Not that “Africa” is a country, of course, but it helps to look at broad, continent-wide trends. People are reluctant to the idea of demographics as the great driver of history. In the general case, this might be true. But the 21st century will see an unprecedented situation: one where every continent will face large-scale aging and slowing demographic growth. Every continent, that is, except one: Africa (or, to be more specific, sub-Saharan Africa). Africa is young whereas the rest of the world is graying, and any strategic thinking about the 21st century must take this into account.
Add to this Africa’s steadily improving situation with regard to governance (there are still many problems, but steadily less war, steadily more free elections, and so on), and a technological landscape and future that will allow Africa to leapfrog many aspects of the rich life that the rich world takes for granted. And national resources are just icing on the cake.
As is frequently remarked upon, and as a book review in this week’s Economist touches upon, China has a very deliberate and ambitious strategy of investment in Africa. The old categories of “neocolonialism” miss the point. So does the remark that China is only interested in Africa’s natural resources in order to fuel its own manufacturing-driven growth and put its strategic eggs in more than one basket.
For sure, China’s drive into Africa is mainly motivated by natural resources. But this is merely the catalyst of a broader phenomenon, which is really driven by the frustration of so many Chinese with the unbearably stifling and corrupt Chinese system. From a slow-growth West myopically hypnotized by China’s largely meaningless growth figures (and a bizarre envy of authoritarianism), we don’t actually see China for what it is, which is a very unhealthy society. The limitation on births. The ruthless and ineffective education system, which now no longer provides the jobs it promised. The omnipresent corruption and inflation. The stifling (literally) pollution. No wonder everyone who can is running for the exits.
For Chinese who cannot find advancement or fulfillment in a tottering system, Africa is actually enticing. Chinese are more at home than Westerners in cultures where clientelism (understood non-judgementally as a system where networks of interpersonal reciprocal relations are very important) is more important than legalism, and in Africa they can find a world where opportunities are more available for the taking for the driven and hard-working who are shut-out of the best networks in China. And, of course, we cannot discount the fact that most of the Chinese doing business in Africa are men coming from a country with an increasing shortage of women to a continent where there is not.
It is this social phenomenon which is driving China’s scramble for Africa, more than “neo-colonialism” or a mere geopolitical grab for oil and soybean fields. And underlying it is an understanding that the West ignores at its future peril: Africa is where the future is.