad governance, instability and corruption. But there is nothing intrinsically dangerous in China’s push toward Africa.
China is the ultimate pragmatic power, and Africans understand that it is neither a saviour nor a conqueror. It is time for Europe to come to the same conclusion.
The writer is a researcher based in Brussels, Belgium.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.