China’s growing global influence now reaches deep into Africa — at a time when Western powers are retreating from the continent.
The relationship is critical to China’s economic future as it sources much of its energy and resources from Africa.
To ensure its position and to ward off any criticism of being ‘a new coloniser’, China is pouring billions into African infrastructure and education.
At Renmin University, one of the best in China, this new approach is clearly in evidence.
Michael Dizha from Zimbabwe is a recipient of a Confucius scholarship that provides tuition, accommodation, food and other living expenses.
He is just one of 60,000 African students currently receiving such scholarships, and that will increase to almost 100,000 in three years.
Mr Dizha says his aim is to become a middleman when he returns home after his studies.
“I’m learning Chinese language and culture so I can make my countrymen fully understand what the Chinese are doing, as more and more Chinese are coming to Zimbabwe,” he said.
The scholarships are an important plank in China’s soft power push into Africa.
It is a way to bind Africa’s next generation of elites to China. Mr Dizha’s roommate Sadson Mkumira, also from Zimbabwe, says the African students will act as a bridge.
“We will be leaders and I hope to convince more investors to come to Zimbabwe but in favourable terms. I expect 50/50, a win for everybody,” he said.
China needs Africa’s raw materials to fuel its future growth, and to make sure it gets them, China is investing another $60 billion in roads, railways, ports, pipelines and communication networks.
Professor He Wenping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences says it is a win-win situation.
“China needs a new market to offload its overcapacity, Africa needs to be industrialised and developed. So, it’s a perfect combination,” he said.
China’s trade with Africa increases fortyfold
Since 2009, Africa has become China’s top trading partner. It is China’s second biggest source of crude oil — from countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan.
Namibia will provide uranium for China to become a world leader in nuclear power. Iron ore, copper, zinc and diamonds are also flowing out of the continent. China’s trade with Africa has increased fortyfold in the last 20 years.
Initially, much of the trade was one way and some labelled China as ‘the new colonialists’ and there were allegations of corruption, mistreatment and shoddy work.
Professor He says that view is driven by western powers and is now outdated.
It is not a curse, but a blessing. It improves African people’s living standard, and creates more business opportunities. It is not forced but based on mutual negotiation.
In the last decade, China has revamped its approach and there is more technology and skills transfer now.
Harriet Kariuki from Kenya, who is studying a doctorate at Peking University, sees China as the best option as its development model has lifted half-a-billion people out of poverty, but believes Africans still have to get more out of the relationship.
“Africans in general should use this as a chance to learn from mistakes of colonialism period and actually put their own policies that enforce collaboration and learn from Chinese,” she said.
China’s soft power approach in Africa, unlike other parts of the world, is having some success.
Recent poll results from the Pew Research Centre found 75 per cent of Africans have a favourable view about China’s influence.
By Matthew Carney