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Great expectations

Daniel Large | April 13, 2010

The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, by Deborah Brautigam. Oxford University Press, 2009, 397 pp.

A review by Daniel Large

Most inter-governmental gatherings tend to be relatively obscure events, attracting little attention. But occasionally they signal shifts that are likely to have lasting impacts. One such event was the third Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in Beijing in 2006, which made China’s African relations visible to the wider world. Then, at the fourth forum in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2009, the Chinese announced new measures to strengthen their strategic partnership with Africa, ensuring that China’s relations with Africa will continue to be a regular feature of media, academic and policy discussions.

Interest in China’s accelerated expansion into the vast continent of Africa soared after 2006. 1 It did so, however, in the absence of hard information about the Chinese engagement. Mainstream media tended to simplify and exaggerate the relationship. Binary formulas were commonly used to describe China’s ‘new’ role in Africa (the ‘new colonialist’, the ‘new hegemon’) and Africa’s apparent ‘new’ position in Chinese foreign policy (the ‘new Sinosphere’, China’s ‘new Wild West’). China’s motivations were frequently reduced to resource supply imperatives, and its relations with Africa were evaluated in zero–sum terms (positive–negative, threat–opportunity). It was only a matter of time before the relationship became the subject of works of fiction. 2

It is the everyday fictions, ‘myths and realities’ of China’s engagement in Africa, particularly Chinese aid, that Deborah Brautigam explores in this timely book. Having published a seminal work on Chinese aid in Africa 12 years ago, 3 Brautigam, associate professor at the American University in Washington, DC, is an unusually well qualified authority. Her clearly written account successfully weaves together knowledge of the African and Chinese contexts, overcoming the prevailing divide in the academic literature between those familiar with either Africa or China.
After charting the history of Chinese aid in Africa, Brautigam discusses how China’s own experience as a recipient of aid and external investment has informed its overseas aid policy. China’s state-sponsored engagement in Africa is the considered product of tactical flexibility within a long-term strategy, she believes, rather than a master plan of ‘China Inc.’, or the smash-and-grab resource raid depicted in some more colourful accounts.

Brautigam examines the nature of Chinese aid, and how it actually works, from the operations of the China Export–Import Bank to resource-backed infrastructure loans. Concerning how much aid Beijing gives to Africa – such information remains a state secret – she finds that it is less than is generally believed (about US$1.4 billion in official development aid in 2007). In comparing Chinese aid to Africa with that from Europe, North America or international organizations, Brautigam observes that it ‘is a lot like comparing apples and lychees. They do not offer the same kind of fruit’ (p.179). But she does evaluate China’s aid on its own terms, and examines what principles like ‘mutual benefit’ mean in practice.

The book goes on to explore the impacts of Chinese engagement on African manufacturing and presents interesting material on Chinese agriculture in Africa. The final chapter confronts the emotive issue of China as a ‘rogue donor’, noting the debates and revisions evident in Beijing’s responses to African and external critiques, and considers the implications for Africa and its more established partners.

Rather than the ‘dragon’s gift’, this account is really about myriad Chinese gifts, how they play out and can refract with varying degrees of impact on development in Africa. Despite the hopes engendered by China’s involvement in Africa, and its own development record, China’s current role is also, rightly, recognized as ambivalent, contingent and ultimately dependent on African responses. It remains to be seen whether African governments can successfully manage China’s engagement in order to convert its inherent potential into more widely beneficial and sustained development opportunities.
 
Any book claiming to tell ‘the real story’ sets its standards high, but this one succeeds admirably. For those interested in China–Africa relations, it enriches the field, defines new research standards and is constructively provocative. For those new to the subject, it is an essential text about a compelling, increasingly consequential relationship.

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