China in Africa myths and realities

In recent years, journalists and pundits in the West have looked on China’s economic engagement with Africa, including foreign aid, with growing alarm. An NYT op-ed a few years ago called China a “rogue donor,“ giving aid that is “nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice, and its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting ordinary citizens.” Other negative stories about China in Africa include China abetting genocide in Darfur by supplying arms in exchange for Sudanese oil; propping up corrupt government in Zimbabwe; swooping in to undo the anti-corruption work of the IMF or the World Bank in Angola or Nigeria with offers of no-strings-attached loans; and generally ignoring environmental, safety and labor standards on projects in Africa.

So the idea that China’s aid to Africa could be in any possible way better, more credible, or more effective than Western aid to Africa may be a hard sell. But Deborah Brautigam, author of the new book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, argues that focusing only on the China threat makes us blind to the real opportunities Chinese engagement offers for African development.

Part of the problem, says Brautigam, is that there is very little information about what China is really doing in Africa, and in this vacuum, “myths sprang up and were rapidly accepted as facts.” Brautigam fills this void and dispels, or at least complicates, some commonly held beliefs about China in Africa.

In other areas she finds evidence to back up criticism of China’s Africa policies, but argues that we should not see China’s stance towards Africa as static; it is evolving and can sometimes be influenced by international pressure. Throughout, some of Brautigam's best insights come from asking "compared to what?":  The book seeks to compare Chinese aid to Western aid as it really is, not as we wish it were.

A few examples of China myths and partial truths:

1) China targets aid to African states with abundant natural resources and bad governments

Actually, China gives money to almost every single country in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding only those that don’t acknowledge the One China policy. There is little evidence that China gives more aid to countries with more natural resources or specifically targets countries with worse governance. China is not alone in its interest in natural resources in Africa, and natural resources are not the primary motivating factor for Chinese aid: like all donors, US definitely included, China is motivated to give aid by a mix of political, commercial, and social/ideological factors.

2) The Chinese don’t hire Africans to work on their projects

This depends on how long a company has been working in Africa, and how easy it is to find appropriate local labor. Ultimately, it also depends on African governments themselves, who have the power to dictate what proportion of project staff must be local (as Angola and the DRC have done). Brautigam also points to the stark contrast in standard of living between Chinese workers and managers in Africa, who tend to live in extremely simple conditions, and Western advisors, who more typically live in expensive housing or hotels. While Western experts may be fewer, they cost their projects a lot more.

3) China outbids other companies by flouting social and environmental standards

This one’s true but evolving…Brautigam portrays China as “on a steep learning curve,” struggling with environmental and corporate social responsibility issues at home and abroad. She gives some evidence that China and Chinese companies are becoming increasingly sensitive to international perception on these issues and may be inching towards international standards.


This Wednesday (February 10) NYU’s Development Research Institute and the Wagner School are co-hosting a lunchtime seminar and book launch event with Professor Brautigam. Click here for more information and to RSVP.

UPDATE: This event has been cancelled due to inclement weather and will be rescheduled. People who have already RSVP'd will receive an email when a new time is confirmed.