China-Africa relations
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Engineers from China and Tanzania at the construction site of the project to upgrade the Dar es Salaam Port in Tanzania. Photo: Xinhua

China seen as better than EU in completing African projects, survey finds

  • Poll of more than 1,000 policymakers on the continent puts priority on physical infrastructure, speedy results and non-interference in internal political affairs
  • European Union charts higher on quality of products or services delivered; good working conditions; creating jobs for Africans; upholding environmental standards

China holds a substantial lead over the EU concerning perceptions about decision-making and timely completion of projects in Africa, according to a survey about the activities of Europe and China on the continent.

China beats European countries in building projects such as roads, power dams, railways and bridges while Europe dominates the abstract like soft power exchanges, high standards and climate change consciousness, according to a study released Tuesday by the Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), a Kenya-based think tank.

The survey’s findings are based on responses in the last quarter of 2021 from more than 1,000 policymakers from 25 African countries who monitor the tight competition between the European Union and China in Africa.

China scores much higher than the EU on what the survey respondents consider Africa’s priority needs – physical infrastructure, speedy results and non-interference in internal political affairs.

Zimbabwe’s new parliament building, constructed and fully funded by China as a gift to the southern African nation, ahead of opening ceremonies on June 29. Photo: Xinhua

“China is thus headed towards closing the gap on the EU on most of the aspects of its engagement with Africa, including where the EU traditionally presumed to have commanded an unassailable lead,” said the study, which was commissioned by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Global Partnership Hub, a German NGO.

Survey participants rate China highly for quick decision-making, with an approval of 75.2 per cent; approval for the European Union was at 55.8 per cent.

“With organised military precision, China is known for speed and reliability,” researchers noted.

Nashon Adero, one of those researchers, noted that the survey showed more respondents rated China highly on timely completion of projects – 81.1 per cent – than the EU, which came in at 69.4 per cent.

China is focusing on large, material projects, while Europe in Africa is focusing on smaller and often more abstract projects
James Shikwati, Inter Region Economic Network

Adero, who is also an engineering lecturer at Taita Taveta University in Kenya, said that while both China and the EU are regarded as meddlesome in the internal affairs of their African partners, China is seen to be less so at 50.1 per cent, compared with 64.4 per cent for the EU.

However, he said, China is seen to have fewer scruples: the survey results show that 55.2 per cent of the policymakers believe that China uses corruption as a tool compared with 32.5 per cent who think the same of the EU, Adero said.

The EU is also preferred in many aspects of joint projects: quality of the products or services delivered; good working conditions; employing local workers and creating jobs for Africans; upholding environmental standards; and better treatment of Africans.


Top Chinese diplomat tours East Africa to promote peace, ensure stability for belt and road allies

Top Chinese diplomat tours East Africa to promote peace, ensure stability for belt and road allies

However, the study found, “China appears to be on the way to closing the gap and overtaking the EU on most of the aspects of the partnership with Africa, the most evident being supporting private sector growth, intra-Africa trade and investments, economic cooperation and long-term strategic cooperation”.

As a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the EU recently announced a €300 billion Africa-Europe investment package. In December, the 27-member bloc announced it would mobilise the funds in public and private investments around the world by 2027.

Dubbed the Global Gateway, the plan is a response to China’s growing economic and political influence in Africa, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pitching it as a “true alternative”.

Nairobi tollway an example of China’s new belt and road approach in Africa

James Shikwati, founder and chief executive of IREN, said that “while the EU outperforms China on most performance indicators, China continues to gain ground in Africa.

“This apparent paradox is easy to explain: obviously, the aspects of cooperation where China is strong are of relevance to the African partners.

“China is focusing on large, material projects, while Europe in Africa is focusing on smaller and often more abstract projects,” Shikwati said.

The report found that when it comes to building big in Africa, China is unrivalled.

A train runs on the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway, built by Chinese firms. Photo: Xinhua

“Chinese state-owned companies have significantly changed the terrain of the continent with rails, roads, bridges, ports, dams, and skyscrapers,” researchers said.

More than 85 per cent of respondents supported the statement “China supports the development of infrastructure in Africa”; just 64.2 per cent supported a similar statement about the EU.

Stefan Schott, the Naumann Foundation’s East Africa project director, said that “Europe’s belief in the superiority of its values contrasts with the pragmatic view of Africans on the performance and behaviour of the two partners (EU and China)”.

“To put it simply: A road completed in record time by the Chinese is a value in the perception of Africans and more concrete than abstract European projects to promote democracy, human rights or sustainability,” Schott said.

Debt trap diplomacy used to ‘smear’ China, says ex-central bank governor

China has been accused of putting developing countries into “debt traps” by offering unsustainable loans for BRI projects, which can then be leveraged for political influence or concessions of geostrategic value to China. This contention has, however, been sharply disputed.

Last week, China’s foreign ministry said, “the so-called ‘Chinese debt trap’ is pure disinformation and a narrative trap created by those who do not hope to see China-Africa cooperation pick up speed”.

In the survey, China and the EU were rated within close range concerning such debt-trap economic policies. China drew an affirmative vote by 66.4 per cent of respondents, but the EU drew an affirmative vote from 58.9 per cent as well.