Book review: “The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa” by Deborah Brautigam




Book review: The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. By Deborah Brautigam. Oxford University Press, 2010. 416 pages (R$28,32 ebook,

My frequent visits to Southern Africa in the 1990s (part of my extended family lives in South Africa and Zimbabwe) are among the most vivid memories of my childhood - whether it was driving a car for the first time in the outskirts of Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) as a thirteen-year old, or listening to the Soccer World Cup Final between France and Brazil on via satellite radio in Botswana. Back then, Chinese-owned shops existed in larger cities' markets, but seeing Chinese people in the countryside was a rarity.

When I returned to the continent in 2008, after a decade-long absence, the most striking difference was China's presence in everyday life - not only in commerce, but also in infrastructure construction, tourism and the political debate. In Ethiopia, driving up north from the capital to the Eritrean border, it seemed to me as if the Chinese single-handedly sought to fix the country's entire road network. In the capital, Addis Abeba, Chinese-built hospitals, schools and offices caught every visitor's attention.

China's growing influence in Africa is, without a doubt, the most important event in African history since the end of the Cold War. Given the rapidity of events, our understanding of this complex phenomenon is still limited, and very basic questions remain unanswered:  What is China really doing in Africa? Do Africans benefit from Chinese investments? Will China spur economic development or deindustrialization? Will China integrate into today's aid regime, or will it disregard established structures such as the DAC, the Paris Declaration and the Working Party of Aid Effectiveness? What does this mean for the future of aid? Will China's activity in Africa undermine Western efforts to promote human rights, good governance and democracy? Given scant available data and China's unwillingness to be transparent about their activities and intentions in Africa, the discussion is often based on anecdotes, rough estimates and rumors. For example, there exists a general confusion about what constitutes Chinese aid, loans and investments, and these figures are often thrown together, creating an uninformed debate.

Deborah Brautigam has studied China in Africa for decades, and her latest book arguably provides the best analysis on the market. In a very well-structured and data-rich compilation, Brautigam is able to dispel popular myths; for example about China's supposedly negative influence on governance in African states.

In Chapter 1, the author reviews the origins and history of Western and Chinese aid and the conceptual frameworks that guide them. This analysis shows that the two are by no means as different as one would assume. In fact, China's approach is often based on its experience as a recipient of Japanese and Western aid. In addition, she shows that China has been a donor country for decades, complicating the term 'emerging donor'. In fact, in many African countries China was a more important donor than the Soviet Union in the 1960s, which eventually led to a UN General Assembly vote that gave Beijing the seat on the UN Security Council in 1971, until then occupied by Taiwan. What is notable is that even at the height of Maoist fervor, when China gave aid to over seventy countries (making up a whopping 5% of China's GDP), it rarely advised African recipients to adopt its economic model.

Chapter 2 analyses how China's transformation under Deng Xiaoping affected its aid strategy: Opening its economy to the world, China carefully studied how industrialized nations such as Japan entered the Chinese market - offering technology and taking China's natural resources in exchange. This experience turned out to be instrumental in shaping China's strategy in Africa. In China's early aid projects in Africa, one can witness the interweaving of aid and trade, a concept still alien to the West. This chapter reveals that trilateral cooperation is by no means a novelty - as early as the 1980s, China made serious efforts to win projects in Africa financed by other donors.

In Chapter 3, Brautigam shows how China's accession to the WTO helped integrate China into the global economy. At the same time, she details how Western aid underwent a shift from manufacturing and infrastructure towards social development, symbolized by the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). This created an historic opportunity for the Chinese. In the late 1990s, many Chinese state-owned companies operating in Africa were privatized, and often former aid projects turned into profitable business operations. By "crossing the river by feeling the stones", the Chinese aid strategy devised in 1995 often helped Chinese companies enter previously unknown markets. The fascinating difficulty to categorize China's activities in Africa as either aid or trade is the key theme of the first part of the book. Providing one of many instructive examples, Brautigam writes: "In a pattern that would become standard for the mix of aid and business, the Chinese company financed a share of the cost (about a quarter, in the Benin case) in return for the right to run the center for fifty years, after which it would be turned over to the host country."

Chapter 4 provides a meticulous overview over China's aid system, including its youth volunteer program. The Chinese government's three key institutions involved in aid are the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the China Eximbank, again reflecting the multi-purpose character of its aid program. In traditional donor countries such as Germany, on the other hand, such activities are centralized at the altruistically-sounding Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. While China's aid system is certainly complex and "fragmented", Brautigam's analysis allows the reader to  see that a certain logic prevails - quite to the contrary to other emerging donors such as Brazil and India, where aid is often provided after ad hoc declarations, seemingly lacking an overall coherence. This does not mean that China's aid structure is problem-free; quite to the contrary. Given that China has both political and economic interests in Africa, there is a constant tension between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce, the latter of which is more interested in the projects' profitability. According to Brautigam, the Ministry of Commerce is increasingly calling the shots, taking decisions jointly with the powerful Eximbank, by far the world's largest credit agency, which is at the center of China's strategy of "going global." The CDB (China Development Bank), much larger than Eximbank, has traditionally focused on domestic projects, but is also slowly moving into the African market. This chapter also shows how China invests in "soft power" in Africa - every year, it provides scholarships for more almost 20,000 African students to study in China - the West, by contrast, is slowly disengaging from this practice.

