Bridging Perceptions: China in Mozambique
Lauren Baker was an inaugural Summer Associate at MacroPolo, where she spent ten weeks in Chicago working on this project. Her work is based on on-the-ground insights and sources she cultivated during the year she spent in Mozambique as a Boren Fellow. A graduate of the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations, Lauren now resides in Washington, DC. All views and analysis are solely those of Lauren. All follow-up and questions about this project should be addressed to Lauren: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Concern about China’s role in Africa’s economic development is mounting. Chinese finance and investment on the continent is frequently folded into all-encompassing neocolonial narratives about Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and so-called “debt-trap diplomacy.” Yet African governments by-and-large do not endorse these concerns and many continue to pursue closer ties with China.
Mozambique is one such country at the nexus of East and Southern Africa. The government in Maputo, the capital, has seen a raft of preferential loans and direct investment from Chinese state and private companies flow into its struggling economy. The Mozambican case deserves attention because the Chinese presence in the country, an under-developed former Portuguese colony, is barely known relative to its wealthier and English-speaking neighbors.
Unlike the US-China relationship—in which economic and trade issues are often intertwined with geopolitics and national security—Mozambique offers a case of China in Africa where elites by and large do not share these concerns. The Mozambican government embraces what one business elite describes as a “symbiotic” relationship with China. It actively encourages Chinese projects in the country and enjoys basking in the diplomatic spotlight that Beijing affords the country.
Where there is skepticism, it resides among the non-government elite demographic. But theirs is a skepticism largely borne out of how they view their own government: very corrupt. Therefore, Beijing’s high-level linkages with the notoriously corrupt Mozambican government leads these non-government elites to assume that a capitalist conspiracy or backroom deals are in the works. When Chinese firms seemingly finance white elephant projects in the country, the non-government elites tend to not take it at face value and believe that such projects must lead to preferential treatment elsewhere where China benefits or profits.
This kind of elite cynicism runs counter to prevailing critiques of China in Africa because it is a concern aimed squarely at China’s commercial motives rather than the debt and political influence issues that preoccupy Western capitals. For Washington, it might view the disconnect between the Mozambican government and non-government elites on China’s presence as an opportunity to bolster America’s image among this demographic. Moreover, the United States could consider investing in economic development efforts that avoids the perception of being complicit in extant corruption.
Fireworks lit up the sky and reflected over the longest suspension bridge in Africa. Clearly visible from the rooftop I found myself on, the Maputo-Katembe bridge, opened in November 2018, linked Mozambique’s capital city to the underdeveloped beachfront community on the other side of the Maputo bay. Sidewalk vendors hawked merchandise with images of the bridge emblazoned on polyester t-shirts imported from China, all to celebrate a flagship project built and financed by—who else?—the Chinese.
All over Mozambique, signs and banners emblazoned in Mandarin and Portuguese are raised daily, affixed to scaffoldings, storefronts, and even podiums that host presidents and ambassadors. If Filipe Nyusi, the sitting president, continues to be anything like his predecessors, Chinese activities will become common sights in the former Portuguese colony.
An enthusiastic recipient of Beijing’s financing and a strong proponent of Chinese private investment, Nyusi is one of many African leaders who recognizes an opportunity for a symbiotic relationship when he sees one. The shiny new Maputo-Katembe bridge would not, could not, have been a reality without such a relationship. Without the bridge, Mozambicans would still be resigned to the crowded rusty old ferry or driving hours around the bay.
Why then, as I stood among the educated, well-to-do residents of Maputo on a downtown rooftop, were so many people so upset about the bridge?
Maputo’s Official Warm Embrace…
The Beijing-Maputo relationship is strong, fortified through decades of political linkages and a mix of investment and preferential lending to a country wracked by debt and a challenging business environment. Even though Mozambique is one of the least-developed and the few non-English speaking countries in East and Southern Africa, it is a region today that is of crucial importance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Among a long list of memoranda of understanding, trade assurances, and aid agreements, two facts worth noting are that Mozambique was the first African country to sign a Global Strategic Partnership Cooperation and Agreement and is a member of the Maritime Silk Road countries.
