Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Explaining China’s Role in Africa

“We need to adjust to Africa and not always expect Africa to adjust to us.” Zhong Jianhua, the Chinese special representative on Africa affairs, is a seasoned diplomat, if only by his ability to explain each obstacle as an opportunity. Ambassador Zhong is Beijing’s man in a complicated region. Whenever tensions flare up in Africa, he is dispatched to assess the consequences for China and to advise the Chinese leaders on how to respond. Even though many challenges lie ahead, he is encouraged by a new generation of smart African leaders and stronger regional organizations. There seems to be less confidence in the prospect for cooperation with Europe on African affairs. The envoy stresses that this would first require Europe to take a deep look at its own Africa policy. “If Europe wants to contribute, it needs to change its attitude and treat its African partner as equals.”

Ambassador, A few years ago, the Arab spring sparked great disquiet in China. In several countries, urban youngsters challenged political elites. Has this affected China’s policy towards the region? Not really. The Arab Spring has not spread out so much as many people expected and the situation in the affected countries differed a lot. So I do not see the reason to adjust the Africn policy which is for the whole continent. Neither do I think that the tensions between urban youngsters and governments apply to all other African countries. Besides domestic factors, we also have to consider the international context. Egypt, for example, is in a very critical and sensitive geopolitical position. That is why the United States continues to pay so much attention to it. With so many players doing things in this country, the situation is really complicated and we have to be careful.

Africa has been booming, but is it going to last? First of all, we have to be careful with growth figures. They do not always reflect reality on the ground. Figures can be spectacular, but development might not follow. You have African countries with a booming raw material sector that do well, but some also do not manage to convert their natural resources into development. There are also countries that have no resources and still move forward. Most unfortunate is this group of countries that does not have anything to export and also has poor economic management. The challenge is thus not only in the presence of resources; the management of those resources is even more important. Generally, I think Africa needs to focus on its farming and expand the scale of its agriculture. This could create many opportunities. A lot depends on how much African countries can learn from the rest of the world. Often, they have been given bad advice.

Politics is thus key. But can we confident in the political stability of the region? It is not easy to manage a country. Four hundred years ago, African countries started to develop some political models, but that process was suddenly stopped by colonization. Besides history, African leaders face ethnic complexities. Leaders are often not accepted by a part of the society just because of their ethnicity. The relation between African societies and politics is also different. Large parts of the African people are not connected to politics. This sometimes makes it difficult for African leaders to be understood by their people. Some African societies are constitutionally not yet strong. Elections in Africa are certainly not the same as in Europe and often cause uncertainty. We need to put this into perspective. Even if the situation is not optimal today, it is still much better than a while ago. It will probably take another generation or two to move towards more stable politics, but African leaders are learning fast. I see a lot of progress.

Corruption is still a key concern, but we have to be careful in examining what it is all about. First and foremost, African corruption is part of an international problem. The first corruption case that I followed was in South Africa. I learned a lot of things from it. Speculations sometimes are very far from the facts. What shocked me most was the involvement of some European defense companies. The record of some countries are not very good. They are always vocal about corruption, but protects their own companies. We have to ask how sincere those people are if their firms start to corrupt African leaders and their own interests come first? Practice differs too much from principles. We need to recognize that the African civil society is not the same as in developed countries. African civilian organizations were expected to be a copy of those in the West and that explains why they are sometimes not so successful in their own societies. We still have to be very patient, but corruption will not last.

Western Africa is high on the agenda today. How do you see the situation? We follow the situation in Mali closely. I recently went to the country to talk to the president, the premier and the foreign minister. We have to work with the international community and to support ECOWAS. The risk of a spillover of insecurity is real and terrorism might eventually have consequences for Europe. Using force alone cannot be a solution, though. I discussed this issue with Madam Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union. She agreed that the root cause is under-development. Even if there are extremist, they can only be successful if they gain the support of the unprivileged. We need a comprehensive method. We cannot continue to ignore underdevelopment.

How about East Africa? In some parts of East Africa, the situation remains complicated. Take Kenya. It is still not certain that we will avoid the kind of instability that we saw in the last election, although the country has made progress. We must be very careful about elections. If in the country with hundreds years of election, a politician fails, he can still lead a normal life. If you loose in an election here it could be a different story. The acceptance of compromise is not enough developed. Young democracies such as Kenya pay a high price for the political learning process. Somalia remains of course also sensitive in this part of Africa. The task here is really to win the hearts and minds of the people. The government need to do a lot to convince them that living under terrorists is not the way to solve their problems. Destitution makes people desperate.

Central Africa and South Africa also seem to be in dire streets? It would be terrible if there would be a repetition of the tragedy of the nineties in the DR Congo. The international community should learn from the past. In South Africa, I don’t think that President Jacob Zuma is the person described by some newspapers there. I had some personal contacts with him. He is a very nice person and a great politician. He faces a huge task of transformation, but it might take pretty long time to complete. The ANC is going through a period of adjustment, from a broad church against apartheid to a party to lead a country. There is a huge challenge in redistributing the wealth in the country. Yet, there are many bright politicians and intellectuals who can contribute a lot.

What are the main interests that China pursues in Africa? It all starts with the awareness that we need Africa to help us grow. We create opportunities for Africa to develop, but Africa also creates opportunities for us. We share our future. As diplomats, a key concern is of course also the security of our citizens and companies. This is very sensitive in China. It is about image and the credibility of our country. So it is key to do a good job here and it requires us to work closely with African countries. China’s policy need to make adjustment from time to time. Each FOCAC played out something new. It remains a challenge for us Chinese diplomats to get enough attention for Africa. We now pay much more attention to people-to-people exchanges and mutual understanding. We also attach more importance to peace and security, which was a request from our African friends. Besides, we pay more attention to regulating our companies and to make sure that they behave in a way being accepted by local people.

What does Africa mean for the Sino-European relations? I think Europe should first treat Africa as an equal partner, not as its backyard and small brother. It is better stop emphasizing what it contributed to Africa, and recognize what Africa contributed equally much to Europe. The unequal attitude prevents Europe to build trust in Africa. It really requires a mentality change for some people in Europe. In the triangular relationship, our confidence in cooperation with Europe depends on the confidence of that Africa has in Europe.