Author Hits

By Kevin Matthews, Senior Writer

Author Hits 'Reset' on Story of China in Africa

To write a sweeping new study of China's ramped-up engagement with African governments, "The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa," Deborah Brautigam of American University had to set aside most of what Chinese and Western media said on the subject.

Mugabe, to me, is like the Wizard of Oz: you look behind the curtain and there are no Chinese there.

"Probably the single most repeated error" about China's role in Africa, said American University Professor Deborah Brautigam, a longtime student of what has become a hot topic, is that it had doled out US$44 billion in total aid to the continent by 2007. Puzzled by the discrepancy with her own far lower estimates, Brautigam traced the widely-cited figure to a misquotation of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in a wire service article. Wen in fact had spoken of his country's own currency, the renminbi, and not dollars.

"They do have a lot of engagement, but it's more development finance," and the size of Chinese market-rate loans dwarfs the aid, said Brautigam. About 60 people attended her book talk on Jan. 25 in Bunche Hall; it was sponsored by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA, with cosponsors including the Asia Institute.

In "The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa" (Oxford, 2009), Brautigam surveys China's evolving relationships with African governments, a project based on visits to China, Mauritius, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone and, of course, a lot of secondary research. She noticed a dearth of empirical data in some overconfident discussions about the meaning of China's interest in Africa, which has indeed spiked in recent years.

"I wrote this book out of a sense of alarm and scholarly curiosity," she said.

As for the erroneous $44 billion aid figure, it fit nicely into a Western narrative in which China goes to Africa to secure natural resources, mainly oil, and does so without regard for labor and environmental conditions or the human rights records of countries. Brautigam, however, found much wider Chinese interests in Africa and no numerical correlation between aid that China gives to nearly every African country – in all, less than Germany's contribution – and the resources they possess.

She also poked holes in the image of China propping up dictatorial regimes. For example, she said, the country did not veto the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. In Zimbabwe, she said, President Robert Mugabe does not enjoy anything like the backing from China that he claims.

"Mugabe, to me, is like the Wizard of Oz…. You look behind the curtain and there are no Chinese there," she said.

China is certainly out for its own interests in Africa, contrary to its domestic media's claims of altruism. But Brautigam argued that China's way of doing business in Africa – which comes not only from long experience there but also from experience as a recipient of foreign aid – puts canny leaders in a position to reap long-term benefits for their countries.

For the full analysis, see Brautigam's book from Oxford University Press. For thoughts on the differences between Western and Chinese forms of engagement in Africa, see this Foreign Affairs article by the author.

Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010