The Implication of Neo-Colonialism In Africa

The stark warning from the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the creeping “new colonialism” in Africa during her three-nation tour of the continent in June has reignited a fresh round of ideological tussle between the West and the East, with China replacing Russia in the boxing ring. Clinton’s pointed remarks on how foreign governments are only interested in extracting natural resources to enrich themselves draw parallels with the old colonial times, when “it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave” (Clinton, Associated Press, June 11, 2011). This appears to be the general perception in the West that China practices neocolonialism in Africa at the expense of genuine development for the good of the local people, that China allows corruption to grease the elites and protect authoritarian regimes. Rarely acknowledged is the fact that the US is also supportive of non-democratic countries in Africa, such as Gabon, Angola and Chad, in exchange for their oil resources. How neo-colonialism differs from the old school in substance and form is not the interest of this discussion. Rather, the author would like to start a discourse on a new form of ideological struggle, the Washington Consensus (WC) versus the Beijing Consensus (BC). By contrasting these two development approaches, the author wants to refute Hillary Clinton’s claim that China’s investment in Africa is preventing genuine progress in the recipient countries.

The WC was coined in the late 1980s after the end of the Cold War. Questions were asked on how to promote development in post-crisis developing states. Many international political economists, such as John Williamson from the Institute for International Economics and Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winner from Columbia University, advocate that real economic development in under-developed states cannot simply rely on international aids from the IMF or the World Bank. Instead, structural reforms have to be implemented as pre-conditions for aids. The package includes democratization, trade liberalization, privatization and deregulation. Consequently, the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000 states that countries will only receive trade preferences if they follow the WC stipulations on reforms. Not surprisingly, not many African countries benefit from the AGOA (UNCTAD 2003:1-2). For the selected few that benefited from AGOA, about 80% of the financial aids that they received were tied to buying US goods and services (IPS2004; OECD 2005). As the president of Zambia frankly put it, “the developing world continues to subsidize consumption of the developed world, through an iniquitous trade system. The existing structure is designed to consign us to perpetual poverty and underdevelopment” (Chiluba 2000).

In contrast, China is engaging Africa with just one condition attached – upholding the one-China policy. Under the Chinese model, known as the Beijing Consensus, China’s investments in Africa require no structural reforms and without any interference in the recipient country’s internal policies. In exchange for oil and other natural resources, China provides finance for infrastructural projects, builds schools and hospitals in countries like Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Trade flows between China and African states follow the principle of comparative advantage and the predictions under the Heckscher-Ohlin theory of factor specialization, with China exporting capital and labour-intensive manufacturing goods, while Africa exports raw materials. Many analysts, therefore, believe that the trade and investment from China have eased Africa’s dependence on the West and are mutually beneficial (Itano 2005; Li Yong 2003; China-Africa Business Council 2006).

Sierra Leone’s ambassador to China said in 2005, “The Chinese are investing in Africa and are seeing results, while the G-8 countries ….. don’t see very much.” Secretary of State Clinton’s remark on neo-colonialism cannot reflect the truth because colonialism in any shape of form is not welcomed, but China’s investment is actually greeted with open arms by African countries. Suffice to say, both the US and China’s investments and aids in Africa come with political agenda, however, the Chinese non-interference model provides an alternative to the US style of force-restructuring. In doing so, the Chinese model is less disruptive to the local culture while at the same time provide immediate reliefs to the desperate states. The difference between WC and BC is not merely about neo-liberalism against social-capitalism, it is about hard power versus soft power, and it manifests the reluctance of developing countries’ leaders to accept homogeneous universalism that will inevitably lead to hegemonism.

6 thoughts on “The Implication of Neo-Colonialism In Africa

  1. Does China have a choice? The African countries favor the “BC" approach more – but Beijing simply does not have the ability to demonstrate “hard power" as how Washington has been doing. As a relatively weaker competitor, China is forced to offer more favorable terms to African countries.

    On the other hand, even though soft (or smart) power appears to be a more attractive approach. I doubt whether this would be really effective. Eventually if there’s going to be a war between US & China and the African states have to choose a side, they may not choose to be the aides of China simply because of her “softer" hand in the past.

    • The objective here is not about winning a war, but securing resources through investment, therefore, hard power is not relevant. China has acheived its objective by investing without interfering, 1-0 to China

      Hillary Clinton cried foul, equating Beijing Consensus with neo-colonialism. To me, that’s a soar grape because the US could have achieved similar success if she abandon its arrogant stance on Washington Consensus, and this is the whole point about the article ….. there are always alternatives. This is an US own goal, 2-0 to China.

