The story of why China is in Africa begins in Karonga.
Even before Malawi switched its diplomatic tie to the PeopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Republic of China in 2008, Karonga was already a home to a number of Taiwanese. They had been in the district since 1966.
Their lasting legacy in the district is the initiation of the controversial Karonga-Chitipa Road. But there is a lot that Karonga owes to the Taiwanese.
They initiated a number of rice schemes. Lufira Rice Scheme, established in 1966 is one such. Today, under the control of the locals, the scheme is supporting a number of families.
But for the 42 years that the Taiwanese were in Karonga, there is hardly an instance where they went competing with locals in retail business. They confined their influence to development projects they were implementing.
That is why retail business in Karonga, then, was mostly in the hands of Malawians, with a few exceptions of Tanzanians and Indians.
The 2008 diplomatic switch changed everything. It brought a new form of engagement between Karonga and the Chinese.
Today, the Chinese are not just constructing the Karonga-Chitipa Road. They are also all over in the district competing with locals in retail business. And the locals are complaining.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The situation has reached a critical situation,Ã¢â‚¬Â Lyton Mangochi, a local businessperson in Karonga, told The Nation last week, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Malawians are being edged out of the market by Chinese shops who offer low prices that locals cannot compete with.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He did not stop there.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Our businesses are going down. The Chinese have invaded and taken over. We are only surviving by selling water or thobwa because people prefer to buy stuff from the Chinese,Ã¢â‚¬Â he laments.
Such concerns are not just in Karonga. All over Africa, China is bringing what some have described as unfair competition to AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s local businesses. They sell cheap products from their homeland, not just electronics but even plastic goods and clothes.
But where is this coming to?
For the past four decades, the world has witnessed a rapid growth of ChinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economy fuelled by an export-led manufacturing sector.
To sustain such an economy, experts argue, China needs two things. One, more raw materials, and two, a wide market of its products. Fortunately, Africa has these two in abundance. DoesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t this explain the real motive China is in Africa?
It is interesting to note that the arguments Mangochi makes about China, today, is quite similar to the one Guyanese historian Walter Rodney posed in the 1970s in a book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
In the book, Rodney showed how Europe, after growing its economy in the 19th century, spilled into Africa to extract resources to fuel industrialisation in their countries, and also to invade local markets with products of their homeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s factories.
In Beijing in 2005 Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairperson of the South African Institute of International Affairs, spelled out to a conference organised by the Chinese Parliament what many feared might be the result.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Africa sells raw materials to China and China sells manufactured products to Africa. This is a dangerous equation that reproduces AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s old relationship with colonial powers,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
And he continued: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The equation is not sustainable for a number of reasons. First, Africa needs to preserve its natural resources to use in the future for its own industrialisation. Secondly, ChinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s export strategy is contributing to the de-industrialisation of some middle-income countries.Ã¢â‚¬Â
So, is the motive of ChinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s presence in Africa today different from that of Europe in the 19th century?
Surely, if Africa continues to go business as usual, it wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t come as a surprise if the future will echo Rodney and have writers pen books titled How China Underdeveloped Africa.
This needs to be avoided. But how can Africa do it?
Mbeki argues that it is in the interest of Africa and China to find solutions to their relationship.
Even Lonjezo Sithole, a fourth year economics student at Chancellor College, argues that it is the responsibility of African governments to protect small indigenous businesses.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“An influx of Chinese SMEs [small and medium enterprises] on the local markets has the potential of smothering local initiative. What the governments can do is, therefore, to identify a set of businesses that should be a preserve for local entrepreneurs. For example, those selling kaunjika (second-hand clothes) and owning small grocery stalls,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says.
Though it is critical for government to check the advance of the Chinese, it is important to note that China is not the real issue. If anything, it is only exploiting an outstanding problem. There is something much deeper than China which Africa needs to tackle.
From the time of slave trade in the 17th century to the current rise of China, Africa has tenaciously played an underdog in international political economy.
It has consistently, to a larger extent, used its labour, raw materials and markets to support and sustain development of already developed nations. Through this, the global and emerging powers have, strategically, entrenched a system which craftily manipulates AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s social, economic and political environment to their advantage.
Through facades of aid, they are able, using their strong financial institutions, to control AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s financial institutions.
Why is the West always interested in giving budgetary support or aid than improving trade deals so that Malawians can reap from their tobacco?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s challenges,Ã¢â‚¬Â argues Zambian author Dambisa Moyo in her influential book, Dead Aid, Ã¢â‚¬Å“can be met by good trade deals than aid. Aid only deepens AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suffering.Ã¢â‚¬Â
There are some who argue that China does not attach conditions to their aid. In an introduction to a book article titled, African Perspective on China, Ghanaian journalist Stephen Mark disagrees with the assertion.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“To qualify for ChinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interventions, a nation needs to endorse ChinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬ËœOne China PolicyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢,Ã¢â‚¬Â he argues.
In fact, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s worth repeating words of that political scientist Michael Jana, who said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“In international relations, there is nothing like benevolence. National interest takes precedence.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Could China have built the Parliament in Lilongwe if Malawi were still with Taiwan?
The issue here is not about which side Africa swings to. The real issue, therefore, is AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s continued underdog status in the international political economy. Surely, it is time Africa started asking tough questions.
What is it about Africa that makes it vulnerable to global powersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ manipulation?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Africa lacks collective solidarity,Ã¢â‚¬Â argues Bingu Wa Mutharika in his 1995 book One Africa, One Destiny.
In the book, written while he was chairperson of Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), Mutharika demonstrates that Africa fight encroachment of the powerful by building a collective solidarity.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Africa has a shared destiny. As a result, the continent needs to strengthen its regional and continental blocking. Through this, there must be a flourishing of trade within the continent, beginning on a regional level,Ã¢â‚¬Â he writes.
He is right. AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s internal weakness is one factor that invites foreign encroachment. Almost all the regional blockings are weak. Look at Sadc. Look at Comesa. Despite being a common market, how far has it gone in consuming products produced within the region?
Look at African Union. How far has it protected African countries from apparent exploitation of global powers?
The future of Africa rests on strengthening regional and continental blocking than debating which global power to swing to.