Maputo is hardly shy about publicly touting this bilateral cooperation every chance it gets. Not only do government officials regularly sing the praises of Chinese aid and investment, every president since independence has made multiple trips to China. In turn, Mozambique has hosted every Chinese president and almost every premier for official state visits.
Various unofficial linkages exist as well. Former President Joaquim Chissano chairs the political arm of the newly formed China-Africa Institute, and a brand new Confucius Institute is currently being built at Eduardo Mondlane University, the country’s most prestigious. According to data fromDevelopment Reimagined, East and Southern Africa are the most visited regions by Chinese delegations across the continent. This makes sense given the importance of the east coast for BRI and South Africa’s membership in the BRICS Forum.
Even though Mozambique is surrounded by powerful and wealthier African economies that are more important to China’s business and trade interests, it nonetheless enjoys Beijing’s enduring political and diplomatic favor. In many ways, the fact that high-level Chinese officials frequently visit Mozambique shines a spotlight on a country that has received little of it on the international stage. The Mozambican government seems to understand that well and actively encourages it.
…But Mozambicans’ Skepticism
But a wide gulf exists between Mozambique’s official embrace of China and the pervasive skepticism found among non-government elites.
The focus on non-government elites is deliberate. In a predominantly poor and rural country such as Mozambique, non-government elites represent a uniquely important slice of public opinion: those with access to rich information on national political and economic matters, but with no obligation to toe the official line.
It’s worth noting that the opinions of non-government elites do not always align with the results of national public opinion surveysfrom Pew and Afrobarometer. Those surveys, which sample a much larger percentage of rural and typically low information voters, paint a rosier picture of Mozambicans’ perception of China, with 36% of respondents listing China as the best model for development. Those macro-level surveys constitute an important reference, but it remains inherently difficult to assess the relative position and influence of those holding either positive or negative views.
Conversely, among non-government elites—those who are socially mobile, educated, and wealthy enough to work in government-adjacent and private industry with some exposure to Chinese firms—it would be hard pressed to find positive attitudes toward China. This demographic’s views and perceptions have a higher potential to shape the country’s policies and priorities because their skills and networks make them much more likely to enter Mozambique’s business and political spheres.
The unifying sentiment among this cohort of elites is the deep cynicism they have about China. But it’s a cynicism that is wholly detached from the “debt-trap diplomacy” rhetoric espoused in Washington, DC and other Western capitals. Their fear isn’t over neocolonialism or that China might build military bases—it is a skepticism borne out of their belief that how Chinese enterprises operate in Mozambique is a reflection of their own government’s endemic corruption. In short, this perception exists largely because of the intimate nature of state-to-state cooperation.
As one of the least developed countries in southern Africa, Mozambique is an embryonic democracy beset by corruption and electoral integrity issues, and is classified by EIU’s Democracy Index as an authoritarian regime. Such nominal democracies tend to have weak bureaucracies and immature political infrastructure that can be easily captured by other interests and veer into crony capitalism. And the opaque and seemingly transactional nature of Chinese overseas financing and investment simply reinforces the public’s default assumption that its own government is working out sweetheart deals with Chinese investors.
The implications of this relatively entrenched perception may be important as China seeks to expand markets in developing countries across Africa and to win “hearts and minds” with initiatives like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). But the Mozambique case can also inform the current debate about China’s role in Africa and the US response, where cultivating soft power and elite alignments, as well as aid and development, have been important components of Washington’s strategy.
This case study is based on interviews and roundtables with 15 sources I cultivated in the non-government elite demographic, ranging from students at top universities to professionals in agribusiness, telecom, and the extractive industries. It is organized around three high-profile Chinese projects, each illustrating certain factors that have led to the divergence of views on China’s presence in Mozambique. To provide additional color and details of the sources’ experiences, this case also incorporates commentary from social media and other channels where this elite demographic shares views.
