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China-Africa and an Economic Transformation$

Arkebe Oqubay and Justin Yifu Lin

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198830504

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198830504.001.0001

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The Institutional Framework of Sino-African Relations

The Institutional Framework of Sino-African Relations

(p.98) Chapter 6 The Institutional Framework of Sino-African Relations
China-Africa and an Economic Transformation

Ian Taylor

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chinese policy towards Africa is mediated through an array of different actors and institutions, which complicates the ability of Beijing to see through specific policy pronouncements. Liberalization has seen a plethora of agencies and companies engaging with the continent, and while China has official policies, different interests and dynamics within the official structures may frustrate the smooth delivery of such goals. A study of the institutional framework demonstrates that China is by no means a unitary actor, and contrary to popular belief, what happens on the ground in Africa may not necessarily reflect the official Chinese position. Despite this, China is routinely blamed if something negative occurs. This problem is compounded by an asymmetry in the Sino-African relationship and the fact that Chinese officials will not admit that they are not fully in control of matters.

Keywords:   China, Africa, institutions, aid, foreign policy, think tanks, Communist Party of China, FOCAC

The increase in China’s economic and political involvement in Africa is arguably the most momentous development on the continent since the end of the Cold War. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now Africa’s most important bilateral trading partner and since the upsurge of interest in Africa (circa post 2000), the Chinese leadership has been enthusiastic in showcasing its country’s engagement with Africa and publicizing what it habitually describes as a relationship based on mutual benefits and ‘win–win’ situations (see Chapters 4 and 5). However, the institutional framework that supposedly guides Sino-African relations is confusing and at times contradictory—what has been termed ‘harmony and discord’ (Alden and Hughes, 2009). Its effectiveness is also problematic, although there are clear efforts by the Xi Jinping administration to rectify matters. At the moment, however, policy coherence is fragmentary at best and in fact often contradictory in practice as policies are arbitrated by numerous Chinese actors.

6.1 The Effects of Liberalization

The first step in attempting to understand the institutional structures is to acknowledge that we must always keep in mind that there are many Chinas and equally, many Africas. It is absolutely true that there are official policy frameworks, most notably the White Papers on China–Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation, China’s Foreign Aid, China–Africa Economic and Trade, and China’s Second Africa Policy Paper (Information Office of the State Council, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015). However these are much less (p.99) interesting than what is actually happening on the ground and in any case, it would be a mistake to argue that Chinese foreign policy in Africa neatly follows an overarching grand strategy dictated by Beijing. Rather, it is at best acceptable to state that Beijing’s policymakers have certain aspirations for specific facets of Sino-African ties (as mentioned above) and that these are then refracted through an array of different actors and institutions. As one commentary put it when speaking more generally about Chinese policymaking, ‘The Chinese state is often viewed as a machine whose parts all mesh smoothly…Closer to the mark is Kenneth Lieberthal’s use of the term “fragmented authoritarianism” to characterize the regime’ (Wang Shaoguang, 2003: 39). Indeed, factionalized bureaucratic interests related to foreign relations are an important influence on policy formulation in China (Bell and Feng Hui, 2007: 52; Zhao Quansheng, 1992). Such problems are only growing as China deepens its engagement with the global economy under the conditions of de facto liberal capitalism.

This latter point needs development. Huang Yasheng (2011) recaps that for much of the post-Mao period, the emphasis has been on the introduction of the market rather than its suppression (Hsueh, 2014: 3–4). What we have seen in fact is a fusing of macroliberalization with a selective continuation of state discretion and sectoral regulation. Indeed, ‘on questions of trade, FDI and regulation, China’s actual reform experience is pretty much in line with the policy prescriptions attributed to the Washington Consensus’ (Karp, 2009: 204), albeit that ‘the functioning of neoliberalism is largely concealed beneath the edifice of China’s specific conditions’ (Wu Fulong, 2010: 629). Quite clearly, the basis for the current Chinese mode of accumulation is to be found in the project initiated under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and then (unevenly) advanced since his death in 1997 (see Chossudovsky, 1986; Hinton, 1991, 2006; Weil, 1996; and Sharma, 2007). Deng and his successors have instrumentalized the Chinese state to reorganize social relations, corresponding with the restoration of capitalism (Hart-Landsberg and Burkett, 2004: 26). China itself has been moving ‘unmistakably toward the market doctrines of neoclassical economics, with an emphasis on prudent fiscal policy, economic openness, privatization, market liberalization and the protection of private property’ (Yang Yao, 2010). A particular form of capitalism has developed in China, one that has strong propensities to aspects of the policy paradigm of neoliberalism (Hart-Landsberg and Burkett, 2004: 26). This move towards the norms of the market has led to a proliferation of actors and the relative weakening of the central state’s ability to control matters.

Rivalries among and between different ministries, provinces, cities, municipalities, and/or individuals play themselves out on a daily basis in Africa and lay bare the myth of a monolithic China relentlessly pushing forward on some sort of ‘trade safari’. Complexities have in fact rapidly developed as the wall (p.100) between domestic and foreign policies has been eroded (Alden and Hughes, 2009). As Thomas Christensen (2001: 27) says of Chinese foreign policy in general, ‘many of the means to reach the regime’s domestic and international security goals are so fraught with complexity, and sometimes contradiction, that a single, integrated grand plan is almost certainly lacking, even in the innermost circles of the Chinese leadership compound’. How much more so as China continues to liberalize?

6.2 The Key Drivers of Policy

It should be noted that the opaqueness of Beijing’s foreign policy processes has long been recognized (Brautigam, 2009; Jakobsen and Knox, 2010). Indeed, ‘rather than foreign policy being formulated and implemented through a clear hierarchy, it is evident that there are several influential figures to report to who are embedded within overlapping institutions that can at times blur the chain of command, particularly if competing policy implementation bodies are of equal rank’ (Corkin, 2011: 65). Thus any commentary on how policy is made and implemented can be at best tentative.

It first needs to be pointed out that Africa remains a relatively low priority in terms of Beijing’s general foreign policy. Consequently, precise policymaking vis-à-vis the continent is diffused throughout the policy system and is neither concentrated nor synchronized. While the highest-level policymakers may proclaim broad strategic directions, it is the working-level institutions that are expected to implement these goals through appropriate policy actions. Economic and political interests have been the key drivers of Chinese attention in Africa, and thus the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have so far operated as the important state institutions implementing Beijing’s policy towards the continent. Additional institutions may be turned to if and when the need arises.

