Written by Mbella Beseka
BRI critics have denounced China’s efforts to invest and build diplomatic relations with African countries as veiled attempts to recolonize a continent still recovering from previous attempts by European powers. Given that many of these African countries are relatively young and in favor of rapid development, governments tend to welcome financial assistance. Due to their experience with European intervention African governments are starting to turn to Chinese investment due to the country’s reputation of following a policy of non-intervention. Despite the billions of dollars in aid these countries received from Western countries and institutions, the burden of reforms inspired by the Washington Consensus—a set of broadly free market economic ideas, supported by prominent economists and international organisations, such as the IMF, the World Bank, the EU and the US—was seen as destructive to their economies. This has tinged these countries’ perceptions of international institutions such as the IMF and makes China a more attractive alternative which offers an equal or greater amount of aid with less strings attached. While Africans applaud the increased role that China has taken in the development of other nations, especially as China is still considered a developing country, others worry that this is merely a way to spread Chinese influence at the expense of the future autonomy aid recipients—particularly those in Africa. Racism and discrimination often permeate the conversation about China’s increasing engagement with Africans. This concern is given additional weight when placed in context with incidences that have recently occurred across the continent.
Kenya provides a good example since it receives a large amount of public and private assistance from China. In October 2018, Kenyan workers complained of race-based discrimination from a Chinese supervisor after a cellphone video circulated the month earlier showing the supervisor exhibiting derogatory behavior towards Kenyan employees. The employees also complained of being subjected to “monkey insults” which they associated with the country’s history of slavery and European colonization. The impact words such as these have on the workers signifies the ever-present legacy of colonialism. The historical trauma of subjugation affects how former colonized countries have received Chinese and other foreign presences. In situations such as what occurred in Kenya between African laborers and Chinese managers, there is a widespread fear that Chinese presence is, instead of forward into the future, moving countries backward. Some are concerned that Chinese-owned business enterprises operated in African countries have changed the professional landscape. Some workers have complained about having to call their Chinese bosses “masters” and claim they are experiencing “neocolonialism, racism, and blatant discrimination.” An additional prevalent concern is the language barrier between Africans and Chinese bosses. For example, when Chinese businesses send supervisors into Kenya, the workers struggle to learn Chinese in fear of their supervisors regarding them as incompetent and fire them. The Chinese supervisors, on the other hand, are able to work with little expectation of learning English.
At the same time, Chinese engagement can also present a reliable asset for African countries to achieve national development aspirations. On 6 December 2018, the Senegalese government announced it was able to complete the decades-long construction of a museum commemorating the art of past black civilizations. Many recognize China’s role in the completion of the project: after decades of inaction, China’s $34M investment was able to spur the project into fruition. Besides being a cultural boon, this museum’s construction also comes at a prime moment in domestic politics. The Senegalese presidential elections are approaching in 2019, so the construction of the museum will also improve incumbent President Sall’s prospects for re-election. Although the museum is centered around Négritude and the decolonization of indigenous African art, the presence of Chinese artifacts from the Guizhou province at the opening ceremony and Chinese signage in the museum’s concrete back room is a reminder that it was built largely in part due to a Chinese financial donation.
The Sino-Cameroonian relationship began in the 1970s, when Cameroonian independence was still nascent. The desire to form a bond with China was born out of the country’s struggled to escape French control. During its colonial administration of Cameroon, France constructed facilities for the export of cash crops and the import of industrial products into the mainland. As a result, after independence, Cameroon was not capable of separating itself from French economically or politically. To achieve his goal of making the country more autonomous, the first president of the independent republic, Ahmadou Ahidjo, established relations with major powers at the time including the United States, Russia, and China. In 1971, Cameroon diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China, a foreign policy tactic aimed at neutralizing French influence in Cameroon. This decision would foster a diplomatic and economic relationship which would carry through to Paul Biya’s present-day regime
During a meeting between Presidents Paul Biya and Xi Jinping in March 2018, the leaders placed a large emphasis on expanding trade zones and collaboration in key areas such as business cooperation, infrastructure, and human resources development. Meetings such as this are representative of the amical relationship the two countries enjoy with one another. Paul Biya and Cameroonian political leaders have been received in China several times over the past years as well as the other way around. By analyzing the political nature of the Sino-Cameroonian relationship, it will help to discern the level of influence the countries exert on each other and in which ways the political link is asymmetrical. In order to measure this, only interactions on the public (between the governments) domain will be counted. This will include loans from the Chinese government, diplomatic relations, and foreign policy.
