Africa has become the next frontier for infrastructure development. As rural migrants flow into cities at a clip that now exceeds every other region in the world, the continent’s need for new railways, highways, airports, power plants, and even entirely new cities is now greater than ever before.
In this fray, many African governments have looked to external sources for funding and engineering capacity, and China has jumped in head first, using the experience they’ve gained from their own domestic building boom and applying it to the African context. However, this doesn’t mean that China is able to do in Africa what they did at home: the Chinese development model simply doesn’t work there.
China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, and African-China trade has been growing at a robust 20% year-on-year clip since 2000, topping $200 billion annually. Over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are currently operating in Africa, boosting the value of Chinese enterprises on the continent to over $2 trillion.
China’s foreign direct investment in Africa has likewise been growing at an incredible 40% annual rate, and McKinsey found that this investment is actually 15% larger when including nontraditional streams. Almost needless to say, China has become the biggest international player in Africa’s infrastructure building and construction sector as well as Africa’s biggest supplier of construction financing even having a larger presence there than it has in other Asian countries.
Topping this off is a recently announced $1 billion Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund and a $60 billion African aid package, of which a large portion is slated to go towards infrastructure development. And this involvement makes complete sense if we look at what China has accomplished in their own country over the past few decades:
“It is not lost on many African leaders that hardly 30 years ago China was in a similar place that they are now a backwater country whose economy made up hardly 2% of global GDP.
But over the past few decades China shocked the world in the way that it has used infrastructure to propel economic growth, creating a high-speed rail network that now tops 29,000 kilometres, paving over 100,000 kilometres of new expressways, constructing over 100 new airports, and building no less than 3,500 new urban areas, which include 500 economic development zones and 1,000 city-level developments. Over this period of time, China’s GDP has grown more than 10-fold, ranking No. 2 in the world today.”
Chinese engineering and construction companies have also leapt onto the world stage, going from being relatively insignificant and somewhat mysterious state-owned entities with acronym-driven names that generally start with the letter C to some of the most sophisticated and powerful such firms in the world. Ten years ago, there was hardly any Chinese companies on the ENR lists of the world’s top design and construction firms, but today China dominates these rankings accounting for more than a quarter of this year’s Top International Contractors list.
In many ways, China’s interests are very much aligned with Africa’s when it comes to urbanisation and infrastructure development. China’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative is mainly focused on setting up a proper physical and digital infrastructure grid across Eurasia and Africa, and this means building the new rail lines, highways, power plants, airports, and IT systems that African countries desperately need and want. However, that doesn’t mean that the Chinese development can simply be copied and pasted upon Africa.
It’s an understatement to say that the Chinese government model is unique: a single party system rooted in Maoist thought but still a major player in the capitalistic churning of the global economy.
While the lack of democratic processes means that the general public has little voice in the developmental endeavours which directly impact them, it also means that the government is able to unilaterally plan, construct, and vitalise large numbers of mega-projects at a pace that has never been witnessed before in history. As Bill Gates once famously pointed out: China used more (nearly 50% more!) concrete from 2011 to 2013 than the United States used in the entire 20th century.
We’re not just talking about the building of the world’s most extensive high-speed rail network in a mere decade, or most of the world’s longest sea bridges, or even six of the planet’s ten tallest skyscrapers here, but a complete top to bottom infrastructure revolution which not only required the mobilisation of trillions of dollars of capital but hundreds of millions of people as well.
For example, to build the Three Gorges Dam alone, 1.3 million people needed to be relocated from their homes; according to a study by Tsinghua University, more than 64 million families across China had their homes demolished and/or land requisitioned since the beginning of the economic boom period; according to Tianjin University, China wiped more than a million villages off the map between 2000 and 2010 to clear the way for urban development.
To speak generally, African governments tend not to have the same degree of latitude in their decision making. They can’t just go out and clear a million or two people off the land to build new cities, special economic zones or dams. In some African countries, government institutions may actually lack the authority and finances necessary to seamlessly master plan even minor infrastructure projects.
While in China, infrastructure mega-projects can be planned in a top-down manner, in Africa, such planning generally isn’t possible given the sheer number and complexity of the stakeholders involved. Traditional community structures are still powerful political and economic forces in many African nations, and their interests and that of the government are oftentimes misaligned.
