China builds on Europe’s African ruins

It might have gone largely unnoticed. But there was a sting in the opening remarks made by Jia Qinglin to African heads of state at their annual summit.

The sting was aimed in Europe’s direction. Mr Jia, the fourth-ranking member of China’s ruling communist party, made much of Africa’s rich history and culture and of China’s long and brotherly relationship with the continent in his speech at the brand new $200m-headquarters Beijing had gifted to the African Union. Africa was the cradle of mankind, he reminded the audience.

“It boasts a time-honoured history, rich natural resources, talented and courageous people and significant contribution to the advancement of human civilization and world development,” he said.

There was more than an echo here of Nicholas Sarkozy’s first speech in Africa as French president, delivered in Dakar, Senegal, in October 2007. By contrast with Mr Jia’s performance, his was an extraordinary diplomatic blunder at a time of growing competition for the continent’s resources and markets.

“The tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered history,” Mr Sarkozy said to open mouths in the audience and a barrage of outrage on web sites throughout French-speaking Africa. “The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.”

Buried though they were in broader remarks, the French president’s comments were reminiscent of the Hegelian underpinnings of colonial thinking and the notion that African history only began when Europeans brought “progress”. It was an extreme example of the kind of outmoded thinking which still influences debate about Africa in the west.

The EU has long been the single largest donor to the organisation of 53 African states. But for all the financial support, European delegates were comprehensively upstaged by the hundreds of Chinese present at this year’s African Union summit, just as European companies, and governments are increasingly upstaged in their relations across the continent.

Europeans are struggling to learn from past mistakes in Africa. The Chinese know this and occasionally appear to relish the discomfort.

That said there was some discomfort among African delegates about the implications of the new Chinese building. After all, the Chinese have built government ministries in countries across Africa, including recently Ghana’s new defence headquarters. Having built and often gifted so many sensitive buildings, has Beijing hardwired African diplomacy to its own advantage?