It's the kind of headline that sells magazines: "China Buys Up the World" in a November 2010 issue of The Economist, illustrated by a faceless, militaristic figure loading cars, oil barrels, power lines and various manufactured goods into a giant shopping basket. But reports of the Chinese Government buying up hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in Africa to grow crops for Chinese dinner tables, or to secure political or military interests, are simply false and Chinese aid to Africa is far more complex, said panelists at May 16 conference sponsored by The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, DC.
"Agriculture is part of the general framework of policies and preferences for going global, but there hasn't been a real highlighting of attention to this. I think these issues are still controversial in China in terms of how much food security should be a domestic matter that can be controlled within the borders of China and how much it should rely on global trade," said Deborah Brautigam, professor, Director of the SAIS-China Africa Research Initiative (SAIS-CARI), and author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa and Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting Green Revolution.
It's easy to overestimate China's agricultural interest in Africa, Brautigam said. China has 20 percent of the world's population, but only 9 percent of the world's land and 6 percent of its fresh water resources. The growing middle class has increased demand for meat and soybeans that are used to feed livestock. It seems likely China would be interested in the millions of acres of uncultivated land in Africa.
Media histrionics over large-scale farming projects funded by the Chinese Government, however, are demonstrably false. Reports of "land grabbing" can be broken into five categories, according to Brautigam: media myths and false reports; aid projects that have now been privatized; construction contracts; government projects that were launched more than a decade ago; and real, current interests.
Case in point is a 2010 joint venture agreement between the China National Agricultural Development Group and the China-Africa Development Fund to do agricultural investment in Africa.
"This fund was mistakenly described in one medium as being a $5 billion fund to invest in agriculture in Africa and that's far from the real story," Brautigam said. "The real story is that it is a 1 billion renminbi fund, which is $161 million. This is still a sizeable amount of money, but it's a small fraction of $5 billion – and so far what they've done is to buy into existing Chinese ventures that have been around for quite a while."
According to research published by economists Jean- Jacques Gabas and Xiaoyang Tang for French agricultural research group CIRAD, China is considered a major donor of agricultural aid in Sub-Saharan Africa, though the amount of its aid remains well below that of OECD countries (about $130 million from 2009 to 2012). Of the 100 projects included in the study, 60 percent were given grants and the remaining were awarded public or private loans. Chinese aid, however, is expected to increase with the growing needs of China's developing infrastructure and the search for mineral and oil resources. The preferred method for aid and investment is trending toward joint ventures, privatization and government grants.
But is "land grabbing" a part of the package? Absolutely not, conclude Gabas and Tang. According to Land Matrix data, China's public and private land acquisitions represent 290,000 hectares - 15 times less than the land acquired by the United States and almost 10 times less than the United Arab Emirates. Chinese agricultural companies almost exclusively develop food crops for local African markets.
"Contrary to the idea that the government in Beijing is orchestrating a surge of Chinese companies and entrepreneurs, Chinese cooperation is marked by the multiplication - most often uncoordinated - of diverse operators. Until the 1990s, the Chinese Government controlled all interventions in the agricultural sector in Africa. But since then, the institutional landscape has become more diversified and complex," write Gabas and Tang.
The Johns Hopkins University SAIS launched the China Africa Research Initiative this year to promote research and collaboration to better understand the economic and political dimensions of China-Africa relations and their implications for human security and global development. In its initial efforts, the initiative is focused on agriculture, a topic that touches on multiple concerns, from supply chains, global manufacturing, trade, peacekeeping and strategic cooperation between major powers in Africa, said David Lampton, SAIS professor of China Studies.
In addition to conferences, the initiative includes the development of new courses for students, seminars, educational opportunities and efforts to rectify media and public misperceptions on Chinese-African relations, Robert Thompson, SAIS professor of global agriculture, told Beijing Review.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
(Reporting from Washington D.C.)