In general terms, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is the paramount decision-making body with regard to foreign policy. Xi Jinping is the PBSC’s delegated individual for foreign policy, and ‘since 2012, Xi Jinping has taken charge of all foreign policy related decision-making bodies in what appears to be an attempt to improve coordination of interest groups’ (Jakobsen and Manuel, 2016: 101). Xi is aided by the director of the Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP). This individual is effectively the highest official of the Chinese foreign service, occupying a post analogous to the United States National Security Advisor.

On a day-to-day basis, the MFA administers regular relations with foreign states. Depending on how important an issue may be, policy processes are (p.101) dealt with at different levels. Significant matters that need to be sorted out at the highest level go to the FAO; only such matters as cannot be sorted out at that level go up to Xi Jinping. Aside from this process, broader affairs, such as the presentation of the latest major policies, are elaborated and then determined by the Politburo. The Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), made up of important government and CCP actors, formerly presented analyses from their agencies to the FAO and suggested recommendations. The FALSG included the MFA, MOFCOM, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security, Office of Taiwan Affairs, Office of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs, Information Office, Department of Propaganda, International Department, Ministry of Defence, and the General Staff Department. Recently, the FALSG became a permanent foreign affairs commission under a new name, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. Xi Jinping heads this body, with Premier Li Keqiang as deputy head (Manuel, 2018).

Within the broader foreign policymaking apparatus:

Line agencies are the primary source of daily information on foreign policy affairs. Each line agency involved, such as the MFA, the Ministry of Commerce and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), provides regular reports that reflect work and concerns specific to the agency’s focus. Other line agencies also bear responsibility for information collection and analysis used in the national security decision making process, especially in their respective fields…Externally, the decision making system also relies on governmental and semi-governmental think-tanks for information and policy analysis. These think-tanks are affiliated with government agencies and act as additional research arms.

(Yun Sun, 2014: 18)

The rest of the chapter will discuss the more day-to-day operations of the different institutions involved in Sino-African affairs.

6.2.1 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)

It might be assumed that the MFA would be central to foreign policy in China. After all, ‘The MFA has always had great prestige within the Chinese political system dating back to its close association with Premier Zhou Enlai’ (Paltiel, 2010: 5). However, as Paltiel (2010) notes, ‘Its great prestige…is not matched by bureaucratic clout. Within China’s domestic system it serves mainly to communicate with foreign governments and to uphold and maintain China’s international image.’ Indeed, the MFA has been a weak actor in the institutional framework of China’s foreign relations and has had an insubstantial presence in China’s State Council, despite the fact that at the organizational level, Beijing has regularly defined the MFA as the country’s top ministry (Fijałkowski, 2011).

(p.102) Historically, the MFA has been starved of resources and it has been unable to construct an influential system or xitong within China’s institutional structures that might engender durable economic assets—unlike other ministries. Consequently, it has been traditionally marginalized and is the poor relation vis-à-vis policymaking. This has led to a rather pathetic situation, as recounts Jing Sun (2017: 430). Apparently, members of the Chinese public have taken to posting calcium pills to the MFA as a deliberate insult implying that the ministry staff have no backbones. Equally, the MFA is known colloquially by Chinese netizens as the ‘Ministry of Protests’ as it has developed a reputation for issuing diplomatic phrases such as ‘strongly denounce’ or ‘strongly protest’ (and the classic ‘hurt the feelings of a billion Chinese people’) over relatively trivial issues. Chinese netizens now routinely, jokingly ‘strongly denounce’ things, ridiculing the MFA’s intemperate language. As one Chinese commentator notes, China’s diplomats ‘come across as silent, passive, isolated, and boring, except when they are coming across as aggressive (often without meaning to)’ (Qiu Zhibo, 2017).

However, officially, through its Africa Desk, the MFA is in control of executing foreign policy and it ‘implement[s] the state’s diplomatic principles and policies and related laws and regulations’ (MFA, 2018). China has an extensive diplomatic presence across Africa and is present in all African countries with the exception of eSwatini, due to that country having diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and Burkina Faso (which only recently switched relations). China has the most embassies of any foreign country in Africa and the MFA is charged with operating these.

It should be pointed out that recent developments may suggest an improvement in the MFA’s fate. At the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2018, the MFA received an important boost through a budget increase of 15 per cent, taking it to circa US$9.5 billion for 2018 (roughly 40 per cent higher than the 2013 budget) (Financial Times, 6 March 2018). This reflects a wider trend under Xi Jinping which has seen a much more assertive role for China in global politics, notably Xi’s expressed wish to turn China into a global power by 2049. The need to help manage the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) also no doubt helps explain a developing greater role for the MFA. As part of the reforms announced at the NPC, minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi kept his position but was also promoted to be one of China’s five state councillors. This is important as state councillors are more senior than ministers. To date, it has been unusual (though not unprecedented) for an individual to hold both positions and it is expected the consolidation of the two posts under Wang Yi will lead to a more effective foreign policy. Equally, as part of other reforms, Beijing granted the MFA more authority over embassy personnel decisions. This will change the current situation where the MFA has no control over staff posted to embassies by other ministries or agencies.

(p.103) Although the official face of China in Africa, the embassies are limited in their scope. Interviews with Chinese diplomatic personnel across Africa reveal a somewhat demoralized staff, with limited knowledge of what is actually happening vis-à-vis other Chinese actors’ activities. Although mandated to look after consular affairs, often embassy staff do not actually know how many Chinese citizens are in the country. Equally, the activities of other actors, outside the control of the MFA or embassy staff, have meant that Chinese embassies have habitually been compelled to figuratively clean up the mess after activities by another Chinese actor have caused reputational damage. In China itself, companies habitually dodge environmental and labour regulations liable to impede the profitability of any given venture, either by colluding with local state officials interested in encouraging economic growth or by graft (Sun Yan, 2004). Either way, violations of environmental law and hazardous conditions for workers are the norm in much of China. It can therefore be no surprise that similar circumstances develop overseas. Since the central state cannot control such problems within China, it is doubly unlikely to regulate what myriad Chinese actors do in Africa. The MFA then has, in certain circumstances, been relegated to the role of fixing the damage. This is likely to deepen given that economics is very much in charge with regard to Sino-African ties and MOFCOM has increasingly played a critical role in the interpretation and rolling out of policy towards the African continent. It is MOFCOM that manages Chinese aid to Africa and as one commentary put it, the ‘MFA is being relegated to greasing the cogs of diplomacy while MOFCOM officials engage in the implementation of policy’ (Corkin, 2011: 68). It is to MOFCOM that we now turn.

