Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Review: “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa

Deborah Brautigam offers an account of China-Africa interaction which emphasises the prospects for African development.
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Western accounts of China’s interaction with Africa, blighted by a loss of influence, are overwhelmingly negative. Refreshingly, The Dragon’s Gift, by Deborah Brautigam is much more nuanced in its account of Sino-African interaction, the geopolitical hot potato of the 21st century.

While to some extent the title of the book gives away where Brautigam stands on the issue of Chinese investment and aid in Africa, the provocative title must be seen as something of a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the discourse promoted by Western media and academia.  The book does not fall into the trap of characterising China’s interests as either good or evil. Instead it makes use of specific, empirical examples to intriguingly argue that despite the numerous ‘challenges and opportunities’ arising from Chinese aid and investment, offering Africa an olive branch for development is a central tenet of Chinese engagement. In teaching African states the lessons of China’s own developmental experiences, China is acting on its win-win rhetoric, and creating a partnership that is beneficial to both parties; Africa gets prospects for development through knowledge transfer and large-scale Chinese investments, while China gains access to new markets, natural resources, and acquires political currency in the continent.

Brautigam’s experiences of living in Africa and Asia and of researching in numerous African countries are obvious throughout this immaculately researched book. Such emipirical evidence lends credence to Brautigam’s argument and is testament to her strong local knowledge in Africa and vast array of reputable contacts. The careful attention paid to local businesses like wax print fabric industries in Nigeria and hide tanners in Ethiopia creates a richness that forces a re-conceptualisation of the orthodox views of China in Africa. Brautigam is unafraid to use examples that might be seen to strengthen China's critics such as job losses in African manufacturing industries, but she also shows a bold assertiveness in highlighting the promise of African industrialisation through Chinese engagement.

The book offers insightful analysis into how China’s attempts to move up the economic value-chain may lead to labour-intensive industries moving into Africa, as part of an economic paradigm known as the “flying geese” model. The book hones in on some of China’s promised investments in Africa in the form of Export Processing Zones (EPZs), also called Special Economic Zones, in countries as varied as Nigeria, Mauritius, and Zambia. Undoubtedly technology transfer and joint-ventures between African and Chinese companies are crucial to long-term African development goals; however, the book needs to more convincingly argue that these processes are underway. The book would have benefited from more honesty on the Chinese aversion to sourcing local inputs, and could also have done more to negate persistent fears that EPZs simply create enclave economies with no real benefit for the wider economy. 

Furthermore, the book is silent on the inequalities EPZs have created within China itself; one cannot talk of an African Shenzhen without being open about the costs of such economic policies in terms of economic inequality. In promoting the positives of Chinese investment the book begins to fall into the very trap of "unreality" that Brautigam seeks to avoid, because it overlooks economic factors such as China’s vastly underdeveloped interior which is a more likely destination for China’s relocating mature industries than African states with higher labour costs and poor infrastructure. In seeking to avoid the exaggerated fears of Chinese engagement it is important not to then turn full-circle by overemphasising the opportunities that China offers.

On aid, the book offers a rigorous statistical analysis of the sums of official and unofficial aid flowing from China to Africa, although given the secrecy of China’s development assistance it is important to treat the book’s stats as an estimate rather than a fact. Brautigam is right to draw attention to the vastly exaggerated sums of Chinese aid in Africa, and her argument benefits from a sense of perspective that is all too often missing in such debates. While China has often been accused of pursuing an aid programme characterised as having "no-strings attached", it is interesting to understand the genuine ideological underpinnings behind Chinese aid policy. The rejection of a one-size-fits-all approach is not simply a matter of political convenience, but a belief that economic and political policies must be appropriate to a specific country if they are to be successful.

The central line of argument throughout the book is that Chinese activities in Africa have not only been misrepresented, but simply fail to acknowledge the numerous positives on the balance sheet of Sino-African relations. The biggest strength of Brautigam’s work is its hard-hitting analysis of what she labels the "myths and realities" of Chinese engagement in Africa. The book must be applauded for the numerous occasions in which it lays bare the factual inaccuracies of stories regarding China in Africa, such as wildly exaggerated claims regarding Chinese investment in cultivatable Zimbabwean land and constant finger pointing over corruption allegations.

Ultimately the book concludes with the sort of perspicacity that the Chinese are renowned for. China is in Africa for the long-term. Maintaining a relationship which is beneficial to Africa will require African leaders making the right decisions and maintaining relations that are strategically beneficial both economically and politically. 

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