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What a borderless Africa could mean for China

By Innocent Mutanga.

With the rise of nativistic sentiments in the west and rising resistance to globalisation, African states – on the other hand – are embracing what globalization has to offer. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist dream seem to be slowly materialising. The current efforts by the African Union (AU) to establish a borderless Africa for Africans and the launching of an AU e-passport to allow Africans to visit African countries visa-free are important milestones. This move has been received with mixed feelings among Africans, but what would this move mean for the celebrated Africa-China relations? In this article, I explore some of the things I believe this ‘borderless Africa’ move would mean for China and the Chinese people living in Africa.

What is the AU? The African Union has 54 member states, and it was established in 2002, in Durban, South Africa preceding the Organization of African Unity (OAU) which was established in 1963, in Addis Ababa, with 33 member states. The OAU’s aims were mainly to promote unity and solidarity among African states as well as to rid the continent of colonisation and apartheid. As expected, the realities and challenges that Africans faced had changed, and a need for a new Union which was more relevant, was called upon. That’s how the AU was established at the Durban summit. The vision of the AU, according to its official website, is to establish “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.” Among the many advocates of a more integrated Africa were Colonel Gaddafi and President Mugabe. Both have argued for a United States of Africa and one African currency. Certainly not the most popular leaders – their power hunger led their countries to rags, and their violation of human rights can’t be matched. China has been fully involved in the OAU’s development – to such an extent that China is the donor behind the construction of the entire new US$200 million AU headquarters in Ethiopia. The buildings even look like Chinese government buildings.

african union

The African Union headquarters. Photo: Wikicommons.

How are Africa-China relations? As the legend of Zheng He’s expeditions goes, he was armed with massive ships on the quest to find more people to pay allegiance to his emperor. Zheng He was the first Chinese on an imperial visit to step foot on the shores of East Africa, 50 years before the Portuguese Vasco Da Gama reached the same shores with his tiny ships. After the death of Zheng He, China adopted the look-in policy, which isolated it from the rest of the world until the Opium War. In the 1960s, China established its relations with Africa and helped to train African armies to fight against European imperialism. China offered this help not out of selflessness, but because at this point Beijing was competing for international legitimacy over Taiwan. China wanted to secure votes from African states. These relations were both ideological and political in nature, but then it was not until the early 2000s that China began to engage in more economic relations with Africa.

zheng he

Chinese woodblock print illustrating Zheng He expeditions. Photo: Wikicommons.

China’s relations with Africa have often been narrated by the Chinese and Africans through the legend of Zheng He: a man who did not oppress Africans, but had respect for other fellow human beings, unlike the west, which brutalised and robbed Africans. In the dawn of the 21st century, African countries had had enough of the West’s ‘hypocrisy’, and their move is best captured in the AU’s former leader’s words: “We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets.” Its relations have been quite successful mainly due to the China’s no-strings-attached policy. Unlike the western countries, who would not provide aid and assistance without asking the country to either democratise or stop human rights violations, China does not care about all this. Currently, an estimated 1 to 3 million Chinese are living in Africa.

The relations between Chinese engagements in Africa are mainly at three levels: state, state enterprises and Chinese citizens engaging in business, not to forget the ordinary Chinese Joes. One of my favourites is the increasing number of “Shanghai beauties” – rural Chinese prostitutes who would follow to serve their Chinese men and sometimes compete in the local market. I will discuss below on how this borderless move might affect these different groups of Chinese people in Africa. China has been investing a lot into Africa, as many sources confirm, but just to put the figures into context: China’s investments in Hong Kong only are much more than its investments in the 54 countries in Africa plus many other countries in East Europe combined.