The first project, the Maputo-Katembe bridge, illustrates just how closely Mozambican government officials align themselves with China in the public eye. The second, a model farm and testing center, demonstrates how elite Mozambicans view Chinese as shrewd businesspeople, which leads them to question how Chinese-backed commercial projects can turn out to be financially unfeasible. The third, a commercial fishing port, serves as a prism through which speculation veers into conspiracy, revealing non-government elites’ suspicions that Chinese firms are benefitting from their own government’s corruption.
Irreconcilable Figures, Partial Portraits
Typical of low-income developing countries, Mozambique’s official data do not inspire confidence in their credibility. This is especially so when it comes to foreign economic involvement, where data are contradictory, often irreconcilable, and should be taken with a large grain of salt.
Take Chinese financing. China is Mozambique’s largest bilateral creditor at $2.2 billion, a trend that applies to Africa writ large. China has forgiven and restructured debts that Mozambique owes on a semi-regular basis ($36 million in 2017), though neither government disclosed which projects’ debt was forgiven. At a minimum, the data show that China’s lending frequently takes the form of soft loans directed towards mega projects that almost always involve additional direct investment by Chinese firms.
Figure 1. Debt to China as Proportion of Mozambique’s Total Sovereign Debt
Sources: UNCTAD; Johns Hopkins CARI.
When it comes to Chinese direct investment, the data, too, is inconsistent and often conflicting. The Mozambican government frequently reports total investment figures that are orders of magnitude higher than those from UNCTAD (most third-party figures are generally in line with UNCTAD’s). For example, in 2016 the government reportedly approved projects worth over $600 billion, while UNCTAD reported just $35 billion. The Chinese ambassador to Mozambique also claimed in 2018 that China was the biggest foreign investor in the country, which could be true if all the various soft loans and concessional financing were counted as “investment.”
Figure 2. Total FDI Stock Much Higher Than China-held Debt in Mozambique
Sources: UNCTAD; Johns Hopkins CARI; Anuário Estatístico de Moçambique.
Even accounting for these discrepancies, the level of foreign investment is still substantially higher than the level of Mozambique’s debt (see Figure 2). But overall, Chinese investment and its financing actually pale in comparison to the massive amounts of money pouring into the country from Western companies, particularly energy-related players. In 2017, for example, only 5% of all FDI flows into Mozambique came from China, while Chinese FDI stock was just north of 2% of total FDI stock. In fact, Chinese investment has averaged well below 5% of total FDI stock and flows over the past decade, according to UNCTAD and CARI.
Figure 3. Chinese FDI Stock and Flows vs. Total FDI Stock and Flows
Source: UNCTAD; Johns Hopkins CARI.
In the other direction, Africa makes up a growing but still minor part of China’s global economic interests. And Mozambique is, in turn, even smaller, especially when compared to regional economic powerhouses like South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. For instance, Africa as a whole runs a trade deficit with China, and Mozambique is in the same boat.
Figure 4. Like Africa Writ Large, Mozambique Runs a Trade Deficit with China
Source: Johns Hopkins CARI.
So if Mozambique is but a minor slice of China’s FDI portfolio, even within Africa, then why do Chinese-backed projects receive disproportionate attention—much more than other foreign investors—among elite Mozambicans?
The answer lies in the nature of Chinese investments and how the locals encounter and interact with Chinese presence. Three different cases illustrate how Mozambican elite perceptions are shaped, one project at a time.
The Bridge: High-profile Intrigue and High-level Political Linkages
The Maputo-Katembe bridge—the longest suspension bridge in Africa—perfectly exemplifies the high visibility of Chinese projects. Now the most recognizable landmark in the capital’s skyline, the bridge would never have been built without China. It was financed almost entirely by the China Exim Bank and built by the state firm China Road and Bridge Company.
