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Some things never change

NEWS AND ANALYSIS

Some things never change

Anyone who follows the China in Africa debate knows how much Western governments and economic experts oppose Chinese influence and investment in Africa. They have their reasons, some discussed in other articles in this cover story.

But hitherto confidential, now declassified records at the British National Archives obtained by New African reveal that Britain and its allies’ passion to halt Chinese influence in its former colonies is nothing new. In fact Western indignation against China in Africa, as one African expert on China puts it, is “an old phenomenon entrenched in institutionalised paranoia”.

New African has spent a great deal of time at the Kew-based National Archives in London sifting through mounds of documents relating to China in Africa, dating back to colonial rule and immediately post-independent Africa – some of which you can catch a glimpse of here – and they pointedly expose just that.

For example, a telegram dated 20 March 1957, from the Colonial Office in Ghana to the Foreign Office in London, addressed to a Mr. J. H. A. Watson Esq., reads in part: “Thank you for your letter of March 6th about arguments that might be used to dissuade Ghana from agreeing to a possible request from Peking [Beijing] government for an exchange of diplomatic representatives.”

Another, dated 6 September 1960, stamped Secret and entitled  China’s Immediate Aims in Africa, mentions in one paragraph: “special information work designed to expose Chinese and Communist intentions and warn Africans of their [Chinese] dangers in expanding into Africa…”

It goes on to tabulate the aims in bullet points:

  • To establish formal diplomatic relations with a greater number of African countries…;
  • To woo African votes at the United Nations, where the Chinese now appear to be more keen to be seated than they have in the past admitted…;
  • To promote Afro-Asian Solidarity… this was a main theme of Mr Chou En-lai’s [Zhou Enlai] visit to Africa…;
  • To get African support in the Sino-Soviet dispute;
  • To win African support for Chinese policies in general;
  • To subvert pro-Western governments which are having difficulty in maintaining their authority; weak central governments threatened by rebellion as in the Congo are the obvious target;
  • To develop trade – the Chinese need fine quality East African cotton to fulfill their present trading commitments and they have  shown an interest in Saharan oil; they have even been prepared to expand their trade with [apartheid] South Africa…;”

The document then appears to offer possible counter-solutions to all this: “The most effective positive counter-measure to Chinese influences is continued Western economic involvement in Africa and the policy of contributing to the continent’s economic development through trade and aid. Britain plays a large part in this. The Commonwealth machinery for continuing consultation is useful, as are British and Western positive efforts in the field of technical cooperation and information.”

Yet another document, dealing with Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah and Chinese aid to Africa, states: “Principal aid is interest-free and takes the form of equipment, commodities and manpower…Kenyans have expressed pleasure at the relatively unconditional nature of the loans… but the principle of self-help is not so likely to appeal to Africans, who lack Chinese energy and efficiency, and feel that they need capital investment rather that exhortations to hard work from non-Africans.

When President Nkrumah dwelt on what Africans could learn from China’s ‘do-it-yourself’ methods, it was probably Chinese aid and technical training that he was seeking, rather than economic planning. The Chinese may therefore win some friends in Africa through their aid and technical assistance, but will probably be disappointed if they expect Africans to apply the principle of self-help.”

But this is just a tiny snippet of what the declassified documents offer – a mine of information that helps dispel a lot of myths and shed better light on China’s relations in Africa, past, present and future. We will never have enough editorial space to expose them all…but you get the drift!

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