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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.

Africatown in China

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting article in a Belgian magazine that described Africans trying their luck in China, more specifically this became: Africatown in Guangzhou. Reading it, I mostly enjoyed the change of perspective: the last few years China is investing heavily in many African countries – and this is changing the landscape of development aid and trade with the African continent and the rest of the world, most notably Europe.* It was good to read a different side of this story: the increasing connections between Africa and China are also creating opportunities for Africans to go to China and make their fortune out of this increased trade.

Tonight, the Dutch television programme Tegenlicht expanded on this article and gave a more inside view of the motivations of these people from Nigeria and many other countries to head to China (sometimes after spending time in other Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan) and make a living for themselves there. Again, an interesting view just like the article provided.

But what the documentary added to this view of Africans coming to China, in this case specifically to Guangzhou in the Southeast, was a perspective on migration – and the benefits that this offers our society. Ian Goldin explained how all places have developed as a result of migration. One of my favourite parts of the documentary was where he gave examples of how – throughout history – in every society migrants play an essential part in economic development, new innovations and realising new ideas. As he said: “all great leaps in economic development are the result of migration.”. These major effects of migration are something that we don’t hear about enough.

Tegenlicht continued with a glimpse of the future: with the active workforce in Europe actually declining, Asia is the next place that offers a large – and for the moment – increasing workforce. In fact, China is currently home to one of the largest migration in history, where the countryside of China is mass migrating to the major cities, mostly to the East coast of China. However, Goldin also shows that this development is flattening off, which will leave even China with a labour scarcity in future. What will be the consequences of this? And how can our economic system and our society respond to these changes? In Goldin’s view, the EU has been successful in one thing: opening its borders which did not create mass migration but did create economic freedom, an essential part of a healthy economy.

The Tegenlicht screening can be seen online, where you can also find additional reading and references to other sources.

* I recently came across this book, now on my Amazon wishlist, which discusses this development: From recipients to donors