In 2005, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal, satirical essay, How to Write About Africa, urged outsiders to conjure descriptions that are “romantic and evocative and unparticular”, talk of safari animals, the African light, big skies and always “treat Africa as if it were one country”.
On those criteria, new China president Xi Jinping’s cliché-heavy first speech on African turf as head of state has measured up all too well. Addressing Tanzanian dignitaries in a Chinese-built conference hall on his first trip to Africa as head of state, Xi spoke of his welcome being “as warm and as unforgettable as the sunshine in Africa” and characterised the economy as “forging ahead like a galloping African lion”.
He also spoke of the warm reception received by a Chinese television series in Tanzania and told a story about a young Chinese couple who honeymooned in the Serengeti and wrote a blogpost on their return that was a bit of a hit in China, which said: “We have completely fallen in love with Africa and our hearts will always be in this land.”
In a blow to Xi’s stated aim of treating Africans as “equals”, Wainaina said the tone of the imagery offered “cheap sentiment” that “smacks of paternalism”.
“China’s charm offensive seems to want to assume there are no serious cultural and intellectual exchanges and conversations to be had,” said Wainaina after reading excerpts of the speech. “I do not get a sense of what Africans are thinking and planning… what African thinkers mean to a growing China. If a Chinese leader cannot begin to articulate what Africa is to them with more substance, Africans should be worried.”
Such sentiments should also worry China, which seems to be failing in its efforts to sidestep allegations of neo-colonial attitudes that mar Africa’s relations the west and to deliver the “bosom” friendship Xi said he espouses.
This month, Nigeria central bank governor Lamido Sanusi described China’s trading relations with Africa in the FT as “the essence of colonialism” and characterised China not so much as a partner as a competitor. China’s best route to winning favour with African leaders has so far consisted in construction contracts, resource investment and in never interfering in domestic and regional wrangles, in distinct contrast to western partners, several of whom are former colonial powers that regularly weigh in on African politics.
Xi today reiterated this political stance, saying China “will continue to offer necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached” and that “China opposes interference in others’ internal affairs”.
“They are in Africa for their own interest, [but] they’re not going to try to impose their world view on anybody, they’re very neutral – that tends to suit most African governments,” said Ali Mufuruki, a leading Tanzanian entrepreneur, following Xi’s speech.
But turning a blind eye to national politics has sometimes proved impossible, as with kidnappings of its workers in South Sudan, disruption to its oil supply in both Sudan and South Sudan when the two fell out and given attacks targeting Chinese workers in Zambia and indeed in Tanzania.
Xi was quick to note a growing programme of cultural exchange, scholarships and technical transfer to nurture talent and boost “a natural feeling of kinship”. But for that to develop, a more delicate balance and greater assertion by African countries is still needed, says Mufuruki. “Africa is something the Chinese really need – they’re here to do business to suit their people. It’s up to Africa to work out how to deal with them.”
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