The increasing Chinese engagement in Africa since the late 1990s has been exciting as well as controversial. It has been exciting because of the new opportunities offered to Africa by the rapid expansion of trade, investment and liberal lending. It has been controversial because of fears about its social, economic and environmental impacts, and also because China’s non-interference policy is widely perceived as supporting regimes regardless of their human rights and governance record.
A rapidly increasing need for knowledge and contacts between both sides accompanies the new boom in Chinese-African exchanges. In 2006-07, numerous meetings and conferences brought together political and economic actors from Africa and China. The majority of these contacts take place on the government-to-government level, or within the respective business communities. Furthermore, Chinese experts on Africa – many of them in policy-consulting functions – frequently meet Africa's government officials or private sector leaders.
By contrast, little dialogue has taken place between China – both on the policy and expert level - and civil society in Africa, that is, the broad spectrum of non-governmental institutions and organizations in Africa that play such prominent a role in African political and intellectual life today.
Civil society in Africa has much expanded since the 1990s, resulting from (and often helping to bring about) the return to democracy in many African countries. Independent media, university scholars and research centres, human rights and women's organizations, advocacy groups as well as numerous service-delivery NGOs constitute an important factor in Africa's political and social reality today. They support Africa's political and social development and often provide a counter-balance to sometimes weak government institutions and authoritarian political traditions. In many instances, African civil society provides the "independent voice" of Africa. As yet, Chinese actors interested in Africa have done little in practice to acknowledge the relevance of Africa's civil society, and even less talked to its representatives. Meanwhile, most African civil society actors share the sense of amazement about the recent growth of China's role in Africa, but have little information and even less avenues for dialogue.
To be sure, there are a few exceptions. The Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa provides a platform for research and dialogue. It is largely, but not exclusively oriented towards high-level exchanges around business and development issues. As at now, is remains the only institution of its kind throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. From an African civil society perspective, Fahamu – a Kenya/UK/South Africa-based information service on political, developmental and social justice issues in Africa – has a consistent reporting on Chinese-African relationships in its weekly Pambazuka News. Fahamu also organized a dialogue between African and Chinese civil society organisations during the African Development Bank's annual meeting in Shanghai in May 2007 and published "African Perspectives on China in Africa", a collection of essays which provides insights into the diversity of views held by civil society activists from a variety of African countries on China's role in the continent and in their countries.
A Dialogue Workshop in Nairobi
The China – African Civil Society Dialogue, held in Nairobi in April 2008 and organized jointly by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Fahamu, brought together 10 Chinese experts on Africa, working in research and policy-consulting institutions, with representatives of African civil society organizations that work in areas with relevant Chinese engagement, from 15 different countries. The workshop provided a unique opportunity for dialogue and debates on issues of mutual concern, providing an entry point for future discussions and research on China-Africa relations.
The workshop focused on five major thematic areas – mutual perceptions between China and Africa; Chinese trade and investment in Africa and their economic and environmental impacts; Chinese aid and lending policies; trade, labour and immigration issues; and the roles of civil society in Africa and China – and also included a number of country-specific case studies. The papers presented and discussions at the plenary critically analysed and sought to understand the nature of China-African relations in the context of these broad themes, focusing on patterns and challenges posed by the relationship. In addition to the thematic panels, a number of country case studies focused on more specific dimensions (and their interaction) in the relationship between China and Africa.
The meeting explored commonalities and challenges between the two sides, with a view of finding ways for future engagement. Possibilities for joint research and for networking between civil society organisations from China and Africa were explored, providing valuable ideas for African civil society organisations that wish to pursue advocacy work with Chinese actors and institutions.