Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Cash of Civilizations: How African Civilization Has Found Another Dupe in Chinese Efforts to Buy Long-Term Control through Short-Term Deals

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Cash of Civilizations: How African Civilization Has Found Another Dupe in Chinese Efforts to Buy Long-Term Control through Short-Term Deals

Article excerpt


Today there is increasing speculation concerning the consequences of the emergence of the Peoples Republic of China as a major power. This was exemplified by the theme of the 2012 ISCSC conference: "The Coming Clash of Civilizations: China versus the West."

In engaging in such speculations, it would be wise to remember the explanation of Arnold Toynbee that:

"I reject the present-day habit of studying history in terms of national states; these seem to be fragments of something larger: a civilization. In so far as man needs to classify information before interpreting it, this large scale unit seems to me to be less distorting than a smaller scale."1

Unfortunately because so much study and data is compiled under the rubric of the nation state, this can be harder to accomplish than conceive. Thus it is that the growth of the nation of China, and the relative change in the conditions of the United States of America as a nation, are so often cited as examples of the historic transformation that is occurring in today's world.

It is often stated that in Africa, China is displacing, and potentially clashing with, both former colonial powers and the U.S. It has become the continent's largest provider of development funding and provides, as well, a stream of Chinese immigrants. These immigrants are establishing themselves as individual economic actors across a spectrum of African economic sectors, small, medium and large.

Forty years ago, when I first went to Africa, the Chinese were present as small teams that Mao Zedong sent to build and run power plants, hospitals, industrial plants, and other major infrastructure assets. What then characterized the Chinese in Africa was their insularity from the Africans themselves.

Back then, while many Chinese had been taught the local language, they only used it in their formal functions. Otherwise, when they did venture beyond their official locations, they would walk together in groups, closely huddled next to one another, and not directly engaging anyone else on the street.

Though the Chinese built important infrastructure for the continent of Africa, and sold large quantities of cheap goods there, the greatest influence - the dominant foreign presence - in Africa over the last years of the Twentieth Century were the Western donors, especially the former colonial powers. The Westerners didn't have to speak the local language because the elite spoke theirs - often the direct result of massive assistance for overseas studies in American and European universities. Western donor assistance also included significant investment in both "hard" concrete infrastructure and "soft" institution building in terms of operational, managerial and technical assistance.

The "soft" aspects were seen as key to both immediate operational efficiency and longterm sustainability by Africans themselves. Private Western companies made money from assistance-related activities. However, they generally shied away from long term commitments and substantial in-country investment; this was due to their general discomfort with Africa's highly uncertain investment climate, its lack of a wellestablished rule of law, and the capricious demands and changing personalities of local politics.

Today, dramatically, much has changed.

The Chinese are present not only officially but also informally. They are private business people, heads of large construction firms, restaurant owners, food and flower farmers, and sellers of assorted sundries in local markets. It is estimated that more than one million Chinese men and women may live in Africa today.2

In addition, large Chinese state corporations have ever-growing interests in extracting African oil, timber and minerals. We note: Chinese state companies, unlike Western companies, feel very much at home working through the machinations of centrally controlled political economies. Moreover, the Chinese government itself has tried to buy large tracts of land to produce export food for the Chinese mainland market. …

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