6.2.2 Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM)

The MOFCOM’s Department of West Asian and African Affairs is in charge of coordinating economic relations with Africa and provides advice on Africa to key policymakers, as well as promoting investment and trade. As part of this, it collects intelligence on local African economic, political, and social trends, and provides this to Chinese companies interested in the continent. MOFCOM also dispatches the officials that serve in China’s trade offices in Africa, as well as sending officials on trade missions. Officially, the office of the Economic and Commercial Counsellor (ECC) is regarded as the local MOFCOM representative in African countries. Located inside Chinese embassies or consulates, the ECC is technically subject to the embassy’s managerial authority. In practice, this seems less clear-cut, and relations between the ECC and the in-situ ambassador tends to be personality driven and the locus of any rivalry between the MFA and MOFCOM. The result is that:


Diplomacy and politics is in fact in competition with economics, it would seem. This is played out in the African countries themselves. Whereas the Chinese Embassy reports directly to the MFA, the Economic Counsellor’s Office, nominally under the embassy’s umbrella structure…actually reports to the MOFCOM, serving as the MOFCOM’s ‘eyes and ears on the ground’. This can readily cause confusion, as it is apparent in some countries that the two offices do not exchange information, as they work for separate ministries that may be competing for influence in Beijing.

(Corkin, 2011: 67)

It should be noted here that it is only in some countries that the ECC and the embassy do not exchange information. Nevertheless, as one analysis admitted, ‘in extreme cases ambassadors may learn of new aid projects for the first time in the local newspaper’ (Zhang Denghua and Smith, 2017: 2336).

MOFCOM’s ability to monitor Chinese economic activity is relatively limited. The ECC in a Chinese embassy is often unable to provide dependable data on, for instance, how many Chinese businesses are really functioning in the country they supposedly have oversight over—and often ask (foreign) researchers for additional information. Capacity in managing Sino-African relations is a serious issue not only for both the MOFCOM and the MFA but also for all Chinese actors involved in the institutional framework managing relations. With regard to the ECC:

[S]taffing limitations––and often lack of interest—hamper their ability to monitor and evaluate aid projects, let alone to develop coherent in-country aid programmes. Compared with their western counterparts, the Economic and Commercial Counsellors’ offices have little autonomy. As a Chinese aid official said, ‘they have to report almost all the aid related issues back to MOFCOM and MFA for approval’.

(Zhang Denghua and Smith, 2017: 2333)

A further issue is the role of MOFCOM in the provisioning of Chinese aid to Africa. This has been a contentious issue. In broader terms, much of what China claims to be ‘aid’ does not fit standard definitional norms and is often more akin to commercial activities. Beijing’s foreign aid (duiwai yuanzhu) differs considerably from what the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) calls official development assistance. China’s ostensible ‘aid’ to Africa includes things such as football stadiums, political party headquarters, and training and assistance given by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA). None of these are classified as foreign aid by the OECD-DAC. Equally, while many aid donors only deliver grant aid, China’s ‘aid’ is dominated by concessional loans, invariably based on commercial rates and aimed at making a profit for the Chinese agency that disburses such finance (see Chapters 7 and 8). The result is that there has been massive confusion and contestation between what China claims to give as aid and what is accepted as actual development (p.105) finance by the majority of the global donor community. Accumulating accurate data on how much actual aid China gives to Africa has proven in any case, at least thus far, impossible.

6.2.3 Institutional Rivalry between the MFA and MOFCOM

Within the institutional framework, while MOFCOM’s concentration is on China’s commercial interests, it has been the primary agency in charge of what China defines as its bilateral aid projects. ‘This dual role results in internal differences between its overarching commercial mandate, the increasing interest in aid sustainability, and effectiveness within the development-focused areas’ (Varrall, 2016: 24). In terms of policy alignment in Africa, the tensions between the MFA and MOFCOM play out with regard to the role of the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank). This is a policy bank responsible for delivering concessional loans, subsidized by MOFCOM. Its function as a policy bank, in other words answerable directly to the State Council and often relying on directives from the State Council to determine operating principles and priorities, would suggest that it should be chiefly related to Beijing’s wider foreign policy. However, the way it actually functions demonstrates that profitability and commercial concerns are more important to the institution. The result has been that ‘the commercial focus of Exim Bank and some parts of MOFCOM causes tensions with the diplomatic goals of the MFA. This is the case in areas where MOFCOM is encroaching on what would traditionally be considered as MFA territory’ (Varrall, 2016: 25). Consequently:

The MFA and the MOFCOM do not see eye to eye on the purpose of concessional loans or indeed the ‘correct’ role for China Exim Bank to play in terms of African foreign policy. While the MFA sees these loans as primarily a mechanism for fulfilling its mandate of improving diplomatic relations between China and other developing countries through foreign aid, the MOFCOM sees them as principally a market entry tool for Chinese companies’ goods and services.

(Corkin, 2011: 73)

This has had an impact on the effectiveness of China’s institutional arrangements for managing Sino-African affairs. Although MOFCOM and the MFA are formally equal in status, MOFCOM has engaged in mission creep and has eroded the MFA’s authority abroad. In its pursuit of commercial opportunities and in prompting Chinese business interests, MOFCOM has at times contradicted what the local Chinese embassies have wanted to achieve within specific countries. In contrast to MOFCOM, for the MFA, ‘political relations trump short-term economic gains, because it is not possible to develop good economic relations without excellent political relations’ (Zhang Denghua and Smith, 2017: 2335).

(p.106) Equally, given that capacity is an issue, some of the policy advice emanating from the ECC can surely be of questionable value. The involvement of the Exim Bank has further complicated matters and added an additional dimension to the institutional management of Beijing’s relations with the continent. Unity of purpose is not something that may be said to characterize the working relationship between the MFA and MOFCOM. How Chinese aid is institutionalized is what we turn to next.

6.3 China’s Aid Framework

MOFCOM is the administrative ministry authorized by the State Council to oversee foreign aid, along with the Executive Bureau of International Economic Cooperation, the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges, and the Academy of International Business Officials. With regard to the planning of China’s aid, authority over decision-making has always resided in the hands of the central state. Today, MOFCOM, the Ministry of Finance, and the MFA lead twenty-one central and provincial institutions in a joint participation planning arrangement. Through the planning process, MOFCOM is primarily concerned with the economic aspects of foreign aid and mainly deals with the establishment of policies, the drafting of country-specific plans, and the coordination of implementations. The MFA, on the other hand, is responsible for the political aspects of foreign aid. The Ministry of Finance controls the distribution of China’s annual foreign aid budget.