There are several positive aspects of the Chinese government’s relationship with Cameroon. Benefits of Chinese aid include humanitarian aid and the enhancement of security near conflict zones. In November 2018, China reportedly granted the Cameroonian government emergency equipment and materials to assist those fleeing the conflict in the northwest and southwest regions. This is in addition to the 1.7B central African francs (CFA), or about 20M Yuan, that China had already committed two months earlier to the support of emergency humanitarian assistance in regions being affected by separatist violence in the northwest and southwest regions of the country. The Chinese government also approved a donation worth CFA 3B in foodstuffs to help with refugees from Boko Haram violence and the separatist movement in the South. Instead of being given to the Cameroonian government, the large grant was given to Abdoulaye Baldé, the head of the World Food Program. The above instances are exemplary of a larger history of China giving aid to Cameroon without an expectation of being paid back as in the case of loans. Examples of humanitarian aid are somewhat recent given that they are reactions to the crises in the northern region with Boko Haram with the Ambazonia separatist movement which both displace native populations. The other major benefit of Chinese aid comes in the form of security force reinforcement. The two conflicts mentioned require a strong police and military force in order to mitigate them. Unfortunately, these conflicts are happening concurrently, meaning that a focus onto one diverts attention to the other due to limited resources. China has helped Cameroon to resolve this concern. In July 2018, Cameroon signed a convention with China to receive CFA 4.5M and spend on purchasing military equipment. A Cameroonian foreign service officer stated this donation was meant to reinforce state capacities in peacekeeping and security operations in the region. Although humanitarian aid and security reinforcement benefit the Cameroonian government immensely, there are no examples of the benefits moving in the other direction. The above are all one-sided exchanges where it is very clear which party will be receiving aid and which party will be distributing it. It is clear that Cameroon stands on the receiving end of both public donations and Chinese governmental assistance. This would indicate that there is an unequal benefit relationship between the two on the public domain.
Aside from the benefits and imbalance, there are also several dangers that the Cameroonian government is already starting to face in its engagement with China. Many BRI critics discuss the sovereign debt that African governments take on when accepting loans from the Chinese government or banks. The lack of conditions placed upon their financial assistance is more likely to increase national indebtedness while decreasing debt sustainability capacity. In some cases, countries are already finding it difficult to repay their debts to China, and some fear that these countries’ sovereignty will be at risk. For example, Sri Lanka recently ceded their rights to Hambantota port for ninety-nine years to China because it could not repay its debt.
In Cameroon, the government is taking on large debts for public expenditures. A new dam being built this year in Warak, a region in Northern Cameroon, will be financed in part through a loan to the Cameroonian government from the International and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in the amount of CFA 182B, which is approximately $315M. Public debt in Cameroon is managed and monitored by the Autonomous Sinking Fund, otherwise known as the Caisse Autonomed Amortissement (CAA). The country, however, is still failing to meet its debt obligations to China. President Biya has traveled to China several times since November 2017 to plead for Beijing to be more flexible in its debt financing structure. This puts Cameroon in a precarious position. Since the Cameroonian government does not release specific data on its debt or other economic measures, an interesting question would be whether or not Cameroon will ever be able to meet its obligation. If it is not capable of returning on its debts, that opens the possibility of China asking the Cameroonian government for compensation through other means, as in the case of Sri Lanka.
Another important factor is China’s influence on Cameroonian foreign policy. China is well-known for its “One-China” policy which denies the existence of a separate Taiwanese state. In several instances, despite China’s claim of adhering to non-interference and respect for national sovereignty, it tends to denounce countries that host Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, or that seek diplomatic relations with Taiwan. After the 14th Dalai Lama attempted to visit Botswana, a Chinese official stated that “The 14th Dalai Lama is a political exile who has long engaged in separatist, anti-Chinese activities under the cover of religion”. Cameroon’s foreign policy is almost identical to the positions that China takes on issues. For example, President Biya stated in June 2018 that “Cameroon firmly supports the “One China” policy…They share large common interests and a common position in international affairs” and will cooperate with China in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. Over the years, most likely as a result of the increased interaction with China, Cameroon and other African nations have grown closer to the world power. This does limit the discretion of leaders to embrace ideals or entities that may go oppose Chinese interests without directly going against their own.
