Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift, now out in paperback, promises “the real story of China in Africa.” In this pursuit, the book’s strategy is to keep its eyes close to the ground as it illustrates with numerous examples the heterogeneous and changing phenomenon of Chinese aid and financing to Africa and the varied economic engagements connected to it. Drawing on her decades of following this story, Brautigam provides an account that eschews a prevalent tendency to squeeze the multifaceted Sino-African encounter into single dimensions. The book does not skirt aspects of the story such as China’s hunt for resources, loans for mega-infrastructure projects, and the tying of aid to these opportunities, but rather engages them as parts of a broad picture.
The account is grounded in the historical background of Chinese aid. This interesting analysis goes beyond merely pointing out that such a history exists, going back to Chinese forays into Africa such as the construction in the early 1970s of a railway connecting Tanzania and Zambia. Brautigam offers a glimpse of the various influences that have shaped the ever-evolving trajectory of China’s engagement with Africa, including an analysis of how China’s experience with Japanese and Western projects on its own soil shaped its African strategies. The question of Taiwan and diplomatic recognition also was a burning issue until 1971 and again after 1989. Making aid work as an investment, not just as alms, has been an important consideration over the decades, as has been the ideological dimension of anti-imperialism. In recent years, significant stumbles have made Chinese political and corporate leaders engage much more intensely with “Western” ideas, such as the notion of corporate responsibility. Overall, the book portrays China as something other than a monolith, and Chinese involvement in Africa as shaped by many influences and very much a work in progress.
Assessments must consequently be nuanced, contingent, and provisional. Here, the book effectively counters a fairly common mild hysteria about China’s rapidly growing engagement in Africa. Several points of controversy are simply not unique to China. (And one may venture that China is perhaps not as different and exotic as many accounts—including, to some extent, the present one—portray it to be). In tying portions of its aid to investment and returns, for instance, China follows a practice that was ubiquitous only a few years ago and is still quite widely practiced. Other aspects of China’s engagement should perhaps not be criticized so readily—and instead should make Western donors hold the mirror up to themselves. Brautigam acknowledges that Chinese projects do bring considerable, if highly variable, numbers of Chinese workers and experts to Africa. But one may wonder why there is so much concern over the Chinese, who at least do not enjoy luxuries and pay packages that are de rigueur for the armies of professionals employed by the Western aid system.
Indeed Chinese grants or concessional lending are not tied into the sometimes far-reaching economic conditionality associated with assistance from Bretton Woods institutions. But conditionality has a very poor record, and often-decried aspects of China’s practices—such as the close oversight of grants or loans that keeps funds for infrastructure projects (e.g., in Angola) outside the purview of local government—arguably secure the “condition” that money for roads in fact goes to road-building. Yes, the lack of skill-transfer is a problem, albeit not just for Chinese development projects. But Brautigam also finds that China is taking this issue perhaps more seriously than many other players do, employing a multipronged approach that often seeks out local “understudies,” offers training in China, and sometimes, as in Ethiopia, builds a whole training infrastructure in-country. Brautigam sees this Ethiopian story as driven at least in part by the increasing demand of Chinese businesses for skilled local labor. Might there be a dynamic here that runs counter to the feared (and perhaps still typical) race to...