Aside from these larger aid-planning responsibilities, there are other institutions that take part according to their specialities. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture arranges agricultural experts to transfer the required technologies to Chinese agricultural aid sites, while the Ministry of Health allocates medical personnel, medicines, and medical equipment to dispatch medical teams. In addition to these responsibilities, the management of these specialized projects is also passed to these institutions. In 2008, the implementation management of China’s primary foreign aid methods (namely complete project aid, goods and materials aid, and human resource development cooperation) were assigned to subsidiary institutions of MOFCOM. Altogether within MOFCOM, there are seven departments and institutions associated with the policymaking and management process.

6.3.1 The Department of Western Asian and African Affairs

This department liaises with all of the Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s Offices stationed in the West Asian and African region, collects and researches country-specific data, and provides policy suggestions. In addition to collating (p.107) information, it files other reports investigating the recipient country’s trade, economic cooperation, and political situation.

6.3.2 Department of Aid to Foreign Countries

The Department of Aid to Foreign Countries is the central administrative division of China’s foreign aid. In planning for China’s annual aid, this department develops agreements by negotiation with recipient-country governments. Domestically, it supervises the institutions managing aid, and develops and enforces policies and codes of practices.

6.3.3 Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation (CAITEC)

CAITEC responds to research initiated by MOFCOM and publishes internally circulated journals and statistics. CAITEC also edits and releases China’s official publications on aid.

6.3.4 The Executive Bureau of International Economic Cooperation

Established in 2003, this bureau is appointed and commissioned by MOFCOM to manage the implementation of complete project aid initiatives and support Chinese enterprises abroad. It organizes project bidding, verification of tendering enterprises, supervision and inspection of contract execution, and construction of aid expert teams and databases. In addition, this executive bureau also currently manages the implementation of technical aid.

6.3.5 China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges (CICETE)

The CICETE was founded in 1983 as a subsidiary public institution of the then Ministry of Foreign Economics and Trade. It was first assigned the role of managing cooperative projects between China and United Nations organizations, primarily the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). This was to promote human resources exchanges and to increase economic and trade cooperation, initially in support of the modernization of China. CICETE subsequently became responsible for providing training courses for Chinese foreign aid personnel and procuring China’s supplies for humanitarian aid. In 2008, CICETE was additionally assigned the implementation management of goods and materials aid.

(p.108) 6.3.6 Academy for International Business Officials (AIBO)

As the only associated training centre of MOFCOM, the AIBO is one of the first State Council-approved Foreign Aid Training Centres. When AIBO began to engage in human resource programmes in 1998, it was initially tasked with organizing seminars for commercial officials. Subsequently, it became the principal coordinator of China’s human resource development cooperation programmes. In addition to preparing training courses for high-level officials, the AIBO is also in charge of arranging specialized training courses and associated training centres.

6.3.7 Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s Office

Since China established its first Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s Office in Vietnam in 1956, these offices have become the frontline communication and management institutions for China’s foreign aid. They are principally focused on local environment research, contract negotiation, aid personnel protection, and implementation supervision. The offices not only assist in the planning of China’s aid but also supervise projects and programme deliveries, as well as monitoring effectiveness and sustainability after project completion. Their relationship with the MFA and the embassies in which they are sited abroad has been discussed above.

It should be here noted that in March 2018, at the 13th National People’s Congress, it was announced that Beijing was to establish an international development cooperation agency, part of broader plans to reform the institutions of the State Council. The new agency, the State International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDCA), will take over the foreign assistance duties of MOFCOM and the MFA. On 4 April 2018, Wang Xiaotao, former Deputy Director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), was appointed Director of SIDCA. At the NDRC Wang had been in charge of foreign capital, overseas investment, and trade, and been involved in the BRI, negotiating with India, Pakistan, and Thailand on transport projects. Tentatively, it might be said that Wang’s appointment as head of SIDCA demonstrates that development and infrastructure will remain the focus of China’s international aid. As one analyst noted, ‘MOFCOM and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been competing for control of Chinese foreign aid for decades. Appointing a new director from a third party or a third agency could bypass this conflict— and could make the process of establishing the new agency as easier’ (quoted in Cornish, 2018). Equally, the fact that an important figure from the NDRC was appointed indicates that Beijing has ambitions for SIDCA.

The new agency will be directly under the State Council and will have responsibility for the drafting of strategic guidelines, formulating and (p.109) implementing foreign aid policies, and offering advice on overseas assistance. ‘The agency is intended to give full play to the role of foreign aid as a key instrument of China’s diplomacy as a major country’ according to the reform plan (China Daily, 14 March 2018). This significant development is likely to have a major impact on the institutional framework of Chinese aid policies towards Africa.

6.4 Chinese Policy Banks

The two key policy banks are the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank). In the energy sector, these two banks have provided roughly US$225.8 billion since 2000 (China Global Energy Finance database, 2018). To put things into perspective, US$68.7 billion or 30.4 per cent was invested in Europe and Central Asia, US$61.9 billion (27.4 per cent) went to Latin America, and US$60.3 billion (26.7 per cent) went into Asia. Only US$34.8 billion (15.4 per cent) went into Africa. This reiterates the comments made earlier about the relative importance of Africa to overall Chinese foreign policy.

The CDB operates the China–Africa Development Fund, more commonly known as the CAD Fund. This is a Chinese private equity fund aimed at promoting investment in Africa by Chinese companies in power generation, transportation infrastructure, natural resources, manufacturing, and so on. The CAD Fund was announced at the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in 2006 and was established in June 2007 with an initial funding of US$1 billion by the CDB. In December 2017, Chi Jianxin, chairman of the CAD Fund, told Xinhua that the fund has US$4.5 billion to invest in 91 projects in 36 countries, with more than US$3.2 billion having already been invested (Xinhua, 24 December 2017). Of note, at the FOCAC Summit in South Africa in 2015, President Xi Jinping proposed an additional US$5 billion, bringing the total funding to US$10 billion. According to Chi Jianxin, after completion of the current investments, the CAD Fund projects will have produced 11,000 trucks, 300,000 air conditioners, 540,000 refrigerators, 390,000 televisions, and 1.6 million tonnes of cement each year. This was claimed to raise Africa’s exports by US$2 billion and taxation income by US$1 billion dollars every year (Xinhua, 24 December 2017).

The CAD Fund invests in Chinese companies that have economic and trade activities in Africa, as well as Chinese firms that have invested in African businesses and projects. The guiding principle of the fund is the promotion of investment by Chinese entities in Africa. The fund invests through equity investments, quasi-equity investments (such as preference shares and convertible bonds), and fund investments.