Chapter 5 begins with an anecdote that shows that sometimes it is the small details that set China's activities in Africa apart from those in the West: In Sierra Leone, Brautigam meets Italian engineers who are working on a dam. They eat food flown in from Rome and live in European-style homes especially built for them by the site. The Chinese agronomists next door, on the other hand, grow their own vegetables and "slept in bunks in a building that would later be used to store rice." It is aspects like these which may partly explain why non-Western donors are often more popular in Africa than Western ones. While Chinese aid is very similar to Western aid in many aspects, there are key differences - agreements such as the resource-backed infrastructure loans, a model China used with several African countries such as Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, symbolize a typically "straight-to-the-point" Chinese approach: "You want infrastructure built? You have natural resources to guarantee a loan? We have a deal." Also, the analysis largely debunks the myth that the Chinese send "hordes of experts" that allow for no local capacity building, an common accusation in the West. In fact, both the West and China are still struggling to effectively transfer skills.

Chapter 6 is quite technical, but sheds light on one of the major confusions in the field: What counts as aid and what does not. Quoting the OECD, Brautigam shows that bilateral transactions, whatever their grant element, do not count as aid if their purpose is primarily export facilitating. As many Chinese projects contain such an element, OECD definitions are not particularly useful. In China's Statistical Yearbook, China publishes its aid figures, but it includes military expenditures, which the OECD excludes. Applying OECD definitions, Brautigam estimates that China spent about US$ 2.5 billion with development aid in Africa (compared to US$ 7.6 by the US), figures much lower than commonly assumed since they do not include Eximbank and CDB loans. The author cites a series of incidents in which exaggerated or simply wrong aid figures published in newspapers or magazines made their way into a World Bank report; which suggests that some journalists have an interest in artificially boosting China's influence as this easily makes headlines in the West. The author does confirm, however, that China surpassed the World Bank as Africa's top lender, although the types of loans differ. When counting all financial flows, both aid and commercial, Europe still dominates, ahead of the US and China.

Chapter 7 analyzes the impact China's presence has had on Africa's economy so far, questioning common assertions that Chinese investment is responsible for the deindustrialization of African economies. Brautigam shows that such a generalizing claim is not sustainable. In several cases, Chinese involvement has helped spur growth, although this is mostly if African businesses are competitive enough to benefit from recent developments. After surveying the autoparts industry in this chapter, in Chapter 8 she provides some interesting background information about the leather industry, part of which may soon move from China to Africa. Brautigam's basic argument is that evidence that Chinese competition had a negative impact on African industries is simply not conclusive. South Africa's textile industry, she notes, had been in decline long before the arrival of Chinese goods. Rather than pointing fingers, African producers should invest in increasing productivity - an advice commonly made to industrialists around the world who call on their government to adopt protective measures against Chinese competition. The same is true for China's supposed lacking willingness to employ locals. Data on the matter is scarce, but she estimates that at least 80% of workers employed in Chinese companies are local.

Chapter 9 details China's attempt to "export the Green Revolution" to Africa, challenging powerful corporations such as Monsanto in the field of agrotechnology. The rationale remains the same - helping African farmers and involving Chinese companies in hybrid seed multiplication in Africa eventually helps them turn into global actors. China's efforts are thus similar to those by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), supported by the Bill and Melina Gates Foundation. It remains to be seen whether China succeeds in turning African farmers into its customers of hybrid seeds. Potentially countering Chinese ambitions, AGRA seeks to promote conventional seeds. Chapter 10 makes clear that China, with 20% of the world's populations but only 7% of its arable land, also has a strategic interest in agriculture in Africa: In 2003, China turned into a net food importer, making it vulnerable and keen to establish a 'food storage' in Africa. As Brautigam's account from Sierra Leone shows, land is a sensitive aspect and Chinese large-scale farming may lead to political tension. While Brautigam argues that the numbers of Chinese who have permanently settled in Africa is often exaggerated, she agrees that poor governance makes the current land rush worrisome, especially considering Sub-Saharan Africa's history of land-based inequality.

In Chapter 11, the author methodically analyzes a list of "myths" about China's involvement in Africa. Rather than arguing that China's activities are entirely unproblematic, she nicely shows how black-and-white depictions of an altruistic West and an evil China are far off the mark. In the same way, Western assertions that China is only in Africa to "gobble up its natural resources" (as The Economist writes) ignore a much more complex reality. In some instances, the opposite is true: In Nigeria, Chinese companies are active in all sectors of the economy, while Western companies focus mostly on oil. The Western belief that Beijing somehow directs Chinese companies according to a master-plan is equally mistaken: Most Chinese companies are independent and free to sell their produce to the highest bidder. China's supposedly negative impact on human rights and democracy in Africa is also questionable: While it is true that Chinese investors worry little about such issues, neither do many Western firms. Regarding aid, the author rightly points out that Cameroon and Ethiopia, hardly beacons of democracy, are among the West's largest aid recipients. Similarly, tales that China alonehelped  Mugabe's brutal regime survive in Zimbabwe are hardly sustainable, although its sales of weapons to Mugabe were indeed deplorable. One may argue that rather than making certain problems such as repression and corruption in Africa worse, China has done little to make it better.

The book's overall assessment of the dragon's gift to Africa is thus ambiguous, but it has a strongly positive connotation. After all, she rightly notes, China has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty at home (largely without foreign aid), something that decades of Western aid have failed to achieve in Africa. China may therefore offer some useful lessons to African governments.

Brautigam is a pioneer in the field (as well as a great adventurer, as her entertaining anecdotes attest), and her book has turned into a reference work indispensable for all those who seek to understand the momentous shift that is taking place in Africa.

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