China’s engagement in Africa is generally portrayed simply as African countries being exploited for their mineral wealth by a wealthy political and economic superpower. Is this always the case?
Certain African countries have been able to use China’s involvement in the region to grow their economies and to bolster their political capital. Angola has been amongst the most successful of African nations in this role. Lucy Corkin’s book Uncovering African Agency; Angola’s Management of China’s Credit Lines casts a fascinating new light on China’s involvement with her largest African trading partner.
‘This is a superb work and punctures the myth of African countries in thrall to China. Lucy Corkin’s deep account of how the Angolan Government exercises its agency, and how it negotiates with China, is revelatory. The work is nuanced and balanced and important.’
Stephen Chan, School of Oriental & African Studies, UK
‘This exceptionally rich and informed book punctures much of the myth about China’s operations in Africa. Based on detailed primary fieldwork in Angola and China, Corkin shows the limits to the “China’s impact on Africa” lens. This is a relationship driven as much by Africans as by the Chinese. Read it, and be informed by evidence rather than prejudice!’
Raphael Kaplinsky, The Open University, UK
‘This book is an immense achievement. It provides a finely detailed look at a critical relationship, and an illuminating analysis that is both empirically rich and theoretically sophisticated. Highly recommended for scholars, policy makers and anyone seeking a better understanding of how China really works in Africa.’
Deborah Brautigam, Johns Hopkins University, USA, and author of ‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’
About the Author: Lucy Corkin is a Research Associate of the Africa-Asia Centre at School of African and Asian Studies (SOAS), University of London, from which institution she holds a PhD in Politics. She was previously Projects Director at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) in South Africa. She was a visiting scholar at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro’s BRICS Policy Centre. Lucy has participated in ground-breaking research on China’s relations with African countries. She speaks English, Portuguese, French, Afrikaans, and Mandarin Chinese.
From the author’s introduction to Uncovering African Agency: Angola’s Management of China’s Credit Lines:
It is my hope that, despite the narrow focus of this book, it will have a wide appeal, as I believe the case study it examines sheds light on a number of themes that can be used in related research. It is at times a bit theoretical and at times a bit technical. I make no apologies for this as the literature on China-Africa relations has moved beyond the kind of broad-brush studies of 15 years ago and now merits proper empirical and theoretical inquiry.
A Note on Research Challenges
This book draws on almost 200 in-depth interviews conducted in both China and Angola between July 2009 and February 2011 and is an attempt to bridge the gap between the often misleading musings of popular journalism and weighty academic inquiry into the nature of China’s relations with Angola, specifically through China Exim Bank’s financing to the Dos Santos government.
Undertaking research of this nature was not without its difficulties. One of the most important challenges lay in access to the relevant data, from both Chinese and Angolan sources. For Angola’s part, much of the difficulty lies in a lack of capacity (or political will) for official statistics to be generated by the Angolan government.
One Angolan academic referred to the search for data regarding China–Angola relations specifically as ‘a black hole’ in this regard. Messiant comments on the general reluctance of the Angolan government to publish official data, particularly where oil revenue is concerned. She further points to the active efforts on the part of the Angolan government to reduce transparency in this sector as reportedly
“The law regulating oil production stipulates that the parties concerned refrain from making public the terms of their involvement, which obviously makes transparency impossible.”
Shaxson also remarks on the secrecy that permeates Angola, suggesting that this is due to the dominance of the oil industry, which is governed by the control of access to information. The Angolan Ministry of Finance has since renovated its website and made public information on projects financed by oil-backed loans from Portugal and China. This is a decided improvement, but by no means sufficient.
One Angolan NGO activist was adamant that the figures published by the Angolan Ministry of Finance were fictitious. Indeed, Global Witness remarks that, despite an increase in the availability of official data from Angolan ministries, it is unclear whether these published figures are reliable.
Furthermore, the media are tightly controlled. One Angolan academic bemoaned the fact that Angola ‘has no newspapers that take public opinion into account’ and moreover that Angola’s academic community is severely lacking. In support of this claim, during the start of my fieldwork in Angola, three independent weeklies were bought by a hitherto-unknown media group, suspected to be owned by figures close to the President. There is an active rumour mill present in Angola due to a lack of media circulation outside of Luanda.
Comerford takes a more positive stance on the role of such informal communication channels, known locally as mujimbu, and argues for their importance as a means for a largely illiterate population, with a strong oral tradition, to gain access to information on current events, in an environment of heavy censorship. In this context, my choice of semi-structured interviews to generate data is particularly appropriate.
Data collection from Chinese sources is similarly challenging. Asche and Schüller express frustration at the discrepancies between statistics reported by yearbooks of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and IMF reports. This is explained in part by the current failure of (or lack of interest in) Chinese reporting methods to conform to international standards.
Brautigam, in her study of Chinese aid to Africa, found that Chinese academics cited reasons for a paucity of published statistics specifically on aid to Africa as cultural tendencies, as well as the fear of reprisal from the Chinese public that such large amounts of funds were being sent overseas despite the fact that areas of China are still very poor.
Hubbard, in contrast, has pointed out that there are data available, albeit in the Chinese language. Consequently, it is not necessarily opacity on the part of the Chinese government, but the inability of foreign researchers to read Chinese: ‘a “veil of ignorance” rather than “lack of transparency”’.
Large emphasises that Chinese language sources are often neglected by Western scholars. Large also recognises the pronounced need to generate research that takes account of Chinese perspectives on the matter, instead of those merely of the Western observer. He warns specifically against the potential of ‘self-referential logic’ in using exclusively English sources. Indeed, the same imperative exists to include African, in this case, Angolan, voices.
Two challenges on this front concern the fact that Chinese Africa studies are an underdeveloped research genre, as are Angolan China studies, although this is currently rapidly changing. Nevertheless, Chinese-language material related specifically to China-Angola relations is sparse, with most articles focusing more on business or trade. This reveals the lack of strategic significance of Angola as a separate country as viewed by Chinese researchers.
Indeed, one Shanghai academic commented that, despite all the fuss about China-Africa relations, South Africa was a much more strategic African partner. Furthermore, until recently, there existed few studies on China-Africa relations with genuine African ownership; still rarer are those studies emanating from the African country whose relations with China are under study. Nevertheless I have made a pointed effort to use Angolan (Portuguese) and Chinese-language-based texts where they are available in order to reintroduce their voice to the discourse.