HONG KONG—This week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is visiting five nations on the African continent—Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria—to discuss how the United States and these countries can collaborate in counter-terrorism, trade, and investment.
Beijing is watching the trip closely, because these and other African nations are considered by the Chinese Communist Party to be stepping stones for the PRC’s rise as a superpower.
But China’s relations with Africa, while vast and expanding, are undermined by cultural and sometimes rather extraordinary political insensitivity.
Two recent Chinese action films are set in African nations.
Wolf Warrior 2, which was released last July, tells the story of a Chinese soldier-turned-mercenary who defeats Somali pirates in underwater combat, and protects aid workers and Chinese nationals from rebels and arms dealers.
Operation Red Sea, which was released in February and is still in theaters, is loosely based on the peaceful evacuation of 600 Chinese nationals from Yemen during the early days of the ongoing war there, but with the addition of gunfights and explosions galore. Both films have lavish action sequences in the overblown style of Michael Bay. Both were massive commercial successes. The former is the highest-grossing Chinese film ever.
With the archetype of the Chinese Savior firmly established, attitudes within China are showing a lack of racial sensitivity at best, and a sense of superiority over other races at worst.
In an infamous incident last month during the Chinese New Year break, a gala show on state television included a skit that involved an Asian woman in blackface and oversized butt pads and an African actor in a monkey suit. Criticisms of the skit were censored. In 2016, an advertisement for a laundry product showed a black man being shoved into a washing machine, only to emerge as a boyish-looking Asian man—with skin of a much lighter hue.
Moving off-screen, we can see those attitudes play out in Guangzhou’s Little Africa, derogatively called “Chocolate City” by locals. Once a vibrant hub where traders from Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and other African nations gathered or even settled, the neighborhood has been “beautified” by the city government: street markets that once were abuzz with commerce and camaraderie have been banned; the police maintain a constant presence, checking the passports and visas of the foreigners they encounter; locals often hold the mistaken belief that these outsiders are involved with drug trafficking or prostitution. Many shops have been shuttered.
Although Little Africa was once estimated to be the temporary home of over 100,000 people, few Africans walk its streets now. Sections of the once culturally diverse neighborhood have been paved over to build parking lots and erect pristine residential units; often, the new landlords will not allow Africans to sign a lease.
A 2008 diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks suggests that a decade ago local authorities were “extremely concerned about the high degree of concentration of Africans into a few Guangzhou neighborhoods.”
The many entrepreneurs who sought their fortunes by obtaining cheap, sometimes fake, goods in the Pearl River Delta region and shipping them home have been displaced. Even those who have Chinese nationals as spouses aren’t guaranteed the right to remain in the country with the families they have built.
In December, The Telegraph published an article penned by Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom, titled “China’s role in Africa is as an equal partner.” But as Chinese state-owned conglomerates enter the continent, Africans in China face incessant police raids, harassment, and racist attitudes. Even if they once saw China’s rise as a model to emulate, and came to trade, learn, and grow, a flight back home now seems like the only option.
China’s exploitative relationship abroad with African nations became most evident earlier this year. In late January, the French daily Le Monde reported that the Chinese government’s gift of a headquarters building and computer network for the African Union in Addis Ababa contained a back door to facilitate the transfer of data to servers in Shanghai.
China’s ambassador to the AU, Kuang Weilin, responded to allegations that China is spying on the AU by calling the findings “absurd” and “preposterous.”
The myth of Chinese support for African nations has been perpetuated both at home and abroad, with the $200 million AU complex in Addis as the crown jewel within the narrative of international cooperation fostered by Chinese public funds. But the charm in Beijing’s Africa blitz doesn’t hide the profiteering and wrangling for influence that follow.
Just next door to Ethiopia, China’s move into Djibouti is a prime example. The tiny east African nation sits along one of the world’s major maritime shipping lanes, and is home to American, French, German, Italian, and Japanese military bases, with the latest addition of a Chinese “logistics and supply center” to the many foreign military installations already there. The Chinese naval facility was inaugurated last summer, and is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plan to modernize his country’s military, expanding its navy’s blue-water capabilities.
Beijing shells out $20 million a year to lease the real estate for its base in Djibouti, and has already stationed over 1,000 troops there, with sufficient space for 10 times that number if needed. On top of that, the Chinese government has given the host nation loans topping $1.1 billion to upgrade its commercial port, build an additional airport, a railway that stretches to Addis Ababa, and a water pipeline that moves water from Ethiopia.
Some Djibouti officials have expressed concern about their country’s ability to repay those loans—failure to channel funds back to China would place the nation in an undesirable position in the very near future.
Over in Kenya, controversy is unfolding around the country’s largest infrastructure project since its 1963 independence. A Chinese-built railway has been designed to be extended through the wildlife reserve just outside of Nairobi. A court ordered that construction be halted as the case is reviewed, but builders and engineers from the China Road and Bridge Corporation have already begun work, with protection from armed guards.
The ranking member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, has already warned of China’s influence in African nations. After a recent trip to the region, he said, “Wherever we’re going in Africa, they seem to be there, or following close behind.” Under a messy Trump administration, American policy has failed to keep up with the actions of the Eastern superpower. It isn’t even clear whether America aims to cooperate with China on the continent, counter its clout, or implement a combination of the two options.
Beijing’s goals, however, are much clearer. Chinese industrialists—often with the state’s backing—are eyeing their moves to a new continent as the economic and governance models at home switch gears.
Ethiopia, for instance, has received a cash injection of nearly $11 billion to bulk up its industrial infrastructure, transforming farmland into industrial parks that can house factories that churn out fast fashion clothing items and consumer electronic goods. The country has opened four such parks since 2014, and plans to launch eight more before 2020. Hundreds of Ethiopian farmers have complained of land grabs, displacement, and lack of compensation, as the government clears space for newcomers from Beijing.
It doesn’t matter how many Friendship Bridges are built, or how many Cooperation Summits are organized. As long as attitudes toward other races—and nations—do not change within China, the relationships that are cultivated abroad will be exploitative, with only rapacious advancement of one party as a result.