As an expat consultant in the extractive industry told me, “The Chinese build a bridge and a road and everyone can see that they did it. Not everyone can see the impact of a European petrol company even if it’s bigger in the long term.”
It is true that American and European offshore LNG projects are literally more distant, whereas many more Mozambicans personally experience the bridge. But the real reason this infrastructure project receives so much attention is because the Mozambican government asks for it.
Over the course of the highly fraught construction process, official publicity kicked into high gear, effusively praising the project. When it finally opened five months late and tens of millions over budget, the government rolled out the red carpet. President Nyusi held a televised ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by the Chinese ambassador and other high-level politicians that closed roads and involved fireworks. The bridge only connected Maputo and Katembe, but the official pomp and circumstance surrounding it would lead you to believe that it symbolically linked the entire nation with China.
Source: Presidente Filipe Nyusi via Facebook.
Such mega projects are possible in part because of the extensive connections at the highest levels of the Chinese and Mozambican governments. The official embrace of China means that many Chinese investments, which tend to be tangible products and services, turn into highly lauded affairs. For example, the receipt of buses that China donated merited another ceremonyheld by President Nyusi, complete with ribbons and a full press conference in a municipal transportation lot.
The flip side of this level of publicity, however, means that Chinese initiatives also invite heightened public scrutiny, particularly in terms of their feasibility and motivations, as evidenced in heated Facebook debates.
Source: President Filipe Nyusi via Facebook.
I witnessed how that public scrutiny unfolded firsthand at the bridge opening confab. Over the pop and sizzle of distant fireworks, the well-to-do young professionals at a rooftop party scoffed at the lavish ceremony. They assumed the entire bridge project, as well as its many delays and cost overruns, was a profiteering scheme on the part of the Chinese state-owned construction company.
Artist rendering of the bridge before completion.
A graduate student at Eduardo Mondlane University bought a bridge t-shirt as a gag gift for a friend, who wore it to the party and got plenty of laughs and pointed comments. “Boondoggle” unfortunately has no direct translation in Portuguese.
But the reality is that the Chinese most likely lost on, rather than profited from, the bridge. The project was not financially feasible, evidenced by the dissolution of the state holding company three months after it was built due to lack of revenue. This means Maputo has been saddled with additional debt from the bridge, though it’s possible China Exim Bank could forgive those loans, as has happened in the past. In that case, China would eat the entire cost of the bridge. As one professional in the Mozambican aviation industry said, “There is no way to pay for these things [the bridge and road] and no way to pay back the creditors but the country still needs them.”
In short, non-government elites understood that toll revenues wouldn’t pay for the bridge project and no one thought the China Exim Bank would ever see their money back. So if China didn’t profit from the bridge, then why do the elites insist that there must be a profit-motive somewhere? That such a view has become prevalent has much to do with the reputation the Chinese has earned in Mozambique.
The Farm: Growing Mistrust
The elites’ skepticism of the bridge project as a bad investment decision wasn’t fortified overnight. It falls squarely in line with the general reputation that Chinese firms and entrepreneurs have earned in Mozambique. That is, they are generally viewed as profit-driven capitalists above all else. Such irony isn’t lost on elite Mozambicans, as one agribusiness expert noted that “for a communist country they are strictly capitalist in Africa.”
Chinese firms, state-owned or not, are noted for their hustling, profit-oriented business culture. In general, many sources point to Chinese firms’ propensity to eke out profits even in difficult environments and to not abide by Western labor practices. In labor-intensive industries like agriculture and construction, the perception among non-government elites tends to be that Chinese firms run a rigid and demanding workplace.
As an agribusiness consultant remarked about Chinese workers at a farm, “It’s good for the development of this country but it’s not very humane, it’s extremely long hours working very hard.”
