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Lessons for Africa from Guangzhou

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Recent incidents of discrimination toward Africans in Guangzhou have caused a rupture in Sino-African relations. As images of Africans being evicted flood social media, widespread anger over these incidents have been met by unsatisfactory explanations from a Chinese government desperately trying to contain the damage to its image.

The Covid-19 pandemic has acted like a magnifying glass exposing every society’s ugly side. For China, this translates to exposing an underlying xenophobia and a general lack of protection for individual rights. Undoubtedly, this diplomatic crisis has come to symbolize the formal end of China’s honeymoon in Africa.

From this point on, China will be treated with significantly more suspicion by African civil society. So where should Sino-African relations go from here?

The context

Africa was ushered into the modern world in an atmosphere of great trauma. From the slave trade to the brutal exploitation of the colonial era, the modern African psyche has understandably been transfixed on the demand for racial equality from its European colonizers.

In contrast, the modern era of Sino-African relations began on a footing of solidarity. Maoist China was a revolutionary power and eagerly helped various African liberation movements secure arms, training and aid in their fight against colonization.

However, as the Mao era passed into the current period of economic development, China’s priorities shifted. Its focus decisively swung toward the West seeking to emulate the economic, industrial and technological success of the Western world.

Then, in the 2000s, China began to cultivate a new “win-win” relationship with Africa, recognizing great potential on the vast continent. Africa at the time was emerging from a chaotic period of youthful independence and was largely dismissed by the Western world as a basket case.

China recognized Africa as an opportunity, where its nascent industries could expand without intense competition from more established foreign rivals. On paper, it was a “win-win” situation as China provided capital, infrastructure and facilitated economic growth on the continent in exchange for market share, access to natural resources and political support.

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