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The Coming Sino-African Revolution

In this edition of the “China in Africa” podcast, Johannesburg-based blogger and academic Charlie Pistorius says the debate over whether  Chinese investment in Africa is either good or bad is entirely irrelevant.  Instead, one should evaluate the substantive outcome of China’s policies which will invariably produce a far more nuanced perspective.   In a pair of noteworthy essays published on his blog, Pistorius walks us through the difficulties that come with framing the China in Africa debate in terms of “good” and “bad.” In part one of his series “Are We Seeing a Sino-African Revolution,” Pistorius explores the issue of whether China’s “brigade model” of development may be a better fit for African populations that are more communally oriented than in the West.  This is a critical issue in the context of comparative development models for many African societies.  Specifically, through their own agricultural, industrial and economic development experience over the past thirty years of the Chinese reform period, Beijing’s expertise in these areas may  be significantly more relevant for Africa than those “solutions” proposed by the likes of the IMF, World Bank and USAID among others.

In part two of the series, Pistorius highlights the double standard that confronts China and its policies in Africa.  Specifically, the perception that the Chinese are somehow more aggressive than Western countries with their resource extraction agenda.  One area in particular Pistorius examines is oil: “It is true that China has up to date mostly imported minerals and oil from Africa – oil making up 62% of its total imports from Africa in 2008. Although to put that in context, US oil imports from Africa came to 88% in the same year, with minerals making up most of the difference. The bigger picture here shows that while China only took between 9-13% of Africa’s oil exports – to my bewilderment – the US and Europe each received 33% respectively.”

It’s not whether China’s role in Africa is good, it’s what Africans can do to enhance their own position in this bargaining game. [Are the Chinese] Colonialists? No.  They are mercantilists.  I think Africans are getting a lot more power in negotiating [with the Chinese] and overall there seems to be a benefit. – Charlie Pistorius,

In the second half the podcast, we focus specifically on South Africa and how the country’s distinctive history offers both unique challenges and opportunities for the growing number of Chinese immigrants there.  Many of the Chinese immigration trends that are developing in the rest of Africa appear to be distinct from what is happening in South Africa, argues Pistorius.   In contrast to countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where large populations of low-income Chinese migrants are settling, South Africa’s Chinese community is significantly more gentrified.  As such, assimilation to the larger society, according to Pistorius, occurs in proportion to economic necessity.  Therefore, the country’s well-established Chinese entrepreneurial class is reportedly less integrated to the broader society than lower-income migrants who must learn to speak local dialects and interact with the community out of pure economic imperative.  If this is in fact true, then South Africa may be a precursor to the evolution of Chinese communities in other African countries as the Chinese immigrant populations there gentrify in the coming years.

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