      I don’t think there will be a war between China and the US, not in the foreseeable future anyway. First of all, China is still focusing on “peaceful development". Secondly, even in the most turbulent days in the 50s to 80s, the US and the USSR never had a direct war against each other, only proxy wars like the Vietnam War. Therefore, I will not speculate on which side the African states will support. However, whenever there are issues concerning China in the United Nations, Africa always back China. 3-0 to China!

  2. As a matter of fact, I tend to agree with you that China could take advantage of its alternative approach when dealing with African states. But I believe China’s path of “peaceful rise" is simply constructed under the natural comparative disadvantage in terms of hard power as compared to the US.

    The US has been in a favorable position in terms of hard power in Africa with her military bases all around the region. And basically the US would tend to take the “hard" approach, or to apply the “homogeneous universalism", as this has been working quite well all along. China, on the other hand, without the natural advantage in the region, has no choice but to take this softer approach to build up her reputation as an alternative. It’s a smart way out – and actually the only way out.

    Taking the scene back to South Asia, China is naturally more equipped with her “hard power", and we all can witness the very different approach taken by China. China tends to take a “harder" line to deal with the disputes as she “believes" China is already powerful enough, in terms of “hard power", around this region. Perhaps, if a smarter approach could be applied here in South Asia, her relations with the neighbours could be much better.

    And it’s quite similar for the approach taken by the Communist against Taiwan in recent decades. They’ve tried to use the threatening hard power first, and started using softer approach when they realized their hard lines didn’t work.

    I’m not trying to do an academic proof on this – but apparently governments tend to take the hard approach first, and softer lines only when the hard lines don’t work. And that’s how the US is trying to adopt “smart power" now.

  3. China will certainly run into trouble in Africa because of this policy of “non-interference." The policy forces China to support whoever is in power – a dictator or otherwise. As many countries in Africa have dictators for leaders, the approach will continue to force China to use underhand methods to keep such dictators in power as is the case in Libya and the Sudan. In deed, the Sudan is already presenting a challenge. Will China support the North or the South? Will it be successful in operating on “both sides of the street" as it plans? Whatever is the out, successful revolutionaries will not be sincere friends of the Chinese. In other words, the Chinese policy carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. And the destruction will be soon!

  4. Point taken about the relationship is built upon realism, but to be fair, isn’t that what the US is also practising? You cited some very valid examples, such as Sudan and Libya, but isn’t US also faces similar dilemma in Bahrain and Saudi? Unfortunately, this is the reality of politics, Saddam Hussein and Bin Laden were America’s friends at one stage, yet we all know how they ended up. May be you can argue that their fate is sealed when they turned their back against democracy, but is it really the case? The current affairs in the Middle East and North Africa are telling us that you don’t need to be democratic as long as you subscribe to the US values, hence coming back to the Washington Consenses. Therefore, the reason why Saddem and Bin Laden failed is because they turned their back against the United States of America. What I am trying to say, without concluding whether is it right or wrong, is that there are always alternatives. The Beijing Consensus is just one alternative, indeed, in the G20 meeting in November last year, already they are talking about Seoul Development Consensus, which is a mellowed-down approach from the Washington Consensus. Also, politicians are also aware that neo-liberalism is not the solution to many social issues, therefore, in the last decade, we are seeing the Third Way of social-liberalism. We should not jump to the conclusion that there exists a universial value, or the End of History (Fukuyama), instead, we should embrace different thinkings and try to recognise a grey area, where there is no black or white, or “either you are with us or with them" (George W. Bush).

  5. Ricky, I agree with you entirely that there are things that don’t have right or wrong, but there does exist universal values. We all agree that some things are morally wrong or morally right. To kill is morally wrong. To support a dictator against innocent citizens or to support a corrupt administration that leaves the majority of the citizenry poor, starving and oppressed is morally wrong. As you know, there are many people – Africans included – who believe that Africa, like China itself, needs benevolent dictators to succeed economically. Consensus building as advocated by the US, which is the essence of its “democracy", is a luxury of a developed, rich country. But “naked" dictatorship is something else. And unfortunately “naked" dictatorship is what China appears to be supporting in Africa. We in Africa, of course, should develop our own political and economic ideals, our own models of development. But we cannot do that in a situation such as obtains in Sudan or Libya.


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