Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

African youngsters do not buy Western claims about China’s colonialism

  • Survey finds more young Africans favour China over the US and believe infrastructure development and investment, both physical and digital, are key to their economic future

Colonialism or neocolonialism is the subtext of most overseas reporting of China in Africa. While there is the golden rule of journalism according to which only bad news makes good news, the sheer volume of negative or critical stories on the topic in the past decade rather boggles the mind. Does the West really care so much about the well-being of Africans? Who knows?

But what about Africans and their countries? Do they have no agency or, if you prefer an old-fashioned phrase, free will, of their own to decide and act for themselves? Just for the sake of balance, a new survey of young Africans from 15 countries is worth pondering.

The history of the West in Africa certainly makes for some horrifying reading. China will have to do a lot worse to match the Western records. Still, the typically sanctimonious reporting is rather over the top. Perhaps it’s what psychologists call “projection”. Here’s a random selection of headlines from the foreign press: “Africa’s donkeys are being stolen and slaughtered for Chinese medicine”, “Racist videos about Africans fuel a multimillion-dollar Chinese industry”, “China’s Iron Mining Threatens Villages, Ecosystems in West Africa”, “China wishes to penetrate Africa’s political landscape with its ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy: Report”.

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We can go on all day. But it may be more worthwhile, for once, to consider what young Africans themselves think about China and the need for infrastructure development in their continent.

The authoritative African Youth Survey 2022, released last month by the Johannesburg-based Ichikowitz Family Foundation, is quite an eye-opener. The young people in the survey must not have been reading the Western press, otherwise they would know they and their countries are being exploited and colonised by the Chinese.

It finds that 76 per cent of 4,507 young Africans from 15 countries consider China a foreign power with a positive influence on their lives, compared with 72 per cent for the United States and 74 per cent for the European Union. In 2020, when the inaugural youth study was first released, 83 per cent of respondents named US influence as positive, compared with 79 per cent for China.

The survey involved face-to-face interviews with about 300 people aged 18 to 24 for each country. The nations surveyed are: Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.


China prepares to give US$140 million parliament building to Zimbabwe

China prepares to give US$140 million parliament building to Zimbabwe

A minority, though, were critical of China. Twenty-four per cent said Chinese investments were a form of “economic colonialism”; 36 per cent said the Chinese were buying African resources with unfair prices and other compensations. And more than one in five said the Chinese showed a lack of respect for African values and traditions.

More alarmingly, well over half believed in the conspiracy theory that China deliberately spread Covid-19 around the world.

Overall, though, foundation chairman Ivor Ichikowitz said young Africans favoured China because it alone had consistently provided investments in physical and digital infrastructure, which they believe are needed for the continent to develop economically.

“The survey is also incredibly useful for foreign investors,” he said. “What Africa needs, according to the youth, is anything that will bring the greatest benefit: infrastructural development; water management; and digital connectivity.

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“Their greatest need is for initiatives and investment that will unlock the continent’s economic promise and create sustainable and enriching jobs. The youth want to preserve the natural resources that are their heritage, but at the same time they understand that a major cause of poaching is poverty and the desperation to sustain communities who don’t have any other way of surviving otherwise.”

In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Ichikowitz said the US was a non-player in infrastructure development.

“In Africa, America has played a very, very limited role, it actually played an embarrassingly insignificant role in terms of actual investment, actual trade, actual building of infrastructure,” he said. “There is no question that China is the dominant player in Africa today. Overall we are seeing a much more positive approach to China, that’s going to drive a lot more engagement with China.”

And why is it important to know what young Africans are thinking today? Well, a demographic estimate by the African Union Commission projects that 42 per cent of the world’s youth will be African by 2030.

China must know who it needs to make friends with.