China's relationship with Africa is way overblown

Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the 10th anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) on November 18, 2010 in Pretoria, South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — One morning in Beijing, almost a decade ago now, giraffes and elephants emerged from the Chinese capital’s smoggy haze.

Overnight, giant billboards had turned Soviet-style apartment blocks into African savannahs at sunset. One billboard showed a tribesman with a bone through his nose (that's Papua New Guinea, not Africa — oops), but the sentiment was there: “Welcome to Beijing summit,” the banners declared.

This was the first-ever Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) leaders’ summit, held in November 2006. The smog cleared to brilliant blue autumn skies — a miracle that accompanies major events in Beijing because the government orders its smoke-belching factories to shut — and roads were sealed off while VIP convoys of African leaders whizzed past the sunset giraffes: “Is Robert Mugabe in this limo?” your correspondent remembers grumbling while stuck waiting to cross the street.

Nine years later, the FOCAC summit meets again, beginning December 4, for two days. While ministerial meetings have been held every three years, rotating between Beijing and cities in Africa, this is the first time since 2006 that the Chinese president and leaders of nearly all African countries will gather. The rendezvous will be held in Johannesburg, although there are no party invitations for the four small African countries that recognize Taiwan — Swaziland, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and Sao Tome & Principe.

They will meet in the upscale Sandton area of Johannesburg, which could do with some cheery billboards: there is less savannah, more gridlock and shopping malls in this corner of Africa.

In 2006, little attention was paid to China’s role in Africa, and the extent of the first FOCAC summit — attended by the leaders of 48 countries — caught many by surprise.

These days, China-Africa relations can seem painfully overblown.

In the run-up to the summit in Johannesburg, there has been no shortage of attention, and preparation, including roundtables and briefings for journalists covering what will likely be a predictable and turgid event.

“The only drama is likely to be the media speculation about the size of the new loan package [Chinese President Xi Jinping] is expected to announce,” writes John Stremlau, a visiting professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, for The Conversation.

To give you a taste, here’s the slogan of this year’s FOCAC summit: “Africa-China progressing together: win-win cooperation for common development.”

That’s not to say there isn’t merit to paying close attention: An estimated 1-2 million Chinese people live in Africa — the exact figure is unknown.

In 2009, China became the African continent's largest trading partner. Since then China-Africa trade has continued to rise, and is expected to hit $300 billion this year, though it is a highly unequal trading relationship in China’s favor.

Last year, US-Africa trade was $73 billion compared to just over $200 billion for China.

FOCAC meetings guide China’s policy in Africa for the three years that follow — significant in terms of finding the broader trends in China-Africa relations. This year’s summit takes place against the backdrop of falling commodity prices and China’s slowing economic growth. Wildlife trade is another important issue expected to be discussed.

And then there’s the money: “China has consistently doubled its financing commitment to Africa during the past three FOCAC meetings,” notes Yun Sun from the Brookings Institution (PDF), from $5 billion in 2006 to $10 billion in 2009 to $20 billion in 2012.

President Xi’s administration has focused on infrastructure development in Africa, specifically, building “the three networks” — rail, highways and regional aviation, all badly needed to spur economic development in many parts of the continent.

But while it’s a gigantic trader, China is much less significant as an investor on the ground. China is responsible for only about 3-4 percent of total foreign direct investment (FDI) on the continent, falling behind the US, UK, France, South Africa and other countries.

“Clearly, China’s FDI does not meet the extreme heights many believe,” Sun says.

Off this low base, Chinese investment in Africa fell by 40 percent in the first half of this year, compared with a year earlier, according to Chinese officials (another estimate put the drop at 84 percent).

China's outsized presence may in part be due to its extensive "soft power" campaign in Africa, which has included launching Chinese state media on the continent and facilitating language lessons and visits for African students and politicians to China.

South Africa, as host of the FOCAC summit, is a close ally of China. Among some members of the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela that has government the country since the first democratic elections in 1994, there is almost a slavish view of China as savior.

For example, a discussion document presented at a major ANC policy conference in October praised China’s economic development as “a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. The exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle."

The ANC's head of research, after a visit to Beijing earlier this year, lauded the Chinese Communist Party and claimed that China has “participating opposition parties” that “assist the government.”

“This was a far cry from South Africa, with its rowdy, noisy and disagreeable opposition,” Thami Ka Plaatjie wrote, seemingly unaware that opposition parties in China are state controlled and have no power or purpose.

Pretoria appears to have no qualms in the Taiwan-supporting countries being left out of the event (in recent years the South African government has repeatedly denied the Dalai Lama a visa). Statements from Jacob Zuma, the South African president, echo China's favorite lines: traditional friendship, mutually beneficial results, strategic cooperation, common destiny.

South Africa's red lantern is raised high, and Johannesburg will do its best to be a host befitting Beijing.