Given their reputation for business acumen and profiteering, when Chinese firms make bad investment decisions, local elites find it difficult to believe that’s even possible. This is because they are usually convinced the Chinese firm must be profiting somehow and that these projects are only a “loss” on the face of it.
This pattern is illustrated by the Agricultural Testing and Development Center (ATDC) initiative that is meant to promote food security and raise agricultural yields by transferring Chinese technology and expertise across 23 African nations. Sponsored by China’s Ministry of Commerce and situated a couple hours outside of Maputo, the Mozambique ATDC was the very first that opened in 2012. It is essentially a public-private partnership (PPP) that hosts representatives from Chinese and Mozambican ministries, convenes research agronomists and Chinese state firms, and operates a commercial farm on a government land concession.
The PPP was intended to educate local farmers while making a healthy profit. But in practice, it has accomplished neither and was described by one management expert as “a scattered mess.” That’s because while Chinese companies had built the shiny new ATDC testing center out on the machamba and managed the transition to commercialization, the goals of the project remained murky.
Though the ATDC is officially considered development assistance, directives from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce emphasized profitability as the goal of the commercial farm project. The emphasis on profit seemed to have come at the expense of Chinese-led agricultural research and community outreach efforts. These goals confounded Mozambican government counterparts unaccustomed to working with a profit mindset and left many observers scratching their heads over what, exactly, was the point of this ATDC.
An observer familiar with the project said that “Mozambicans never had a clear perspective on what the goals of the Chinese were; it was clear what the donor’s role was, what the implementers were doing, but there was no clarity from the high-level Chinese counterparts.” The same source said research progress was slow and the diffusion of knowledge to the local communities was uneven—an observation reinforced in a UNDP report. It stated that although local farmers gained some valuable techniques, fewer than half returned to the ATDC after their first training session.
One of the main reasons the ATDC floundered was due to linguistic and cultural barriers, which participants at the model farm described as “immense.” Even after many years of operation, the farm didn’t have Chinese employees who could speak Portuguese comfortably and fluently. The lack of proper language skills created resentment on both sides and proved to be a productivity nightmare.
The Chinese government seems to be slowly recognizing the need to close the linguistic gap. It recently poured massive amounts of money into a Portuguese language training program based in Macau, a former Portuguese colony, and paid for an enormous Confucius Institute within Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. Although these efforts are likely aimed at growing relationships with Brazil and Portugal, it will of course have spillover effects for Chinese operations in Mozambique. But until those initiatives are fully realized, the reality remains that Mozambicans can’t easily work with and differentiate among the many Chinese firms in the country.
Perhaps the ATDC could learn from the success of private Chinese agribusiness Wanbao. The entity began as a PPP, with financing from the China-Africa Development Fund, but managed to set itself apart from the state-backed programs that birthed it through effective localization.
Wanbao now sells its rice under a Portuguese brand name, Bom Gosto, with packaging that features the logo rendered in the Latin alphabet. Over time, Mozambicans stopped associating Wanbao with the Chinese government and began accepting Wanbao as a local brand of rice. Consequently, Wanbao has become one of the largest and profitable rice-growing operations in Mozambique.
When it comes to the ATDC, sources say its failures largely stemmed from productivity challenges, language barriers, disorganization, and managerial incompetence rather than some nefarious Chinese land grab plot. As the classic saying goes, echoed by one China-Africa observer, “Never assign to conspiracy that which is easily explained by incompetence.”
Even though incompetence and the inability to work well with Mozambican counterparts are likely the real reasons that the ATDC fell apart, elites can’t seem to square that with the perception of profit-oriented Chinese firms with their hardscrabble business culture. This seems to result in confusion over the true motives of the Chinese as uber capitalists in Africa.
The Port: Capitalist Conspiracy and Corruption
That confusion over Chinese motives begets speculation, and speculation is but a stone’s throw from conspiracy. In the absence of clear motives from Chinese players or officialdom, conspiratorial murmurings among elites have filled the vacuum.
