China flags. Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

THE relationship between China and Africa is a compellingly interesting one. It has grown at breathtaking speed since the start of this millennium and both partners are richer because of it.

Yet the party with most at stake, Africa — which is a loose coalition of 50-plus nations rather than the single entity which the African Union (AU) aspires to become — is behaving as though nothing is fundamentally changing. If there is going to be any significant shift in the status quo because of China’s entry onto the scene, it will almost certainly be for the better, this laid-back view would have us believe.

China’s rise in 10 years from the world’s sixth-biggest economy to its second is transforming its relations with every bloc and every continent, as well as the lives of its 1.3-billion people. It can be forgiven if Africa is not at the top of its priorities.

But does Africa have the same excuse? Can Africans afford to know so little about China, how it works and what it wants, that it is becoming a significant funder of the AU’s budget, programmes and peacekeeping operations? Is Africa destined to be the recipient of Chinese capital and skills, rather like the colonial era, or does it have ideas to offer the communist giant?

The expression "know your enemy" is misplaced in this context. But "know your friend" is certainly valid. Take trade. Last year was the third in a row that China was Africa’s biggest trading partner, with a total value of $167bn, according to Chinese statistics. That number was 31% higher than in 2010 and this year’s is likely to climb by another 20%, despite what resembles an economic meltdown in Europe and North America.

So what is the problem? After all, the argument goes, it is mostly thanks to China that African commodity prices are so high, that many more Africans can afford decent clothes and electronic goods, and that roads, bridges and low-cost-housing estates are sprouting up from Mauritania to Mozambique.

But what happens if — or more likely, when — construction in China slows and with it the demand for Africa’s oil, metals, coal and timber? When rising Chinese labour costs make it more profitable to outsource work? As researchers at Capital Economics Asia have pointed out in their latest report, China’s Asian supply chain in countries from India to South Korea will be ready to fill the gaps. Apart from South Africa and perhaps one or two other countries, African commodity exporters will not be able to manufacture what China needs.

The vital discussion about whether Africa is missing the boat has not even begun, outside a few boardrooms and universities, most of them in South Africa. There has not been a semblance of public debate in African countries about the terms under which large tracts of arable land should be leased to foreign firms, including Chinese ones, to export food to their home markets. Given the explosive potential of land issues, such secrecy is foolhardy.

African leaders are behaving as though their countries have nothing to offer China in the political domain and that it would be impolite to suggest otherwise. Nonsense. When it comes to democratic governance, accountability, independent courts, active parliaments, robust media, civil society and freedom of expression and assembly, most African societies are freer than China.

There was not even a nod towards that truth at last July’s meeting in Beijing of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation.

Chinese policies towards Africa are unlikely to change when Xi Jinping and his team gradually take the reins of the Communist Party and the state over the next five months, replacing the 10-year leadership of President Hu Jintao. The opening up of the political system will be at the Communist Party’s discretion and capitalist precepts will guide economic reforms.

So far, China seems to be trying harder than Africa to "enhance people-to-people friendship" as the turgid communiques put it. It pays for thousands of young Africans to take up scholarships at Chinese universities every year and it is opening more Confucius Institutes in Africa to spread its culture and language.

Chinese state media are expanding their presence in Africa rapidly but that traffic is embarrassingly one-way. Only three of the 700 foreign news staff in Beijing represent African media houses.

With little fanfare, Chinese shopkeepers, smallholders and healers are settling in large numbers in Africa’s rural villages and its towns. Their government, usually so efficient with statistics, says it doesn’t have a clue how many of its citizens have crossed the Indian Ocean without plans for an early return. For a moving and honest portrayal of how the cohabitation is playing out, the 2011 Zambian film When China Met Africa is hard to beat.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is the vehicle for the official relationship. The South African government, which will host the next meeting in 2015, was picked in July as the co-driver. Is it not high time that some ordinary citizens were invited to climb aboard and assist in deciding on where to go and how to get there?