China Comes Calling

Man stands outside a Chinese-built clinic in Freetown, Siera Leone.

Source: © 2007 D. Brautigam

Mines in Zambia. Tanneries in Ethiopia. Construction projects in South Africa. This decade, the world’s fastest-growing economy has made a controversial mark on the world’s least-developed continent. Currently Africa’s largest trading partner and an increasingly significant donor, China has quickly established a major presence across the continent. But misunderstanding abounds about why, exactly, the dragon has set its sights on Africa.

According to Deborah Brautigam, senior research fellow at IFPRI and professor at American University’s School of International Service, the answer is more complex than portrayed in most Western media reports—many of which speak of China’s merciless drive for resources. Her book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa works to dispel misconceptions that the country’s motives in Africa are strictly short-term and crassly economic.

“I wanted to challenge the conventional wisdom on this issue,” says Brautigam, who has studied China’s presence in Africa since 1983. “And I was curious myself to find out what was going on with this growing relationship between China and Africa—and analyze what was truth and what was fiction in what I was reading.”

Based on interviews in Beijing and extensive field work in Africa, The Dragon’s Gift argues that there are diverse reasons why Chinese nongovernmental organizations, volunteers, and private and state-owned companies have flocked to Africa.

“There are those who really want to work for development; they are excited about doing something to help Africa. And there are those who are trying to make money and looking for opportunities,” Brautigam says.

She argues that the presence of China—one of the world’s most populous countries—in Africa is just one aspect of its increasing role as a global actor.

“For the first time, China is becoming a donor to multilateral organizations, instead of just being a recipient. They’re in transition. In terms of business going out, investors going out, immigrants going out—all of this is accelerating.”

Most recently, Brautigam used interviews, focus groups, and field visits to survey China’s agricultural engagement in Ethiopia and Tanzania. She found that Tanzania’s risky agricultural investment climate makes the country less attractive to Chinese investors than Ethiopia, where China sponsors several agricultural aid programs. At least one Chinese firm is currently scoping out large-scale investment opportunities in the sector.

“China is a moving target,” she said. “Not just economic growth, but institutional changes, value changes, new understandings of things—it’s changing all the time.”

– Susan Buzzelli and Ashley St. Thomas

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