There is very little difference between China’s involvement in Africa and that of the West, yet China is unfairly criticized for its role on the continent, says South African academic Ross Anthony.
China’s involvement in Africa is normal, Anthony says, according to a report in ChinaNewsService.
Anthony, 36, spoke at Stellenbosch University in South Africa’s Western Cape province, where he is a research fellow at the Center for Chinese Studies, the only such dedicated center in sub-Saharan Africa.
As an area of study, the China-Africa relationship has grown almost exponentially over the last decade, he said.
“In 2000, there were probably a few lone people studying the relationship but now there are institutions devoted to it, magazines and all various kinds of media set up based around it,” he said.
Anthony became interested in China by chance after earning his first degree in art history at the University of Natal. While hiking in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan, he crossed the border into Xinjiang. “I had no real interest in China but this just blew me away,” he said.
A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation scholarship enabled him to study social anthropology at Cambridge for a PhD.
He said it’s “hilarious” that the actions of Chinese corporations and businesses are conflated into some grand government strategy.
“If BP does something dodgy in Nigeria, nobody says that is 10 Downing Street’s fault and David Cameron organized it all. But they do that with China,” he said. “It is actually a form of racism. People actually want an enemy and China fits the bill.”
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China has “a ridiculously bad rap in terms of its presence in Africa,” he said, and he blames Western news media for their coverage, “especially the left-leaning newspapers.”
In reality, Africa markets might be more open to China because it doesn’t have the colonial baggage some Western countries have. China has its share of history with Africa dating way back.
“They came in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and they didn’t do anything,” he said. “They left and took just a few giraffes. They didn’t colonize, although they did take African slaves to Guangzhou.”
Anthony insists China is not neo-colonialist in Africa but says there is an inevitable imbalance in the relationship.
“You almost have to take more than give, otherwise it is not a sustainable relationship,” he said. “The Chinese, have done some brilliant things here, however. You have only got to go to Angola to see the transformation that has taken place by the construction of infrastructure.”
Western anxieties about China in Africa are misguided, Anthony said. “China is sometimes presented as some enemy but actually it is a country very much integrated into the global economic system. Any differentiation between China’s engagement in Africa and that of the West is a false one.”
With a specialty in urbanization, Anthony is particularly tuned in to differences between Chinese and African views of city living.
“If there is a vision of contemporary China, what you might call a collective fantasy, it is urban,” he said. “It is unlike Africa. We are constantly moving from the countryside to the city and back.”
The Chinese are beginning to export some of their urban planning ideas to Africa in areas such as the Chinese Eastern Industrial Zone near Addis Ababa, where a number of Chinese companies are based.
“As soon as you enter these zones it is like entering a slice of modern China from the way the flower beds are organized and all these slogans put up on the walls.”
Anthony does not think these Chinese zones will prove successful in the long run.
“When I first visited one, I thought they might be a possible future model for African development but they are no longer flourishing. There are a lot of issues and they are not taking off. There are five or six across Africa now and by the time I die I doubt whether there will be 50 or 100.”