China’s embrace of Africa has produced some stunning statistics. The numbers look great pretty much across the board.From trade volumes to foreign investment to the growing popularity of Chinese ministerial junkets, the data all looks great. No, in fact, it’s fantastic. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. While money, goods and services are flowing back and forth at unprecedented levels, a deeper question persists: how well do these two people actually know each other? For some folks, it may seem rather trivial. After all, if the checks cash, who cares, right?
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that money alone will determine China’s long-term success in Africa. In fact, what they’ve accomplished over the past 5 years is really just the easy part. Throwing piles of cash around the continent is a sure way to buy companionship, but friendship and trust, especially in Africa, require more than just money.
Already, there have been hints of what’s to come if Beijing underestimates the importance of developing an effective soft-power agenda in Africa. Anti-Chinese policies enacted in Namibia earlier this year and rising hostility to Chinese labor migrants in Angola are now but two points on a graph, but could quickly transform into a trend if left unattended. Instead, it will be critical for the Beijing to help facilitate Africans and Chinese at EVERY LEVEL of society to get to know one another.
A model of what that kind of engagement looks like can be found in Cape Town, South Africa in the offices Fahamu. This non-profit pan-African activist and publishing organization recently led a small group of African journalists on a trip to Beijing to learn more about China and the Chinese. Fahamu’s Emerging Powers Program Research Director, Sanusha Naidu, led the team on their visit to China where they met with students, intellectuals and other journalists among others. Naidu said although the delegation was overwhelmed with China’s development and how much the country had achieved in such a short time, not all were convinced that China and Africa’s long term interests are aligned. “There was a cautious optimism,” she said.
China still has time to ease those apprehensions, but it must get to work right away.