(p.110) The Exim Bank gives out concessional loans and is administered and subsidized by MOFCOM; thus it is owned by the central government. The Exim Bank was set up in 1994 and in 1995 started distributing concessional loans as Beijing’s solitary lender. It reports to the State Council. Dependable statistics on Exim Bank’s concessional loans are unavailable and most studies on the bank can only arrive at estimates (such as the China Global Energy Finance database). The most reliable estimate, given by the China–Africa Research Initiative (2018) is that between 2000 and 2015, the Chinese government, banks, and contractors gave US$94.4 billion in loans to African states and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The internal procedures and apparatuses that the Exim Bank and CDB follow when deciding on loan practice are problematic to follow, as a wide variety of agents take part and the processes do not always follow the official policy framework. As Corkin notes, the Ministry of Finance is theoretically ‘responsible for formulating policies and plans, drawing up the framework agreement to be signed, and determining the interest rate of the loan’ (Corkin, 2011a: 71). However, in reality MOFCOM and Exim Bank, for instance, shoulder the greater part of these tasks, and the Ministry of Finance’s role appears to be to merely approve the financial plan and cover the difference between the commercial and concessional interest rates in the Exim Bank’s concessional loans.

With regard to the policy banks, it should be pointed out that as China has emerged as the world’s largest exporter of capital, it has become increasingly exposed to potentially perilous situations in those states that are the recipients of Chinese loans. There has thus been, in the last few years, an attempt to tighten up the loan process so as to maximize the effect of the capital disbursed and try to make sure that the loans will produce relatively good returns. Both the Exim Bank and the China Development Bank now concentrate on ‘bankable’ projects and evaluate potential loans against a viable and profitable set of standards (Brautigam, 2009). Certainly, the CDB has been converted ‘from a bank created for the explicit purpose of undertaking policy-driven lending into one of the most dynamic and successful financial institutions’ (Downs, 2011: 2).

Concessional loans, including preferential buyer’s credits, and all other Exim Bank-operated funding methods deviate from the foreign aid norm, given that they are now provided only if the proposed project is profitable. According to the loan regulations for concessional loans, concessional loan-funded aid projects must now have the ability to repay capital and interest. Concessional loans are no longer applicable to social charitable projects, unless they have economic benefits (see Zhangxi Cheng and Taylor, 2017). The policy banks have increasingly become less concessional and much more commercial in their loan disbursement behaviour.

(p.111) 6.5 The International Department of the Communist Party of China

A key actor in China’s relations with Africa beyond the government ministries is the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party (ID) (see Shambaugh, 2007). This body manages party-to-party relations. The predecessor of the ID, the International Liaison Department, played a major role during the Maoist period in developing ties with sympathetic political parties abroad and with those liberation movements in Africa that supported China, as opposed to the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Today, the ID develops links not only with communist parties and other left-wing organizations, but also what are classed ‘national democratic parties of the developing countries’ and ‘political parties and statesmen of various ideologies and natures such as socialist, labour and conservative parties in the developed countries’ (CPC Encyclopedia, 2018). The ID is an important institution for promoting Beijing’s policy, analyzing the contemporary international situation, and nurturing relations with significant foreigners. As one commentary has noted:

[T]he department has been more active than ever in recent years, dispatching and receiving several hundred delegations annually. Department officials have assessed that its activities will continue to expand along with China’s state-to-state relations. The CPC/ID also distinguishes its diplomatic role from that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as being more long-term oriented, more flexible, and especially focused on helping rectify foreigners’ “incorrect ideas” on the Party and country.

(Gitter and Fang, 2016)

Party-to-party relations are considered vital by Beijing as a means to promote state-to-state relations and have become integral to some aspects of Sino-African relations. For example, with regard to FOCAC, inter-party relations have played a distinctive role in dialogue on governance issues and also for the advancement of trade relations. Critically, the ID played a crucial role in getting the heads of state of five African countries to attend the China–Africa Summit in Beijing in 2006, despite the fact that these heads of state governed countries which did not actually have diplomatic relations with China at the time. As part of Beijing’s policy of denying any notion of Taiwan as a legitimate state entity, ID liaises with political parties in states that may lack diplomatic ties with China, but which acknowledge Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy. In Africa, for instance, the ID cultivated ties with São Tomé and Príncipe’s Movimento de Libertação de São Tomé e Príncipe/Partido Social Democrata. As the country’s second-largest political party, this organization helped move the debate forwards until São Tomé and Príncipe formally recognized Beijing in 2016.

(p.112) The ID maintains connections with about 400 political parties in over 140 countries, with regional bureaus coordinating the process. Notably, in November 2017 the ID hosted a four-day meeting between the Communist Party of China and representatives from 300 foreign political parties and organizations. This Dialogue with World Political Parties High-level Meeting, the Communist Party’s first ever high-level meeting with assorted political parties from across the world, attracted over 600 representatives from 120 countries (People’s Daily, 30 November 2017). As has been noted, no other ruling party devotes so much attention and effort to maintaining ties with political parties in other countries as does the CPC (Shambaugh, 2007). Indeed, ‘The party-to-party relationship plays a critical role in strengthening the political foundation for China-Africa new strategic partnership [sic]’ (China Radio International, 2012).

6.6 China’s IR Think Tanks and Africa

It has long been recognized that think tanks have been exercising a growing influence on policy formulation in China (Jakobsen and Knox, 2010; Lai, 2010; Tanner, 2002). Think tanks are now playing a much larger role than in the past with regard to providing advice (Abb, 2015; Glaser and Saunders, 2002; Tanner, 2002) and foreign policy is no exception (Liao Xuanli, 2006; Shambaugh, 2002). However, these organizations are obviously not independent by Western standards and it is a veritable understatement to assert that ‘under the current system, think tank scholars are required to “endorse” (beishu) government policies rather than critically evaluate policy initiatives and political dissent’ (Cheng Li, 2017: 7).

Furthermore, the capacity for providing high-quality research is extremely limited. In the area of African analysis, it is rare for think tank researchers to travel to Africa to do actual research (attending forums and conferences to pronounce on the official Chinese policy line is a different matter). As a consequence, Chinese policy research institutions have ‘a bad reputation for the quality of their policy recommendations, especially when compared with their Western counterparts’ (Menegazzi, 2014).