Yet at the same time, Mozambican elites by and large do not assign neocolonialism or debt trap narratives to Chinese motives. Instead, these conspiracies are of a more prosaic variety: Chinese capitalists are in cahoots with the government to profit off of each other.
This is exemplified by the commercial fishing port in the city of Beira in central Mozambique. The Chinese government provided $120 million in concessional aid financing for a complete overhaul of the Porto de Pesca in 2017, doubling its docking capacity and increasing its fisheries production by more than 200 times. It was promoted by the president’s office and the Chinese embassy as a hallmark of state-to-state cooperation, with the expectation of bringing new jobs and significantly expanding exports to Asian markets.
But after the announcement, coastal residents started taking note of the apparent influx of industrial fishing ships and regularly reported sightings of ships that flew the Chinese flag. On many occasions, ships bearing other Asian nations’ flags were being lumped in as Chinese ships on social media like Facebook and WhatsApp, giving rise to claims of fake news and doctored photographs. Still, the fixation had been entirely on Chinese flags, as commentators loudly complained that the government sold out the coastline to the Chinese, giving them free rein to “drain our oceans” for profit in exchange for the gleaming new port.
One of the photos circulated online raised alarm about Chinese fishing vessels. Various commenters debated the legitimacy of the photo.
The narrative about government greed enabling Chinese fishing vessels to overtake the still nascent Mozambican fishing industry quickly became commonplace. The irony is that had the government not touted China’s refurbishment of the port as yet another example of bilateral cooperation and aid, the elites may not be holding such cynical views toward China.
This “capitalist conspiracy” fundamentally stems from the entrenched perception of Chinese players as shrewd profiteers and highly transactional. So, the assumption goes, flashy Chinese projects in partnership with the government, while ostensibly financially insolvent, can’t possibly be taken at face value. That is, there must be some sort of backroom deal happening, whereby the Chinese play the same “algo para ti, algo para mim” game of “mutual benefit” that Mozambican officials play.
Mozambicans on social media consistently link high-profile Chinese investments or concessional financing schemes to Chinese industries they consider unethical or extractive, implying that debt-forgiveness or low-cost financing is made in exchange for licenses and export arrangements. For example, elites on social media frequently debate which land concessions will be granted next in order to “pay” for a new port planned south of the capital.
Views on China are Really about Domestic Corruption
A major factor shaping elites’ views of Chinese presence is basically projecting how they feel about their own government onto China. Mozambicans are deeply cynical of their authorities, in part because corruption dominates the news and in part because corruption is part of daily life. For instance, high-profile corruption cases like that of former Finance Minister Manuel Chang have soured public opinion and triggered civil protests among the educated and activists, many of whom have taken to social media to create satirical memes.
Mozambique ranks near the bottom 10% on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Its composite score of 23 is low even by sub-Saharan African standards, where the regional average is 32 (only 10 African countries, many of which are currently engaged in widespread conflict, score lower than Mozambique). It is even below the average of other Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Mozambique Perceived as One of the Most Corrupt Among SADC Countries
Source: Transparency International.
On the ground level, the country is rife with retail corruption. For instance, 35% of Mozambicans had to pay a bribe to use a public service in the past year, according to Afrobarometer, making it the second-worst in southern Africa by a comfortable margin (see Figure 6). One foreign executive remarked that he had to fabricate a role for his local partner’s brother just to deal with the various government agencies, inspectors, and their arbitrary fines.
Figure 6. Mozambique’s Bribery Rate Is Surpassed Only by the Democratic Republic of Congo
As one European expat in the telecom industry revealed, “The local guys with small- and medium-sized businesses, they have to pay twice, three times, three different bribes but the larger businesses…the ones run by foreigners can go straight to the top and only pay once.” The Afrobarometer report bears this out: while only 50% of Mozambicans think an average person can bribe their way out of taxes, business registration, or court, 66% think a rich person can.
