Chinese cities in Africa

If it would be a contest, China is in pole position.

Last week I attended an evening at Pakhuis de Zwijger about Chinese cities in Africa, and the above is what has stuck with me. The evening was centred around the research of Michiel Hulshof and Daan Roggeveen within their Go West Project, where they are travelling to African cities to research how Chinese activity in Africa is influencing these cities.

China and Africa are becoming more and more connected: some examples of this are through Chinese investment and through Africans setting up in China. There has also been increasing attention on this activity, as China’s engagement with Africa is happening on very different terms than European engagement with the African continent.

The evening highlighted specific activities of China in some of the places that the duo has travelled to so far (including Nairobi, Lagos, Luanda, Addis Abbeba – to name a few African cities): development of mass housing and establishment of Special Economic Zones.

Some of the points that struck me during the evening:

  • throughout the evening, the language used was very much in terms of a contest: who can build the most and the biggest (buildings, infrastructure, etc) and who can tie African governments to their own country the strongest? China isn’t the only country that is actively seeking opportunities in Africa – others include of course European countries, but also for example Turkey and Brazil. But is it really a contest? Is it really about being the most important non-African governmental actor (in whichever form) on the African continent? I don’t know – in traditional geopolitical terms, possibly it is. But in terms related to how to progress on sustainable development in Africa I don’t think it should be.
  • the evening shared different examples of Chinese firms building mass housing complexes in African cities, or of establishing joint economic development zones with a local government authority. Yet, what didn’t come through much in these stories was what the impact is on the development of society in these African cities: how does living in a gated compound (copied from the Chinese model of housing) change the social structure in any given African city where the way communities were living will have been very different.
  • what is the contribution of Chinese investment to economic and sustainable development of African cities and communities? What comes across in the contributions of experts during this evening is that the Chinese firms come in with their own workers (though this is slowly changing), underbid local African firms and are only recently becoming more interested in contributing to local capacity building. Some Chinese firms are starting to engage in a more active CSR-policy (and in fact, the Chinese government is requiring companies active in the extractive industry to implement CSR in their operations) and during the evening Huawei was mentioned as an example of a company which is developing a local CSR programme that focuses on local capacity building.  Yet, building the skills and capacity locally across Africa will be important to contribute to future-proof development.

Finally, the conclusion of the evening was also that it isn’t possible to ‘just’ copy the Chinese model to gain similar results in development and economic growth. Parts of it may work, but Africa is – of course – a different place. Africa is not one place, and it is likely that the Chinese model can be more successfully implemented in countries with a more authoritative government (examples are Ethiopia or Angola).

In any case, yet again an interesting Go West Project to keep track of while the research into the influence of Chinese urbanism in Africa continues.

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