Indicative of the capacity problem is the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which is ostensibly the leading social science think tank in China. Analysis of Africa is run out of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies and within this, the Africa Research Office handles the continent, concentrating on political change and democratization, economic development, security issues, the African Union and regional integration, as well as Sino-African political, diplomatic, and economic relations. The Africa Research Center describes itself as ‘one of the major academic centres for African studies’ (p.113) in China, but emblematic of the low priority actually given to Africa within CASS, the Research Office only consists of three ‘senior professional’ positions, three ‘associate senior’ positions, and two assistant researchers (CASS, 2018). This makes a grand total of eight researchers working on the whole of Africa.

The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) is no better in the capacity regard, despite being among China’s largest, oldest, and most influential research institutes for international studies and affiliated to the Ministry of State Security, with oversight by the Central Committee of the CPC. Indeed, CICIR has a total of three research staff in its Institute of African Studies: two associate research professors and one full research professor (CICIR, 2018).

The China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) is the think tank of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and publishes the famous CIIS Blue Book on International Situation and China’s Foreign Affairs, which documents important trends for the previous year. However, it has no research centres devoted to Africa and CIIS’s website only has four researchers working on the continent (CIIS has a staff complement of approximately one hundred people). Indicatively, within CIIS the executive director of the China-Asia Africa Cooperation Centre, which was founded at Xi Jinping’s behest, is actually a Latin American expert. The Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS) is another government-affiliated think tank and has a Centre for West Asia and Africa Studies. Like all other think tanks in China, however, SIIS has minimal interest in Africa: it has four people working on the continent (SIIS, 2018).

Mirroring the developments between the MFA and MOFCOM, one of the more effective Chinese think tanks working on Africa is the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation (CAITEC), which is affiliated to MOFCOM. CAITEC specifically focuses on providing consulting services to government departments and businesses and undertakes market investigations and policy analyses for these. CAITEC does have an Institute of Asian and African Studies, although Africa is subsumed within the Department of West Asian and African Studies. A dedicated China–Africa Research Centre was established in 2010 but has thus far produced little. Nonetheless, in 2013, CAITEC officials developed concrete proposals for developing foreign aid country strategies specifically for Africa. Equally, CAITEC and MOFCOM approached UNDP China for advice and feedback on a draft of the second aid White Paper. And despite China not being a development assistance committee (OECD-DAC) member, MOFCOM and CAITEC officials also actively took part in the ChinaDAC Study Group in which questions around the quality of aid were deliberated (Varrall, 2016: 30). Overall, however, China’s think tanks are currently lacking with regard to Africa.

(p.114) 6.7 State-Owned Enterprises

The state-owned enterprises (SOEs) may also be considered noteworthy agents of Chinese foreign policy, given that the SOEs participate in the broad agenda of overseas economic policy and since 2000 have been actively encouraged to ‘go out’ (zou chuqu) (Hong and Sun, 2006). They are important actors in China’s domestic milieu and have a growing role abroad. It should be noted that, according to Xu Yi-Chong (2014: 824), a distinction needs to be made between large and smaller SOEs:

Large SOEs may dominate China’s investment in Africa, but their activities often constitute only a small proportion of their global activities. To compete in mature economies, their reputation is important and depends on their adoption of internationally acceptable behaviour. A large group of small SOEs and private enterprises, however, have brought into Africa fierce and unregulated competition and practices which are not acceptable in Western democracies and African countries. Tension therefore often arises between local people and these poorly regulated small enterprises.

Within the Chinese system, the directors of large SOEs are the same as high-ranking officials, in that they are routinely moved into senior political positions, such as governorships of provinces or ministerial office. Notably, the current governor of Guangdong, which is China’s richest province, was formerly general manager of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), an SOE and the main contractor for the Chinese space programme. As a result, intense personal connections link the large SOEs to the Party-state. The large SOEs are the key players in actual implementation of China’s aid in Africa; not only are they state companies and thus produce income for Beijing, but they also possess the resources and political support to finish the projects, most of which require contracting in SOEs.

The SOEs operating abroad, by their nature, start out with huge initial advantages, having access to hard assets, capital, and intellectual property. With the reform of the Chinese economy, ‘beyond these initial endowments, and once they have been restructured or partly privatized, SOEs are [now] run less as pure arms of the state and more as complex, hybrid organisations’ (Zeng and Williamson, 2007). Today, they are profit driven and act as powerful interest groups that try to inform the policy agenda in Beijing.

Yet, the problem for Beijing and SOEs vis-à-vis Sino-African policy is that many (most?) SOEs do not actually see their activities or functions as being involved in some ostensible broader geopolitical stance by Beijing. Rather, they perceive their role (and duty) as being to maximize profits, as well as accumulate (p.115) capital for either honest or dishonest reasons. There are thus numerous contradictions between the behaviour of SOEs and wider Chinese foreign policy.

In general, Chinese SOEs in Africa are concentrated in two key economic areas: energy and natural resources, and infrastructure construction (see Chapter 8). Both of these are capital intensive. ‘Given the simple fact that SOEs predominate in the resource and energy industries (not only in China but also in many other countries), it is hardly surprising that they are leading the charge’ (Chintu and Williamson, 2013). Critically, extractive industries in Africa had been plagued by numerous questions related to corruption, exploitation, human rights, and environmental damage long before China came on the scene.

Interestingly, the activities of the large Chinese SOEs in Africa encourage a variety of smaller SOEs and private players, mainly in light manufacturing, the retail sector or as sub-contractors to the large SOEs (see Chapter 13). The activities and tribulations of these actors mirror those in China where economic liberalization has not been harmonized with the elaboration of regulation.

The State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) is either the owner of, or maintains a controlling share in, over a hundred of the largest SOEs directly under the State Council. SASAC appoints the boards of directors and is concerned in any investment decision abroad which may have implications for ownership. As of 2017, its companies had a combined revenue of more than US$3.6 trillion and an estimated stock value of US$7.6 trillion, making it the largest economic organ in the entire world (South China Morning Post, 17 June 2017). It is led by the former head of the Aluminium Corporation of China, who has vice-premier rank, thus outranking line ministries such as MOFCOM and the MFA.

SASAC ‘has a clear incentive to maximize value and profit in China’s SOEs, even if these companies’ pursuit of profits ends up damaging China’s broader diplomatic or strategic interests in Africa’ (Gill and Reilly, 2007: 42). SOEs have provincial and city as well as national offices, each with their own often-divergent interests (Oi and Walder, 1999). Given that provincial SOEs make up the majority of all Chinese SOEs investing overseas, centre–province tensions—long a problem within the domestic polity (Breslin, 1996; Goodman, 1997; Goodman and Segal, 1994)—clearly have the potential to play out abroad, further complicating policy coherence.