In the first eleven months of 2018, China spent $91.37B in overseas foreign direct investment (OFDI), with the highest recipient sectors of investment across the globe being energy and technology with an estimated $25B each. In general, Cameroon has accepted more FDI over the years. The FDI percentage of GDP has increased to be over 20% in 2017 versus only less than 5% in 1995. This is indicative of a larger trend in Cameroon economic policy which focuses on orienting the economy towards more open trade and increasing market access for Cameroonian exports. Agriculture and forestry are the main contributors to GDP, and oil also provides a considerable amount to the domestic economy. Externally, petroleum products make up the country’s largest exports. Investors tend to look towards energy, oil and gas, the transportation sector, and sports facilities, such as stadiums and infrastructure for the Africa Cup of Nations 2019 tournament. International partners include France, with whom Cameroon has several special trade agreements including a 15% tax and deductions for technical assistance. Although it does not share this privilege with the Western power, China is reportedly Cameroon’s largest trading partner. Cameroon receives 67% of annual FDI from China, making it a major recipient of Chinese aid in the continent.
France is still the biggest source of foreign investment in the region, with French companies owning majority shares of national firms. In recent years, however, China is seen as Cameroon’s major fund provider through public and private means: whether it be money from the government, or from banks such as the Export-Import Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and the Bank of China. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has recently published figures on Chinese investments and contracts in Cameroon since 2005. They found that total Chinese investment between 2005 and 2018 amounted to $12.25B with the majority of investment going towards the transportation ($5.57B) and energy ($3.39B) sectors. Their data showed that there was negligible investment directed towards agriculture, chemicals, finance, health, or tourism industries. The AEI found that three major contracts procured in the past decade by Chinese firms in Cameroon: a $500M contract by Sinomach in the transportation industry in March 2010, Sinopec’s $540M contract in May 2011 in the energy industry, and the largest being Sinosteel’s $660M contract in December 2012 in the Metals sector. The most recent investment was in the energy fields in the amount of $520M throughout the course of 2017. The AEI’s data shows that money from China flows mainly towards transportation infrastructure and the already notable petroleum industry. Very little of these funds goes towards the agriculture sector, also a prominent industry in Cameroon’s domestic economy. This should not come as a surprise, as the original mission of the 1B1R Initiative is to form a connective trading route that would function as a modern-day Silk Road. It follows that Chinese engagement would prioritize the improvement of infrastructure such as ports and roads as well as the investment into important commodities such as oil over domestic concerns such as agriculture or tourism.
Cameroon has also seen a growth of previously absent industries as a result of investment. In 2017, a Chinese businessman made plans to build an auto plant in the industrial zone near the Chinese-built deep-sea port in the southern-Cameroonian city of Kribi – it would be the first car plant in Central Africa. Information technology has arguably received the most generous benefits of influx of Chinese investment. Due to Chinese intervention, modern technological devices such as cellphones or innovations such as broadband Internet connection are becoming more prevalent across the country. In the past decade, the Internet penetration rate has increased from less than 3% in 2007 to 23.2% in 2017. Some see this translates into a greater impact on people’s daily lives than even the billions of dollars spent on infrastructure development. Private sector investors from China and abroad have historically been deterred from investment due to administrative obstacles such as red tape and systemic corruption. Despite this, the rising rate of Chinese investment over the years would suggest that this effect is limited.
Another important aspect of the economic relationship between the Cameroon and China is trade. Both countries import and export goods from the other, but experts note a difference in both the nature and quality of goods. Chinese exports to Cameroon tend to be cheaper, modern products which result in higher accessibility for Cameroonian consumers to goods such as cellphones. Before 2010, well-worn analogue phones were the only option for most Cameroonians who could not afford the emerging smartphones. In the past eight years, Chinese mobile phone manufacturers such as Tecno Mobile, Huawei, LG, ZTE, and OnePlus have flooded the Cameroonian market with affordable smartphones, allowing thousands of people to access the Internet for the first time. Many critics are saying that the massive arrival of Chinese products at such low prices is destabilizing already delicate African industries. This flood of cheap goods from China tends to undercut local businesses who are not able to competitively price their products against less-expensive Chinese imports. These businesses are often forced to close and/or eliminate jobs due to competition. As a result, local African manufacturing bases have been slowly eroding away while making more room for larger Chinese corporations to sell to a larger share of the market. Although this has occurred in other parts of Africa, Cameroon has not yet shown evidence of following this path. In fact, there is an unofficial requirement for international firms and projects to provide ‘local content’ in the form of local jobs going to Cameroonians. Although this is not yet enshrined in the law, it is a barrier against a rise in unemployment and some protection for Cameroonian laborers. This protection, however, does not extend to local businesses.
Cameroon exports to China is concentrated around raw material goods. According to Chinese customs, Cameroon was its fourth largest timber exporter between January and August 2018, valuing transactions at around $47.3M. According to the United Nations ComTrade database, Cameroonian exports in 2017 totaled $788M. $460M came from mineral fuels, oils, and products of their distillation as well as $303M coming directly from wood products. In summary, Chinese exports help to introduce previously unavailable technology which is helping to modernize many areas of Cameroon, particularly rural agriculturists. Cameroonian exports help to fuel China’s ability to be an industrial giant with natural resources such as metals gained from mining, oil, and wood.