What is the borderless Africa move? It means visa-free or visa-upon-arrival for Africans. This idea has been brought to the table several times, but it was not until recently that it has been taken seriously. A few African countries already opened their borders to all citizens of the AU member states. Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, Rwanda and Ghana just joined the borderless train project. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame and Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta have been openly supportive of the eradication of borders to encourage intra-African relations. Some scholars have argued this would be a terrific thing, pointing at how the GDP of the countries that open their borders have dramatically increased, mainly because of an increase in tourism. Some folks have not been so open to the idea, citing issues of terrorism and how it will be difficult to track down criminal activities. Of which Paul Kagame responded, “terrorists will always come into your country, but the terrorists do not come to your embassy to get visas to fly into your country.” Some economists have argued that a more integrated African economy would be good for the continent. They projected a GDP of around 30 trillion dollars within 36 years. To put that into context; that is about the GDP of the European Union and the United States of America combined today. An e-passport to facilitate the free movements of people and goods would be launched this July at the AU summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The passport will first be distributed to diplomats, then to everybody as it is part of the AU 2063 agenda.

Uhuru Kenyatta

Uhuru Kenyatta. Photo: Uhuru Kenyatta via Flickr.

What could be the effects of the borderless Africa on Africa-China relations? China built the AU headquarters as a gift, this shows the support that China has for an integrated Africa. Unlike the Europeans who came with the ‘divide and rule’ policy, I believe China has done it the other way; ‘integrate and rule’. Many scholars have argued that the Chinese engagements in Africa could be characterised as imperialistic in nature. They cite things like the Chinese building a railway line that would link several African countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to facilitate the movement of goods and people easily. This building of railways was the same method used by the British before. The Chinese have established a military base in Djibouti. These all reflect how this integrated Africa could be the stepping stone for China to go global. The Chinese state believes in no-strings attached relations, they would not care that much about terrorism or any criminal activities that this borderless policy might bring about. Thus unlike many investors who are not comfortable investing in an unstable region, China will stay despite any turmoil. Why would China stay? Because China needs Africa more than Africa needs China. China has never changed its behaviour towards Africa. It used the Africans to get international recognition in competition with Taiwan. Today, it’s the same goal. China wants to go global and this is it: the opportunity it has been waiting for.

President Xi Jinping last year went from one African country to another before he attended the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) (中非合作論壇) summit in Johannesburg. This jumping from one country to another establishing deals would not be necessary anymore, as with a more integrated Africa, deals would be made with the AU and that would apply to all member states. Deals would be made faster, and a more integrated Africa would mean countries would specialise in certain industries, and this would bring growth in Africa which would then be attributed to China’s ‘benevolence’, thus increasing China’s soft power.

xi jinping

Xi Jinping. Photo: Michel Temer via Flickr.

How about the Chinese state enterprises and other Chinese entrepreneurs in Africa? These have been known for their lack of transparency in conducting business. A more integrated Africa, as they say, would be more keen on tackling issues of corruption and lack of accountability. If this is the case, there would be an increase in transparency. In addition, we would most probably see less and less migration of Africans to Europe, and more and more internal migration to greener pastures like South Africa. This would probably increase the supply of labour for the Chinese companies, and would lead to lower wage payments.

On the other hand, it has been more difficult for African entrepreneurs to go across African borders than it has been for Chinese entrepreneurs. Thus if Africans can move freely that would mean there will be more competition for the Chinese businesses, which might lead to the Chinese raising their working conditions, which have been known to be so poor. Also, the Chinese have been known for producing horrible goods (zhing zhong, as we call them in Zimbabwe). Upon asking a Hong Kong friend, the word ironically means “deluxe.” More competition from African businesses might make them make better quality goods. However, the bad news is the Chinese Joe, who also have been known to go to Africa to get a job to push wheelbarrows. The migrants from other parts of Africa would compete with these Chinese Joes for the same job. As for the ‘Shanghai beauties’, who have been increasingly making it in the local market, this would be a big chance to exploit the Africans’ ‘orientalised’ imaginations of Chinese women, using Edward Said’s words if you will.

In the end, a more integrated Africa is a big win for China and a small win for African States, but still win-win. The Chinese will win more, get to go global, and more soft power means a better perception of China. More opportunities for Chinese entrepreneurs would rise, along with the easy transportation of goods within Africa and to ports. These goods will then be transported to China. As many Chinese businessmen in Africa like to say, “if you want to get rich, first build roads.” These are the roads and bridges that China is facilitating in Africa, and it will be China that will benefit more.

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What a borderless Africa could mean for China