African Commentators Sour on China

China’s Communist Party has spent years promoting the value its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project could have for Africa. As the Trump administration ramps up its campaign to turn Africa away from China, some columnists throughout the continent appear to be listening.

Columnists featured in newspapers in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and other countries have complained in the last month of China’s patronizing attitude towards their nations, repeatedly depicting the continent in media as incorrigibly barbarian within the civilizing influence of Chinese communism. They have warned that dictator Xi Jinping may serve as an inspiration to would-be autocrats in Africa who may see a blueprint for success in Xi’s move to do away with term limits on the Chinese presidency. And they suggest that China is stealing away many of the continent’s resources, sorely needed by Africans who rank among the world’s poorest.

In a column published Wednesday, Hong Kong professor Roberto Castillo writes in Kenya’s the Star that the Chinese state has long harbored patronizing racial sentiments towards the continent, one particularly gross display last month in a government-produced Lunar New Year skit featuring a performer in blackface.

“Beyond the ‘blackface’, the skit’s story is rather simple but still problematic. Carrie, an 18-year-old Kenyan stewardess trainee, asks her Chinese teacher to pass as her boyfriend to avoid a blind date organised by her mother. Carrie doesn’t want to get married yet. She wants to work and then go to China to study,” Castillo explains. Such stories “reproduce a narrative that is representative of China’s general approach to Africa.”

“Both official and popular Chinese narratives about Africa consistently try to construct an image of the continent as China’s ‘damsel in distress,’” he continues. “China is portrayed as the (modern) male hero and Africa the princess in jeopardy.”

“But stereotypical views about Africa aren’t only evident in China’s media—they pervade everyday life in China, a fact that African students who have lived in China can attest to,” he adds.

Another Hong Kong professor, Dani Madrid-Morales, writes in New Zimbabwe that the Lunar New Year skit’s attitude towards Africans is often more the exception than the rule, citing the Chinese government-produced film Wolf Warrior 2, which tells the story of how a Chinese mercenary saved an unnamed African country from civil war. The film, Madrid-Morales argued, “managed to bring together in a single movie all the clichés of Hollywood’s white-saviour subgenre.”

“If China wants to be viewed as a responsible global actor, it needs to find appropriate ways to prevent controversies such as the one created by the offensive CCTV skit,” the author argues. “It could, for example, seek out African specialists at Chinese universities to offer expert advise.”

This week, African writers expressed particular concern with Xi Jinping’s plan to do away with presidential term limits, just as he begins his second (and, currently, final) term. In a column in Zambia’s Lusaka Times, author Charles Mwewa warns that China adopting a transparent one-man rule may embolden African leaders seeking to do the same.

Once the repeal passes, Mwewa writes, “Xi will be the undisputed one-man ruler of China—controlling everything from economic forays to thought and reason. Thought and reason are the last to fall. When they do as the case in China now, freedom can permanently wave bye-bye!” With a diminished American presence to counter China’s example, he writes, “Africa will, again and sadly, be the culprit.” He cites Uganda as an example:

Uganda’s ruling party is pushing for a referendum that could extent President Yoweri Museveni’s rule to 2035. This is in spite of the fact that the opposition parties have objected. And for a good reason—because this will be a declaration of life presidency for the incumbent who has been president since 1986. Uganda’s ruling party will then justify its course of action by citing Xi and the Chinese model.

Wachira Maina makes a similar argument in Kenya’s the Daily Nation. “China’s entry into Africa—with its value-neutral ‘natural resources diplomacy’—has outflanked the West and forced a donor retreat from democracy. Democracy is now a domestic good not an international one,” he writes. Arguing that China has successfully co-opted African markets as the continent’s largest trading partner, he writes that the West “bargains from a weak position,” unable to competently diminish China’s influence.

China’s influence in security matters concerns Maina in particular. “According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank, by last year, China had contributed more than 2,500 troops, police and military experts to six U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa,” he writes. “In Africa, anyone who invests in security and counter-terrorism invariably makes the State stronger. And anyone that makes a partially-legitimate State strong eventually undermines democracy.”

China’s direct meddling in internal affairs has rankled writers in South Africa, as well. Last month, columnist Tebogo Khaas condemned former President Jacob Zuma for turning South Africa into “China’s lapdog.”

“China twice succeeded in demanding Zuma’s administration deny Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama entry into South Africa. This was a clear message that South Africa had subordinated its foreign policy agenda to the whims of its new best friends, Russia and China,” Khaas wrote. “In the process, South Africa paid incalculable economic and political costs as Russia and China turned a blind eye to apparent state-sanctioned bilateral trade-based malfeasance.”

In Sierra Leone, China has moved up from selling security expertise to actively promoting the ruling party, according to an opinion piece in the nation’s Telegraph.

“Disturbing images of Chinese citizens, openly campaigning alongside leaders and supporters of the ruling APC [All People’s Congress], have raised questions about the legality of some of the electioneering practices being adopted by the APC party in advance of polling taking place on March 7,” the newspaper notes. “The Chinese government have been accused of bankrolling the APC election campaign, after the recent decision of the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to suspend over $240 million loan agreement it had signed with the Koroma government.”

“If the ruling APC claims victory after the presidential election in March, the Chinese intrusion into Sierra Leonean politics can legally warrant a nullification of the election results,” commentator Sankara Kamara argues.

President Ernest Koroma and his party have ruled Sierra Leone for over a decade and appear to have no intention of allowing such a thing, however. While the opposition faced steep hurdles in getting the incumbents voted out of office without Chinese meddling, such accusations call into question just how much of the nation’s policy is being determined in Beijing.

China’s economic control of African nations has also triggered outrage. Tanzanian writer Nkwazi Mhango made an economic argument in the nation’s the Citizen last month for dissolving ties with China, suggesting that African leaders were signing trade deals to buy Chinese products they did not need, leaving Africans hungry and out of work. Mhango particularly objected to a story detailing how Kenya buys fish from China.

“When I read that story I was flabbergasted and shocked as to how the country of Lake Nyanza could do this,” he writes. “After failing to invest in and improving fishing in the Indian Ocean and Lake Nyanza, Kenya is now importing fish from China. While this is ongoing, many Africans are dying of either malnutrition or hunger not to mention poisoning from imported foods like fish, simply because they are unable to produce sufficient food for themselves.”

These columns address the concerns that the Trump administration will vocally raise this week on the continent, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits the continent. State Department officials have warned repeatedly that China’s economic investment in Africa is “predatory” in nature and could hinder continental development and regional sovereignty. At least some in Africa’s media appear to be listening.

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