Given that the SOEs play a large role in China’s aid towards Africa, it is important to note that there is evidence that SOEs actively seek to influence/distort China’s aid by proposing projects to the ECC at the Chinese embassy in an African country or lobbying MOFCOM and the Exim Bank through personal connections back in China. Once an SOE has become established (p.116) in an African country, staff from it actively cultivate good ties to the embassy, local government offices, and local elites. As Zhang Denghua and Smith (2017: 2339) note:

They [SOEs] are familiar with China’s aid policies, often tailoring their commercial strategies to work around policies designed to limit their influence on China’s aid programme. One example is the restriction on the number of concessional loan projects that can be undertaken by a single Chinese contractor in a given country. While the limit is set at three, companies subvert this by subcontracting the projects among themselves, typically charging a 10 per cent fee for projects that they outsource to other firms, with the side benefit of avoiding host country duty on the importation of construction materials.

Given the generally corrupt nature of many African states (and many Chinese SOEs), it is no surprise that personnel from the SOEs enter into informal cooperation with local policymakers to ensure that the African government asks for a new aid project from Beijing (see Zhangxi Cheng and Taylor, 2017). A mutually agreed side payment will be made to the African officials involved in this scam. A correlation between Chinese aid in Africa and corruption has in fact been demonstrated (see Isaksson and Kotsadam, 2018).

The large number of SOEs operating in Africa and the aggressive competition among and between them for contracts has generated profound challenges for Beijing. Additionally, while the SOEs have grown and spread out, Beijing’s ability to manage, supervise, and control their behaviour has been weakened by the ongoing effects of liberalization and the rival interests and power struggles among official state agencies tasked with policy implementation. These aspects of state–SOE dealings have seriously complicated an important aspect of the institutions involved in Sino-African relations.

6.8 China’s Provinces

Many of China’s provinces are enormously wealthy: if Nigeria (Africa’s largest economy) was a Chinese province, its GDP would mean that it would only rank twelfth in a list of the richest Chinese provinces. While provinces have no official ability to formulate or implement foreign policy, they do have a role in twinning relationships1 and in promoting economic relations, given that each local government in China is required to take a leading role in (p.117) developing its own economy. Since many of these entities are middle-income economies in their own right, a refined foreign affairs management system at the provincial level, invariably managed by a small leading group dealing with foreign affairs headed by either the provincial governor or Party secretary, operates.

After 1994, there was a restructuring of the central government–provincial relationship into a pattern of ‘strong localities and strong centre’ (Chen Zhimin and Jian Junbo, 2009). Under provincial leadership, the provincial Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) and the Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Commission (FTEC) are the two key agency organs engaging with local foreign relations for the individual provinces. The FAO, which operates under the provincial leadership in collaboration with the MFA, manages general local foreign relations for the province. The FAO has the duty of implementing Beijing’s foreign interests locally through, inter alia, organizing the reception of important foreign visitors and the visits of provincial delegations abroad. The FAO also organizes and promotes activities with the sister cities and provinces of foreign countries, and guides the foreign-related activities of other provincial and local government departments.

The FTEC (in some provinces this has been reorganized as the Department of Commerce), is primarily concerned with provincial foreign economic relations. A standard provincial FTEC is in charge of executing Beijing’s policies regarding external trade. FTEC takes an active role in scrutinizing and then supporting a foreign investment decision by a provincial SOE, but also conducts market exploration research abroad and also engages in trade promotion strategies. In summary, provinces act as ‘not just agents of the central government in Africa, but also its partners’ (Chen Zhimin and Jian Junbo, 2009: 15). While constrained by the institutional framework of Chinese diplomacy, many provinces have carved out niches for themselves in Africa and influence local manifestations of the China–Africa relationship. ‘The central government remains as the dominating actor in China’s foreign relations; nevertheless, the provinces have raised their profile on the international stage, and made themselves important foreign policy players in low-politics areas’ (Chen Zhimin, Jian Junbo, and Chen Diyuc, 2010: 335).

6.9 The Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)

FOCAC, established in 2000, is a platform established in collaboration with African countries for collective consultation and dialogue. FOCAC ministerial (p.118) summits take place every three years, alternately in China and Africa. The existence of FOCAC might be best seen as the formal institutionalization of Sino-African relations (Taylor, 2011). The first Forum met in October 2000 in Beijing and was attended by nearly eighty ministers from forty-four African countries. The second Ministerial Conference was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 2003 and passed the Addis Ababa Action Plan (2004–6). The FOCAC Summit and the third Ministerial Conference were held in Beijing from November 2006, whilst FOCAC IV met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2009. The fifth Ministerial Conference was held in July 2012 in Beijing, while the second FOCAC Summit and sixth Ministerial Conference were held in December 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the time of writing, a summit is planned for September 2018 in Beijing.

Chinese sources claim that it was African leaders who initiated and asked for a summit. He Wenping (2007: 147) asserts that: ‘At the end of the 1990s, some African countries proposed that as the US, Britain, France, Japan and Europe had established mechanisms for contact with Africa, it was necessary for China and Africa to establish a similar mechanism to fit in with the need to strengthen relations. After earnest study, China decided to echo the suggestions of African countries, and proposed to hold the Forum in 2000’. However, it was China that publicly initiated the move: in October 1999, then President Jiang Zemin wrote to all heads of African states, as well as the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Unity, to formally propose the convening of a Sino-African forum. In his letter he outlined principles for carrying out consultation on an equal footing, enhancing understanding, increasing consensus, promoting friendship, and furthering cooperation. When this was greeted with a favourable reception, the Chinese established a preparatory committee consisting of eighteen ministries. FOCAC has quickly proved to be a major feature in Africa’s international relations. Whatever the origins, FOCAC has developed as a very public manifestation of formalized Sino-African relations.

What is notable about FOCAC is its emphasis on trade and commerce. The formation of the China–Africa Joint Business Council and the China–Africa Products Exhibition Centre are emblematic of this. As Alves notes:

The strong commitment of the Chinese central government in the creation of the Forum clearly illustrates the growing importance of economic affairs in China’s relations with Africa at the beginning of the 21st century…Economic matters…have been the strongest component of the Forum since its founding.

(2008: 72)

Another notable element of FOCAC is its strong emphasis on results. FOCAC consists of various mechanisms for future dialogue on China–Africa ties and a Follow-up Committee of FOCAC coordinates follow-up actions of all Chinese departments. The procedures state that the ministerial meeting of the Forum (p.119) will be held every three years in China and an African country by turns, and that a senior officials’ meeting will be held twice, one year before and several days before the main FOCAC ministerial meeting. In addition, the Beijing-based African diplomatic corps and the Secretariat of the Chinese Follow-up Committee of FOCAC hold regular sessions. A formal strategic dialogue mechanism has also been established between China and the African Union.