Infrastructure development is one of the largest sectors of development in Cameroon. Chinese funds have gone into a variety of projects which range from transportation, energy, and even recreational construction. Examples include the Kribi Seaport Loan which was worth $363M, the Memve’le Dam which injects 201 megawatts of additional energy into Cameroon’s energy with total costs of $673M, and a malaria research center in Yaoundé at a cost of $400K. Many of these projects are built upon a partnership between Cameroonian governmental ministries and Chinese companies. Chinese contributions to Cameroonian infrastructure are not limited to the construction of new buildings, but also to the improvement of public health and sanitation. In November 2013, an agreement was signed for the Cameroonian government to take a loan of CFA 84.72B to finance projects which would provide potable water to Bafoussam, Bamenda, Kribi, and Sangmelima – the four largest coastal cities besides Douala in the country. The objective was to increase the rate of access to clean water from 29% to 75% by 2020. Social impact initiatives such as this are also common in other areas of the country where Chinese banks offer generous loans for Cameroon to fund socially beneficial projects that combat disease, ensure security, or encourage development. The ongoing hydro-electric Bini dam project in Warak features the construction of energy evacuation lines and rural electrification lines as well as the reconstruction of access roads to the site. Cameroonian officials are positive the new dam will prevent energy deficits in northern Cameroon.
The port in Kribi offers a model of the manner in which Chinese infrastructure investment currently occurs in Cameroon. Kribi is a coastal city which also housed one of the country’s major trade ports. Before construction, the port was congested to the point that ships would have to wait more than a week before docking. The lack of efficiency led to negative effects on trade and spurred the Cameroonian government to act. Despite intense French competition for the project, the Export-Import Bank of China managed to convince the government that it would help it realize its dream for “free” without the strings of the former colonial power. In this instance, China was beginning to edge out other international competitors. At the end of the construction, the port will be able to easily handle more than 100M tons of merchandise, a remarkable increase in trading capability for the coastal city. In this instance, Chinese aid not only won out over other Western competitors, but also proved essential in creating sustainable economic opportunities for Kribi which will likely spur development in the region.
Cameroon is suffering from widespread poverty, decline in the education and public health systems, corruption in the political administration. There are innumerable examples which prove Chinese aid is necessary for continued growth and stability in the country. Nevertheless, Cameroon is dangerously dependent on this aid. Chinese aid presents several future risks in the form of increasing sovereign debt and foreign policy influence, but also more immediate threats. In instances where Chinese companies have violated laws in domestic mines, not only has the Cameroonian government not responded to complaints, but the national army has reportedly protected Chinese firms’ interests while intimidating the surrounding communities.
The actual risks outlined above vary from the current discourse surrounding Chinese engagement with African countries. Some fear a new wave of “colonialism-by-consent” of African nations in exchange for necessary aid. After analyzing newspaper publications whose circulation was based in and outside Cameroon, public speeches, and other sources which would reflect opinion, it becomes apparent that there is a clear divide between those who are excited versus those who are pessimistic to Chinese investment in the country. While actual Cameroonian residents (it is important to stress those who actually live in the country) tend to be optimistic about recent financial assistance, non-residents dread future claims on Cameroonian sovereignty and negative consequences. An explanation for this would be that residents who are confronted by the daily struggles of poverty in Cameroon welcome Chinese investment untainted by Western interventionism whereas non-residents, particularly those from the West, are more likely to fear the loss of hegemonic economic and political control in the country.
When surveyed by a public opinion survey in 2014, Cameroonian residents generally had positive sentiments towards Chinese activity in Cameroon. 48% of respondents believed that China is the best model for national development. Out of 36 countries surveyed including Nigeria who receives more aid, Cameroon scored the highest in this metric. In terms of the extent of influence, 68% of Cameroonians believe the former colonial power, France, has the most influence in their country, whereas only 15% pointed to China. This would suggest that Cameroonians would first look at France as a greater threat to national sovereignty before looking at China. Interestingly, 81% of Cameroonians do believe that China’s economic influence has “some” or “a lot” of influence in their country. 80% of Cameroonian respondents stated that Chinese economic and political engagement had a “somewhat or very positive” influence, whereas only 10% of Cameroonians stated they believed the Chinese economic and political influence was “somewhat or very negative influence”. Also relevant is the fact that 73% of Cameroonians believe China’s economic development assistance is doing a somewhat or very good job whereas 14% believe they’re doing a somewhat or very bad job.
