China is a big trading partner to the African continent. In 2009, the country surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner. China is also one of Africa’s biggest loaners. This relationship is the reason behind Mandarin Chinese being taught in African schools and universities. It is also the reason that the news has not been well-received in many places.
Chinese-African Trade Relations
Although Chinese-African trade relations can be dated as far back to 700AD, it is the current relations that are of interest. With the current Chinese-African trade relations, China has been accused of exploiting Africa in an almost colonial fashion. And while some of the loudest voices have been from the West, with media sources such as UK’s The Telegraph running headlines like "China Raises Fears of ‘New Colonialism’ With $60 Billion Investment", there has also been considerable push back from Africans themselves. A lot of this has to do with the fact that China is seen as luring African countries into a debt trap.
The debt trap narrative came about when China started giving a lot of money in loans to other cash-strapped countries, loans which may be beyond these countries to pay. Many of these countries receiving Chinese loans also face challenges of corruption, but that’s hardly on the Chinese. The fear is that, with the corruption in these countries as well as the huge debts these countries already owe to other debtors, they won’t be able to pay back their loans to China. A good example of this is Kenya.
Kenya is one of the African countries whose governments is accused of going on a borrowing spree, borrowing more than it can afford to. Kenya owes most of its loans to China and the World Bank, which gives the two a significant influence on the country’s economic policy planning.
For instance, Kenyans were subjected to an 8% fuel tax in a bid to raise money to pay back loans from the World Bank. Fuel, previously an untaxed commodity, was offered up as an IMF prescription to "increase revenues, reduce budgetary deficits, and ultimately reduce foreign debt".
The fuel tax led to a hike in bus fare and an overall price increase in basic and other commodities, thus increasing the standard of living. The fuel tax, which was proposed as a 16% tax up from its tax-exempt status, was decried by many Kenyans. The vote to which the tax was amended was also quite controversial, with many arguing it was rigged.
With China, on the other hand, headlines shocked many when it was reported that China is Kenya’s largest creditor with 72% of the total bilateral debt. However, a fact-check showed that while China does indeed own 72% of Kenya’s total bilateral debt, it owns only 21.3% of the country’s external debt.
These figures are still disconcerting to many Kenyans because a lot of the money acquired through these loans is being lost to corruption – Kenya is perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries – leading to an economic crisis that has seen a rise of inflation in the country.
In addition, the Auditor-General, Edward Ouko, has warned that Kenya could lose the Mombasa port to China over a Ksh227 billion loan that Kenya took from the EXIM Bank of China to build the standard gauge railway, putting the country's sovereignty at stake. This would follow a precedent of the Sri Lankan government losing its Hambantota port to China.
What Language Has To Do With It
News reports have emerged that Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa will all be teaching the language in an official capacity in both primary and secondary schools, as well as in universities. This is seen to prove the claims of sinocolonisation in Africa.
Make no mistake, Mandarin Chinese was already being taught in many Africa countries, as well as in many other countries of the world, in institutions like the Confucius Institute. It is the inclusion of the language into the school curriculum that has brought forth the unease, especially since many African countries don’t even teach their own ethnic languages in school nor are the Chinese expected to learn African languages.
It is not just the inclusion of Chinese languages into African curricula that is brought into question, it is the inclusion of other foreign languages as well, such as French and German. While learning foreign languages is beneficial, it should never come at the helm of imperialism, and that is what people are questioning: is teaching Chinese in African schools a signal of imperialism?
Header image: Africa-China Reporting