“The challenge is that none of this [African urban development] is planned,” began Zhengli Huang, a research associate at the University of Sheffield who has carried out extensive case studies on urbanisation in Nairobi. “The problem is the land is permanently owned, it’s a freehold system, private ownership. So it’s very hard for any local government to intrude into these kinds of developments by planning. Even if there is planning, it’s almost impossible to enforce the planning regulations. So you see a lot of development, but it’s unplanned.”
Different Land Rights Policies
Land ownership policies in Africa also tend to be very different than in China. In China, land ownership is generally a simple affair. As the long-time China analyst Anne Stevenson-Yang once candidly pointed out:
“All the land belongs to the government. The government has the right to clear the land. Take it over, and then to either build stuff on it themselves, sell it to a developer or use it as collateral for loans.”
If a municipal, provincial, or the national government in China wishes to stake out massive swaths of land to build special economic zones, airports, or, say, 285 eco-cities, there is little in their way to stop them from doing so. This isn’t the case in Africa.
“Given the colonial history and the structure of the tribes that many African countries have, many African countries are not so much based on the organisation of the state and the provinces and the cities but on land ownership divided between different families and different tribes. This dictates how you push urban development forward, because you have to talk to land owners,” explained Daan Roggeveen, the founder of China based MORE Architecture and urbanisation researcher.
“In China, the land ownership situation is very simple: the state owns the land, particularly in the cities, so if you want to move urban development forward you do so in an environment where the government is the final decision maker and also the land owner. It’s a recipe for fast development.”
Different Role of Public Sentiment
“I think that Chinese companies have a lot to offer African countries but they have to be aware that they operate in a very different political and economic system, where engagement and communication with local stakeholders is critical,” Roggeveen pointed out another key difference between development in China and Africa.
Public outreach, dealing with a critical, independent media, and politicised citizens’ movements are things that China doesn’t need to worry much about domestically. While there are certainly a large amount of public demonstrations in China, they tend to be calls for the authorities to follow their own rules rather than challenges to the system itself.
As such, broad, national level demonstrations such as we’re now witnessing in Hong Kong rarely ever happen on the mainland, where public assembly, the media, and opposition political groups are highly regulated. As Max Fisher once explained on The Atlantic:
“Popular movements here seem to express relatively narrow complaints, want to work within the system rather than topple it, and treat the Communist Party as legitimate. Protests appear to be part of the system, not a challenge to it a sort of release valve for popular anger that, if anything, could have actually strengthened the Party by giving them a way to address that anger while maintaining autocratic rule.”
But in Africa, the story is very different, and negative public perception of a Chinese-backed project can sometimes be enough to derail it–or even get the government officials who support it booted from office. As Richard Aidoo wrote on Sixth Tone:
“In democratic African states like South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya, Chinese labour and capital often encounter frustrated unemployed or underemployed masses with the lawful right to protest, petition, and vote against ‘all things Chinese’ that often compete with ‘all things local.’”
In some African countries, the public fear of a Chinese debt trap, Chinese workers taking jobs that could otherwise go to locals, and China pillaging Africa’s natural resources are real, and the fires of which are sometimes stoked by opposition politicians, citizen groups, and local media sources to the point that it oftentimes has a major impact on what transpires on the ground whether justified or not. Like in Sri Lanka, an opposition presidential candidate in Zambia recently rode a wave of anti-Chinese public sentiment to get voted into office.
Infrastructure development is inherently a high-risk venture. It’s expensive and major projects tend to take years if not decades between conception and vitalisation. In single party, relatively stable countries like China, such projects can be engaged in with confidence that the parties involved will be on board until the end.
In democratic countries, however, the ground is a little more shaky, as all it often takes for a major project to be derailed is a popular election. As Chinese developers move beyond their borders the new terrain they enter isn’t just physical, but political and social as well, and maintaining positive public support is a key ingredient to a successful project in many African countries.
That said, research shows that most African countries are still very high on China. A survey by Afro-barometer shows that 63% of African’s view China’s developmental endeavours in their countries positively, with countries like Mali, Niger, and Liberia posting positive marks of 92%, 84%, and 81%, respectively.
The most difficult thing about infrastructure development often isn’t engineering, it’s politics, it’s legal regimes, it’s public sentiment all things that Chinese officials and developers don’t really need to contend with at home. But in Africa this is another story altogether.