There are several factors which would explain the widespread approval, all surrounding the positive economic benefits from development that the residents enjoy being attributed to Chinese contributions to Cameroon. Chinese-funded projects are seen to better the population’s quality of life and contribute to the reduction of poverty. The Chinese are helping to build up Cameroon’s burgeoning digital economy sector which had been relatively weak compared to other African countries due to lack of network infrastructure and the high cost of devices. In the past years, broadband penetration has risen exponentially and locals are even using their new smartphones to combat illegal logging fueled by corruption. IT and other technological development has positive effects on the daily lives of Cameroonians in that it improves communication and the introduction of new job markets. In the words of a university graduate who was excited by the construction of the Kribi sea port, “This is the future.”
One interesting point is that the positive perception of Chinese investment extends to the Ambazonia separatist movement. The crisis started with a strike action by English-speaking lawyers and teachers against the imposition of French has unleashed an internal armed conflict against the Biya regime. Bareta News, the largest online publication in the territory claimed by Ambazonia, even referred to Chinese grants to the Bini dam project as evidence that “God is still saying something”. There are even references to the Chinese being “renowned for their know-how and their intelligence” when discussing how Paul Biya failed to persuade the Chinese government to help him meet his domestic commitments. Even the Ambazonian separatist movement values Chinese engagement with the country for the necessary economic resources it brings.
On the other hand, non-Cameroonian residents tend to hold negative perceptions of Chinese engagement with the country. Publications based outside Cameroon and Africa tend to accuse Beijing of creating a new system of neocolonialism in which businesses who extract minerals in exchange for infrastructure and project financing act as intermediaries for the Chinese government. Even in European government bodies, the EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani stated in March 2017 that Africa risks becoming a Chinese colony which only gives China natural resources—stability is not in their best interest. Dissidence in Cameroonian residents is present, but very limited to isolated incidents. One of these arises from Cameroonian fishermen who are seeing a decrease in supply of fish due to ecologically dangerous Chinese fishing practices in the waters. There are also some concerns over Cameroon’s rising debt crisis. Paul Biya has gone to Beijing several times in the past year to negotiate the restructuring of Cameroon’s debt to China, which was valued at little more than CFA3,000B at the time of the last visit in August 2018. From the Ambazonia movement, there is concern that by constantly giving Paul Biya’s regime grants and loans, it is indirectly financing the Biya’s campaign against English-speaking Southern Cameroonians.
Possible explanations for the divide between the domestic and international opinions concerning Chinese engagement include proximity to experiences. Cameroonians will focus on the material benefits they receive rather than worry about the larger societal danger of Chinese political influence or losing national sovereignty since they must deal with the daily struggles of poverty. One of these struggles is “brain drain”, or the increase in emigration of high-skilled laborers in the country. Over 46% of Cameroonian-born physicians were found in the censuses of nine receiving countries as well as 19% of Cameroonian-born nurses. Instead of moving towards the future, Cameroonians are seeing human capital, a key instrument in doing so, fleeing the country in search of better opportunity. This logically makes Cameroonian residents more receptive of outside aid in the form of non-interventionist Chinese aid. For non-Cameroonian residents, long-term issues such as looming sovereign debt, power differentials between the two countries, and even respect for human rights in the work space are more pressing. Those living in the United States and European countries who write on the topic tend to act as observers to the situation. Another explanation is also the loss of Western hegemony in the country. France has long enjoyed diplomatic, political, and economic privileges in the country. It would make sense that a less obvious reason for Western governments’ fear of growing Chinese influence in Cameroon and other African countries is that Western governments seek to preserve their own.
After analyzing the reality of the relationship between China and Cameroon, as well as the perception of that reality, it is impossible to draw absolute judgements on the actors. There are multiple motivations for each country’s actions on whether or not to donate or accept the aid. Due to poverty and growing corruption, it is difficult to see a situation where Cameroon can survive without the support of Chinese aid. On the other hand, this unequal relationship poses risks to Cameroonian future sovereignty and autonomy. This complex reality is understood by different actors along the same lines: those in Cameroon would rather choose the much-needed economic benefits that comes with Chinese support. Those residing outside, especially in Western countries, focus on the imbalance which they perceive as neocolonialism. It would be interesting to see if the same division along geographic lines is seen throughout the continent, or if this is specific to the case of Cameroon. Important questions to ask when looking ahead are whether China’s level of engagement with Cameroon and the continent are sustainable. Perhaps growing Chinese debt and a delayed Western response signal a turning point in the struggle for influence in Cameroon and other African countries.
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