China in Africa: discovering the “China Model” through empirical evidence

Empirical research depicts a picture of Chinese involvement in Africa different from common perception

By Shou Huisheng

Africa is a continent where many Chinese ideas about investment and foreign aid are being piloted. As a result, China’s experience there is valuable for its involvement in other developing countries, particularly those along the Belt and Road. Since the early 2000s, “China in Africa” has been a major focus of international attention. The focus of the discussion is on the “China model” as reflected by the patterns of Chinese investment and aid. This blog tries to summarize that discussion, and outline how the international community, in particular Western countries view Chinese involvement in Africa. It is hoped that a better understanding of the discussion will help China improve its practices in other developing countries.

Common Misconceptions

Relying on empirical studies and statistics, many Western scholars have objectively evaluated China’s contribution to African development. They recognize that China’s infrastructure investments and foreign aid in African countries have fundamentally changed their developmental path. Many also acknowledge the uniqueness of China’s “unconditionality” approach. They believe that the “no strings attached” method does indeed give agency back to African countries trapped by Western conditional aid in the decades following World War II.

But such views tend to dwell only in academic circles. In government and public opinion, negative perceptions of Chinese aid and investment prevail and persist. In this regard, Rex Tillerson’s comments are quite representative. Before the former US Secretary of State visited Africa in March this year, he made a speech criticizing Chinese involvement in Africa. “Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries,” he told his audience. “When coupled with the political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic political stability.” Later that week, in Ethiopia, he reminded African countries to “carefully consider” the terms of Chinese investments and the “predatory” model behind them.

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Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed disapproval of Chinese involvement in Africa on Mar 6, 2018. Photo courtesy US Embassy in Senegal.

Some experts consider Tillerson’s views to be “singing the same tune” as Hillary Clinton, when she visited Africa in 2011 and 2012, even though things have changed much since then. But such views remain popular today. In sum, the “predatory model”, as understood through such a lens, means three things:

First, that China is promoting neo-colonialism in Africa. It supports proxy regimes, “divides and conquers” African countries, and bases investment and aid decisions on diplomatic and political considerations. Cheap Chinese loans make African countries dependent on China’s economic largess. Chinese investments mainly target primary resources and land, creating an unhealthy economic structure and unbalanced trade in recipient countries. Short-term prosperity may become a long-term trap.

Second, that Chinese investments actively seek corrupt and autocratic governments to work with. Unconditional Chinese aid in fact provides a free pass to these regimes. In other words, China’s autocratic government is actively looking for its own African proxies through aid and investment.

And last but not least, that the Chinese government and its corporations disregard local environmental, social and cultural concerns. They turn a blind eye to labor rights and the interest of minority social groups.

The real model in statistics

The negative perceptions are persistent, but they are not evidence-based. In contrast, some Western scholars have done long-term empirical studies of China’s presence in Africa. They have collected data on Chinese aid and investment, run fact-based analyses and come to conclusions different from popular perceptions. The AidData database developed at William & Mary College, and the China Africa Research Initiative led by Prof. Deborah Brautigam at Johns Hopkins University are two major sources of such analyses. Even though the data quality and methodology could be improved, these quantitative studies do complement the more anecdotal case studies and observations we often see.

Below are a few key observations from the empirical studies:

First of all, Western media has generally overstated the scale of Chinese investment and aid in Africa. People are made to believe that Chinese involvement in the continent is way larger than that of the West. A wide range of figures about the stunning scale of Chinese finances in Africa have been floating around, but many have been proven to be wrong. In addition, Western media often gives the impression that China’s Export Import Bank provides more loans to Africa than the World Bank does, despite the fact that the World Bank remains Africa’s largest development finance provider since 2010. These exaggerations do not just create anxiety in the West. They may also mislead African countries into believing that Chinese loans are easy to get.

The second observation from empirical data is related to resource grabbing. In fact, only 10% of Chinese loans to Africa goes into oil and minerals. And much of that is concentrated in just a few countries. The biggest loan in this area was offered to Sonangol, the state owned oil company of Angola. On the other hand, 56% of Chinese loans flow into transportation, electricity and telecom. In other words, China invests more in African infrastructure than natural resources.

