Eight years ago I watched the movie “2012,” named after the year the Mayan calendar supposedly ends. In the film an American geologist learns that a solar flare is heating the core of the earth and causing its tectonic plates to shift drastically. Before long, mass earthquakes and tsunamis are annihilating mankind. Los Angeles slips into the Pacific Ocean. The White House gets wiped out by a giant wave, with the president still inside. Soon, most of the earth is submerged in water.
The only people who do survive do so with the help of the Chinese. The People’s Liberation Army has managed to build a set of massive arks at breakneck speed, because it’s China after all. After 27 days at sea, the Chinese-made arks set sail for the only place in the world that has stayed above water—the Africa continent—specifically the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where the Drakensberg mountain range is now, according to the movie, the highest in the world.
Over the past two years that Quartz has been writing about China’s growing presence in Africa, I keep coming back to this heavily CGI-ed image of China saving the world and along the way putting Africa on top. I wonder, was that 2009 John Cusack movie some kind of prophecy or just accidental propaganda for China?
It is no longer news that Chinese companies, entrepreneurs, and central and local government are investing heavily in African countries. In Kenya, the Chinese have funded and built the country’s largest infrastructure project in more than 50 years, a standard gauge railway from Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa. At the grocery chain, Nakumatt, before it went under, an aisle was reserved for Chinese food supplies to serve the Chinese community in Nairobi.
Across the continent, Chinese electronics, clothes, and other products have flooded local markets. Chinese-made Dutch Wax Prints now sell better than the originals, decimating local industries in places like Lubumbashi, Congo. Increasingly you are finding Chinese-run factories in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Nigeria, and supposedly soon in Central Africa where the region’s first auto factory will be in Cameroon.
It’s not just business. Thousands of African students get Chinese government scholarships every year to study in China. Thousands of African officials and politicians are also being hosted in China by the Communist Party and other government ministries. The Chinese government has invested in more than 40 language schools, or Confucius Institutes, across the continent to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture. Chinese diplomats are also getting involved in regional conflicts from South Sudan’s civil war to a border dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti, where China’s first overseas military base is now.
The China-Africa story provides us familiar tropes: Chinese invaders, meek African victims. The counter narrative is also misleading. Yet, the more stories we do about China in Africa, the more questions I have not just about the topic but how we approach it. For instance, why is it that the international media is so interested in the China-Africa story when Chinese investment is also big in South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and basically any region of the world?
I used to think it was the novelty of seeing Chinese people next to black Africans—two parts of the world that have traditionally not mixed, that couldn’t look more different and that in some ways couldn’t be more different. I met a researcher studying local markets in Tanzania where Chinese and Tanzanian traders run their businesses alongside each other. The biggest point of friction wasn’t the competition between them, but the fact that the Chinese traders didn’t properly greet their Tanzanian neighbors. Instead of saying hello and asking after their families and businesses, they’d just go straight to their stalls and start their day. The Tanzanians found it off-putting.
What I think might be happening is that the China-Africa story provides us familiar tropes—the Chinese invaders, the meek, innocent African victims. The counter narrative, usually pushed by government voices both Chinese and African, is just as misleading. China is a fellow developing country, a partner that doesn’t judge the way the West does, and just wants the best for its African brothers and sisters. Again, it’s not news that the Chinese are a major presence here in Africa, but we need to go beyond the novelty of it and investigate those power dynamics.
The China-Africa story isn’t just about saviors or oppressors, and framing it that way is a disservice to all the interesting and enterprising people that form these links. I’ve learned that the topic of China in Africa is fraught with questions of representation. These stories can easily reek of exoticism, essentialism, and at times, racism. Africa isn’t one thing. Neither is China.
To me, the most interesting part about these connections is that they form a new kind of globalization, one that a lot of the world isn’t paying attention to, what one researcher described as a form of “globalization from below.” In Guangzhou, in southern China, you find entrepreneurs from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Somalia running factories, logistic services, and other companies that are truly globally connected businesses.
Africa has become a platform for analyzing China’s influence in the developing world. But what about how Africa is influencing China? In African countries, increasingly you find Chinese people who never meant to stay as long as they have. But now, they say they can’t go home, because being in Africa has changed them. And that leads me to another point. Africa has become a platform that a lot of people, people like me, use to analyze and understand China’s expanding influence in the developing world. But what about how Africa is influencing China, or the rest of the world?
Some of China’s biggest companies have cut their teeth in Africa, their first overseas ventures, and learned lessons that still shape how they operate elsewhere in the world. Others have major African shareholders. Naspers, a South African company, owns 33% of one China’s largest internet companies, Tencent.
The number of African students and entrepreneurs studying or doing business in Chinese cities has forced China, long a migrant-sending country, to recognize that it’s a destination as well. These communities demand respect. Last year a museum exhibition featuring offensive photos comparing Africans to animals was taken down after protest from the African diaspora in China.
China’s image in Africa matters to Beijing. China recently implemented a complete ban on the sale of ivory, a measure conservationists in Africa have been advocating to help the continent’s decimated elephant populations. In South Sudan, state-owned Chinese companies are encouraged to do more community work to combat the idea that China is only in the country for its oil resources.
Last summer, when a Ghanaian artist published cartoons depicting China’s president Xi Jinping serving polluted water to Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo, the Chinese embassy was reportedly infuriated and issued a formal complaint. The embassy later backed off and China’s ambassador to Ghana even attended an exhibit featuring the cartoons.
These examples matter because in a way, they are empowering, and that is critical. Late last year, we published a piece on a study that found that communities near Chinese mines enjoyed better infrastructure. The late Kenyan scholar of technology and development, Calestous Juma messaged soon after, questioning the piece and asking that we think more about Africa’s ability to shape trends, not just China’s.
He especially cautioned against the creation of the narrative that China is in Africa to answer all the continent’s problems. Juma said, “This needs to be countered because otherwise it feeds complacence. There are no Chinese messiahs.”
Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.