A chief problem with FOCAC, however, is that China is very much in control of the whole process and it is Beijing that sets the agenda, and the declarations and outcomes. Africa plays a bit-part at best, largely because of the obvious asymmetry but also because of the lack of any coherent African voice to shape the relationships. In these circumstances, even if China’s policymakers wanted to make FOCAC more ‘Africa centric’, it would be difficult for Beijing policymakers to engage with any unified voice beyond platitudes from the African Union or the regional bodies. In fact, there is rarely any unified African voice on anything and so it is perhaps understandable that FOCAC has played out as it has. As The Economist noted:

Africa’s leaders could also play their hands rather better. They should talk to each other as well as their hosts in Beijing. If they negotiated as a block, they could drive a harder bargain. Just as China insists that foreigners enter into joint ventures with its companies, so Africans should make sure they get China’s know-how, not just its money.

(The Economist, 26 October 2006)

This indeed is a serious problem. Africa’s leadership has, in general, promoted and fostered dependent relationships with the Western capitalist powers and there is a danger that FOCAC may simply reproduce this dependency. An Africa where external actors consume the continent’s resources and add little to African self-development is something which has staked out much of post-colonial Africa’s trajectory. In these circumstances, African elites attending forums such as FOCAC can, from a particular perspective, be seen as characters reduced to beggars angling for some Chinese largesse, rather than development-conscious participants and certainly not ‘partners’.

6.10 Summarizing Sino-African Ties: Coordination and Friction

If the question of the institutions that manage Sino-African relations could be reduced to its essence, a key point stands out: China is not a unitary actor. This may seem elemental, but judging from much of the literature on Sino-African relations, it seems to have been overlooked. As the Chinese leadership has pursued its (admittedly uneven) post-Mao economic liberalization policies, they have encountered increasing difficulties in controlling—or even keeping (p.120) abreast of—the diverse activities in which various Chinese corporations and actors are engaged overseas. Although major oil and other energy-based companies are probably under constant supervision (which rivalries may however complicate; see Chapter 9), the huge proliferation of small-scale traders operating in Africa, very often private individuals or families, is all but impossible to manage. Weak rule of law, endemic corruption, and bureaucratic tendencies at every level of government means that the central leadership is in a perpetual and losing struggle to keep up with a surging economy, whether domestic or when it is projected overseas. While there is evidence that Xi Jinping is seeking to re-centralize power, the ability to do so at home is debateable and when extended to far-flung activities in Africa or elsewhere, unlikely.

Integral to the shift within China towards capitalism has been the abundance of new actors alongside the relative decline in Beijing’s capacity to manage and regulate developments. Chinese relations with Africa have thus become, in many ways, ‘normalized’, which is to say diverse, and involving multiple actors, rather than state directed and state controlled, which was the case before the reform period. Tracing the institutional networks that may inform this relationship is increasingly complicated and often opaque. This may be why so many analyses reduce relations between ‘China’ and ‘Africa’ to an almost bilateral level.

Another key point is that Chinese policy towards Africa is evolving and its institutions are often behind the curve in managing this evolution. Although the Chinese have considered their approach to Africa to be benign, they are beginning to feel exposed by the intricacies of Africa’s politics. Kidnappings in Nigeria, the murders of Chinese workers in Ethiopia, anti-Chinese riots in Zambia, a high-profile campaign against the Beijing Olympics over China’s role in Darfur—all of these have provided a steep learning curve. Chinese institutions have necessarily had to adapt and learn as the relationship deepens and matures.

However, a perennial problem for Beijing is that the Chinese state obviously has no wish to broadcast the reality of its power being diffused or that foreign policy is mediated, refracted—and at times distorted—by the myriad of actors and institutions outlined above. Bodies such as FOCAC, but also the MFA and MOFCOM, in this sense compound the problem, as no Chinese official is going to publicly admit that China’s Africa policies are in fact not necessarily under the firm control of Beijing. Yet when one examines even SOEs, actual state control and direction is often nominal and even the largest Chinese companies, which remain under direct government control, are motivated by competition and the profit margin, and behave relatively autonomously. None of this is acknowledged by the sort of rhetoric that emanates from official Chinese sources.

(p.121) In fact, just as Beijing has long had difficulty controlling what companies, domestic or foreign, do in China, what Chinese actors do abroad has amplified the problem. Control over external investment has already been relaxed, and ongoing reforms progressively make it easier for companies to act alone. Although Beijing has made concerted efforts to educate Chinese traders operating in Africa about local labour laws and safety standards and made patriotic appeals to protect the image of China abroad, there is the distinct possibility it has failed on both counts (see Chapter 12). In these circumstances, ‘The conception of a rich and powerful China that can…have a significant impact on policymakers across the world sits rather uneasily with analyses of serious domestic problems’ (Breslin, 2007: 27). This is problematic for Beijing policymakers if and when Chinese companies do not deliver or they misbehave, as official Chinese pronouncements have been carefully crafted to give the impression that the central state is indeed in charge of operations.

Ultimately, neither Beijing nor Africa’s leaders are ‘in charge’ of Sino-African relations. Africa has no credible China policy and in any case each individual country manages and directs (more or less) relations with Beijing and the myriad Chinese actors engaged with the continent. Only a handful of African states, those with serious governments and with developmental visions, seem to grasp the need to engage and negotiate mutually beneficial relationships. Elsewhere it seems that some regimes take what they can get today, with no thought of the future and no credible China policy in place. In turn, China’s official African policy and the institutions involved are to a degree compromised by the nature of the Chinese state and the increasingly liberalized economy in the way they can—or cannot direct—the multitude of Chinese actors engaging with the continent. In short, China’s relations with the continent are ever more complicated, increasingly like other external actors involved in Africa. The institutional framework of Sino-African relations reflects this.


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(1) In the PRC, the more advanced provinces (or municipalities) have aided the less developed provinces to grow, a scheme known as duikou zhiyuan (‘twinning assistance’). A comparable programme has been pursued by China abroad, initially most notably in Beijing’s aid programmes and specifically in the medical teams, begun in 1963, which have been sent abroad. Medical teams from individual provinces and municipalities were sent to their twin and each Chinese province was allocated at least one African country as their twin. Examples would include, inter alia, Zhejiang being twinned with Mali, Tianjin with Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon, and Fujian with Botswana and Senegal.