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Unpacking African Agency

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Senegalese President Macky Sall (L) attend a joint press conference during the Forum On China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on September 4, 2018. Lintao Zhang / POOL / AFP

Today the South African Institute of International Affairs is holding a webinar featuring new work focusing on African agency in the face of Chinese power.
 
How much power African actors have to shape their engagement with China is one of the field’s most fundamental questions. It touches not only how China’s growing power is felt on the continent, but also on how much agency Africa has in its other external relationships too.
 
The role of African governments is key here. How much agency Africa has depends in part on how much agency African governments claim for themselves. Debt is a good example. African governments face massive constraints in terms of the types and terms of financing they can get. But at the same time, they still have decision-making power within these limits, and their decisions (for example to keep the terms of loan agreements secret) can have massive repercussions for their own populations.
 
China’s strong focus on bilateral government-to-government ties is causing a counter-emphasis in development circles on capacitating these governments in their negotiations with Chinese entities. This is crucial work, and more is needed. But it also tends to bake in an assumption that African politicians will act as fighters for their citizens, rather than for themselves – an assumption immediately questioned by African realities.
 
This fraught relationship between African governments and citizens is a key space where African agency grows, and is cut down. Any discussion of African agency in relation to China needs to account for the reality that some African governments are very happy to turn the tools provided by external partners against their own people.
 
For this reason I think it’s useful to complicate the agency discussion by adding another category: social agency. How does an African country’s relationship with China affect its citizens’ ability to determine their own fate?
 
This is a much more complicated issue than whether African governments have negotiators who speak Mandarin. African governmental capacity-building can to a certain extent be standardized, measured and replicated in different countries (one reason for development agencies’ interest.) In contrast, the issue of how China affects social agency changes from country to country, region to region, community to community. It has everything to do with the relationship between a specific community and the metropole, in a way that echoes Tolstoy’s old line of every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way.
 
In today’s webinar we hone in on social agency via the ICT sector. Chinese internet provision hands new tools to both citizens and governments. In contrast to the anti-Huawei line from the U.S., it’s not as simple as Huawei = authoritarianism. Rather, the impact changes depending on each country’s own issues, sometimes boosting freedom of speech and sometimes fueling a crackdown.
 
Hashing out these issues is key to Africa’s development outcomes and we hope today’s discussion will add to the wider conversation about African agency and Chinese power.

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