China in Africa: empire-builders or alliance-makers?

China’s motives, like the West’s, are mixed, but it clearly has a role to play in building capacity in African higher education

April 21, 2016
Image of African continent
Source: iStock

“Across Africa, radio call-in programmes are buzzing with tales of Africans, usually men, bemoaning the loss of their spouses and partners to rich Chinese men. ‘He looks short and ugly like a pygmy but I guess he has money,’ complained one lovelorn man on a recent Kenyan show.”

So began an article published in The Economist last year, focusing on a growing “backlash” against China’s broad involvement in Africa.

The narrative of so-called South-South exploitation is well known: over the past decade, China has been accused of swooping in on African industry, targeting the minerals that have fuelled its boom years in particular.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2013, Lamido Sanusi, the former governor of Nigeria’s central bank, said Africa was at risk of a “new form of imperialism”, in which China buys commodities and sells back manufactured goods. It may still be classed as a developing country (as its chunk of Western aid budgets attests), but the world’s second largest economy is “capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West”, he said.

So how fair is this assessment of China as a perpetrator of South-South use and abuse?

There are some signs that it may be exaggerated. The Economist pointed out that, in terms of direct foreign investment in the continent, China lags behind Britain, the US and Italy, while African trade with India was actually growing at a faster rate than that with China (the figures date from 2012).

And in this week’s cover story, we consider China’s involvement in African higher education – an area undoubtedly ripe for investment (note the rise of private “teaching shops” in the continent), and a source of “soft power” benefits for those with expansionist ambitions.

- View the best universities in Africa 2016
- What Chinese investment means for African higher education

Our feature highlights China’s development of so-called “capacity building colleges” in the continent, scholarship programmes (including for Africans to study and train in China), Confucius Institutes and institutional and research links. We also publish data from Elsevier shining a spotlight on African research performance, and in our news pages we reveal a snapshot ranking of Africa’s top-performing universities.

Ultimately, the impression is that China’s engagement in higher education is far less aggressive than it may have been in other areas.

And for Africa’s sake, that’s as it should be. As Ross Anthony, interim director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, points out, there is little reason for the continent to align itself too closely with one country, be it China or anywhere else.

The challenges facing African higher education are extensive, and include the development of research capacity, the shortage of student places in the face of growing demand, the flight of academic talent to more developed systems overseas, and a chronic lack of graduate career opportunities, which leaves young people with great potential both underutilised and disaffected.

These issues will be discussed at the second THE Africa Universities Summit from 27 to 29 April, but what was clear at last year’s summit, held at the University of Johannesburg, is that sustainable solutions must come from within.

Collaboration, partnerships and investment are vital, and China has a significant role to play alongside developed Western systems. But Africa needs African solutions to African problems, and is right to be wary of anything that looks like excessive intervention, however well-meaning it may be.

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