COVID-19 and Sino-African relations: new challenges and opportunities

Volunteers walk door-to-door in Valhalla Park, Cape Town, with government health questionnaires, April 2020. People with Covid-19 symptoms were directed to nearby testing centres. Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

Dr Messay M Tefera, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
Visiting Research Fellow, CACS /  12 May 2020

Africa and China have nearly equally sized populations; together, they comprise about 36% of the global population. These two regions have maintained socioeconomic relations since ancient times, during difficult periods as well as good ones. Bilateral trade, for example, dates back to the 10th century BC when the Egyptian city of Alexandria started trading with people settling in present-day China. More recently, China has been a leading investor, developer and provider of humanitarian aid in Africa. Strengthened Sino-African relations have brought greater opportunities, but also renewed challenges and greater responsibilities. This is true of Chinese assistance to Africa in respect of the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

Since the first case was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) just five months ago, COVID-19 has rapidly grown into a global pandemic. This essentially means that the world community is experiencing a shared public health crisis. On 18 March, China — the first country that suffered an outbreak — announced zero new coronavirus infections after a long and intensive fight waged since January. As such, its experiences and lessons learnt in fighting the pandemic are vitally important to other countries. This has led to African leaders (notably the premier of Ethiopia, Dr Abiya Ahmed, appealing to China to bolster Africa’s fight against the pandemic.

African people and governments are well aware that China is the world’s largest developing country, which has moved steadily up the value chain to become a major new player in the global economy, and has consolidated and expanded its relations with other world regions – notably Africa – in the process. They are also well aware of China’s growing role in Africa as benefactor, investor and developer. In building out its relations with Africa, China has sought to integrate the interests of Chinese people with those of the people of Africa, providing assistance within the broader framework of South-South Cooperation.

Traditionally, most of Africa’s development aid and emergency responses came from the western industrialised countries, especially members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, in recent years, the economic and political influence of western countries in sub-Saharan Africa has waned, gradually making way to non-OECD countries, notably China. Therefore, African people and governments understand and appreciate that China has become a vital source of investment and humanitarian assistance.

The basic principles that China upholds in providing development assistance are mutual respect, equality, mutual benefits and win-win. In this framework, its current strategy is to undertake complete projects, providing goods and materials, conducting technical cooperation and human resources development cooperation, dispatching medical teams and volunteers, offering emergency humanitarian aid, and reducing or rescinding the debts of African countries.

In the course of doing so, China has adhered to the principles of not imposing any political conditions, not interfering in the internal affairs of African states, and fully respecting the rights of African people to choose their own paths and models of development. Evidence across the continent confirms that it has succeeded in adhering to these principles.

Despite China’s massive contribution to African development, Sino-Africans relations are not without its challenges. Some scholars and Western media outlets have sought to characterise China’s interest in Africa as a form of ‘neocolonialism’ or ‘China’s hegemony in Africa’. This is an unwarranted generalisation — there is no actual evidence of Chinese economic dominance or cultural hegemony in Africa. On the contrary, its relations with Africa are based on the principle of mutual benefit. The people and governments of Africa know that China has no intention of undermining African identity, sovereignty and independence.

A few Western media outlets have tried to undermine Sino-African relations by highlighting cases of alleged xenophobia in the treatment of African students and others in the city of Guangzhou. Following initial complaints, China acted swiftly to redress the situation.

In Mid-April, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, Zhao Lijan, said action would be taken to address the alleged poor treatment of African expatriates in the region. Referring to them as ‘our African brothers’, he said: ‘In response to some African countries’ concerns about their citizens in Guangdong Province, the authorities have conducted an investigation and adopted a series of new measures. We believe that with the joint efforts of both China and Africa, the issue will be properly resolved.’

These issues have been dwarfed by the scale of China’s assistance to Africa to help it fight the COVIC-19 pandemic. China is donating medical supplies to Africa mainly through the Jack Ma and Alibaba foundations. The donations are being made to the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the African Union (AU), to be distributed to all 54 African countries.

This far, the African CDC and AU have received three rounds of donations. The first round of more than 6 million items arrived in Addis Ababa on 22 March, the second round on 7 April, and the third on 27 April. Additional consignments are due to arrive over the next few weeks. The third round comprised 4.6 million face masks, 500 000 swabs and test kits, 300 ventilators, 200,000 sets of protective clothing, 200,000 face shields, 2,000 temperature guns, 100 body temperature scanners, and 500 000 pairs of gloves.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented Sino-African relations with new challenges and responsibilities. The challenges are significant, but can be overcome by strengthening existing patterns of collaboration.

Besides the medical supplies, the Jack Ma and Alibaba foundations are connecting African medical professionals with doctors from China and around the world to collaborate online and exchange hard-earned lessons in the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

To conclude, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented Sino-African relations with new challenges and responsibilities. The challenges are significant, but can be overcome by strengthening existing patterns of collaboration. The pandemic has also provided China and Africa with an important opportunity to understand each other better, even under difficult conditions. Africa can also learn vital lessons from China about sustainable development as well as fighting COVID-19.

At the same time, this does not mean that Africa should slavishly follow China’s example. First, Africa’s experience of COVID-19 differs from China’s in that local infections have started with relatively small numbers of imported cases rather than a massive simultaneous outbreak. As a result, mass community transmission of COVID-19 has not happened in most African countries.

Second, African societies are less able than China’s to withstand the social and economic consequences of a total lockdown. Therefore, despite the fact that infection rates may still rise, it may well be inappropriate for most African countries to lock down completely, thereby bringing their economies to standstill. Hunger and deprivation may lead to social instability, which would undermine state efforts to fight COVID-19 as well. Therefore, as in the case of economic development paths, African countries should appropriate the space to determine their own strategies for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and should not be taken to represent the views of the CACS.