The third notable fact is that roughly one third of Chinese loans require or allow African countries to repay in energy, minerals or agricultural products. China calls such arrangements “resource-backed loans”. These are often the target of “resource-grabbing” criticism in Western media. But in reality, even though the Chinese government and companies purchase large quantities of energy and mineral products, they seldom control the ownership of such resources. For instance, even if China imports 49% of Angolan oil, most of the country’s oil is controlled by American companies, with Chinese firms controlling less than 10%. The main purpose of having loans repaid in commodities is to hedge against financial risks, rather than controlling resources. This is a reasonable arrangement, given China’s own experience of attracting foreign investments with the same approach in the early years of its Reform and Opening. From as early as 1975, Deng Xiaoping encouraged commodity-backed investment deals with Japan, which allowed China to get access to much needed funding for development. China repaid much of those Japanese loans in commodities throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Data also shows that the destination countries of Chinese policy loans are no different from those of the World Bank, despite perceptions that they predominantly go to countries with rich resources and corrupt governments. Between 2000 and 2014, Ethiopia was the second largest recipient country of Chinese loans in the continent. The country isn’t particularly rich in natural resources, and China’s involvement there is mainly in building industrial parks, driven by the country’s large population and potential market size. Over the same period, Ethiopia was also the World Bank’s top borrower in Africa.

There also appears to be no strong correlation between an African country’s political ties with China and the likelihood of receiving Chinese aid and investments. Zimbabwe traditionally has a strong tie with China. However, it does not even make the top ten list of Chinese lending in Africa. Moreover, unlike ODA, China usually does not cancel a country’s loans. Chinese policy banks and commercial banks usually choose to extend a loan or lower the interest rate to deal with payment issues. Even Zimbabwe, widely seen in the West as China’s proxy regime in the region, complained about how difficult it was to get a cancellation of debts. Chinese bank officials have made it clear that they don’t waive debts against market principles.

Orange and Apple

And finally, the data tells us to differentiate numerous types of Chinese finances in Africa. In the West, people tend to group Chinese money all in one basket and consider it all directed by China’s diplomatic and political priorities. But Chinese ODA and commercial loans follow different logic. Statistics from AidData show a very weak correlation between Chinese ODA and a country’s natural resource endowment. It also has very little to do with political systems or governance capabilities. This is in line with the non-intervention principle that China upholds.

Western countries’ ODA tends to go into African countries with large populations. Chinese ODA is not, however, tied to population size. The one clear feature of Chinese aid is that it leans more towards low-income African countries. These characteristics indicate that Chinese foreign aid is more development-oriented than political or commercial-oriented.

Chinese commercial lending, however, is different. The same analysis from AidData shows that it has a much stronger propensity to go after natural resources, thanks to the Chinese market’s large appetite for African resources. They are also more likely to be associated with corrupt and autocratic regimes. Researchers at AidData offered two plausible explanations. First, some Chinese companies and government departments do regard corruption as a “lubricant” to commercial activities, and have brought certain problematic domestic practices to Africa. Another explanation is that Chinese commercial entities are less risk-averse than their Western counterparts, as commodity-backed arrangements and the likes effectively reduce risks in investing in such countries.

Both explanations have some validity. And the two factors could indeed work together. Considering that the economic growth of the continent in the past 20 years has been driven largely by energy and resource demands from China and other emerging markets, rather than the ODA or investments from Western countries, it is reasonable to state that Chinese commercial lending, with its distinct features, are better suited to the pragmatic needs of African countries. Being a “business partner” with corrupt governments is something ideologically repulsive to many Western actors. Convincing Western society that this could be overall beneficial to African development is a huge challenge for China. And for the moment, China should do its best to make its ODA and commercial investments more transparent in Africa.

To be clear, the main reason for the lack of statistics-based, quantitative research on Chinese aid and investment is the low transparency on the side of the Chinese government. Researchers have observed that existing statistics actually tell a quite positive story about China’s involvement in Africa and have suggested the Chinese government to be more upfront with collecting and releasing statistics. But apparently China still has lots to worry about when it comes to transparency (one of the biggest concerns is possibly domestic public opinion, strands of which see China’s involvement in Africa as “handing free gifts to other countries” while many regions of China are still relatively poor). Short-term improvement of the dataset is therefore unlikely. Nevertheless, the government should attach more importance to the matter and begin to invest more into setting a more quantitative and objective basis for assessing Chinese aid and investments overseas. The recent setting-up of China’s international aid agency (CIDCA) is a welcome move to facilitate the process.

Dr. Shou Huisheng is Senior Fellow at the Statecraft Institution, Research Fellow at the National Strategy Institute, Tsinghua University. Dr. Shou received his doctoral degree in political science from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The blog is based on a recent speech he made recently.

Author: TJMa

A blogger at large. My areas of interest include China's overseas footprint, environmental governance and online public opinion. Twitter: @TJMa_beijing

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