If going “straight to the top” means cooperating intimately with officials who can make or break deals, then Chinese firms have long invested in building diplomatic and political relationships. Because of these linkages with the Maputo government, Chinese enterprises of all stripes have come to be seen as guilty by association and “…will do what needs to get done.” Even popular WhatsApp memes single out the Chinese as more willing than the Portuguese to work with a hypothetically corrupt Mozambican.
Other foreign firms seem to be exempt from this impression, because they aren’t viewed as having cultivated a “symbiotic relationship” with the Mozambican government. So the elites’ view of China is governed by something of a unique political transitive property: our own government = corrupt; anyone who works with the government = corrupt; China works with the government, so China = corrupt, or at least willing to put up with corruption.
Conclusion: The New Rules of The Game
Non-government elites in Mozambique fully understand that many Chinese investments and projects are insolvent but they do not ascribe neocolonial or debt-trap motives to them. Knowing their government to be highly corrupt, the elites instead view the Chinese as investing in some areas in exchange for long-term profits that are out of the public’s eye.
Rampant speculation about Chinese motives has taken on its own conspiratorial logic, though it is more prosaic than nefarious. No one assumes that the commercial fishing port will soon become a base for the PLA Navy, but rather there must be some other commercial motive behind it. As one politically connected source put it, “It’s not that the Chinese are playing by different rules than the Americans and Europeans, they’re not even playing the same game.”
Even if the actions taken by Chinese firms have perfectly sound explanations, assigning ulterior motives bordering on conspiracy isn’t likely to die down. That’s because compared to regional peers, Mozambique seems out of step with the amount of money and political capital China has expended in the country. This leads to questioning of the value proposition for China being present in Mozambique in the first place—they must be getting deals on the side to be able to continue investing in the country, so goes the thinking.
Like it or not, some non-government elites have become resigned to China’s growing presence. Instead, they are adapting to what they perceive as the new rules and new reality for success in the country: exploring opportunities tied to China. Students at Mozambique’s best university, for example, explained that they enrolled in the new Confucius Institute instead of learning English because they believe the best-paying jobs in their country will require Mandarin in the near future. This is in part because after a decade of investing in the country, many agree that Chinese firms now occupy a privileged position.
A Mozambican professional who completed her degree in China said that being viewed as “doors” by Chinese coming to establish ventures in Africa is a valuable position to be in. On the other hand, she also held the common suspicion that pervades elites, saying that “FDI comes with its own agenda. They might say there are no strings attached but I always see strings.”
One of these strings that Mozambicans point to is that Chinese investment too often functions as a jobs program for Chinese workers. One Mozambican civil engineer expressed skepticism that public works financing would be made available if the government contracted a non-Chinese company and said it’s easier to land foreign clients than domestic ones because the major domestic projects almost always go to Chinese private and state firms. The Twitter posting below captures the broad sentiment well:
This has some interesting implications for US-Africa policy, which under the Trump administration has explicitly positioned itself in opposition to China’s presence. The Prosper Africa initiative announced in Maputo at the 2019 US-Africa Business Summit incentivizes American businesses to invest on the continent. However, the initiative’s $50 million pledge pales in comparison to Beijing’s promise of $60 billion.
China may carry a much larger checkbook when it comes to Mozambique, but its soft power remains weak among the non-government elites. This is a potential demographic the United States can integrate into its broader economic and political strategy on the continent. As Africa urbanizes and the population becomes more educated, winning political goodwill among the non-government elites can be an important part of competing with China in Africa. In other words, if the United States cannot adequately compete on building bridges and roads, then it should consider capitalizing on intangible areas where it is competitive.
For example, non-government elites are more likely to be good local partners and technical advisors, because they are not swayed only by dollars and cents. This can allow US companies and investments to operate relatively unfettered without much controversy.
Just take US energy giant Anadarko. It has invested in a massive $20 billion LNG project in northern Mozambique—the single largest project ever approved on the continent—yet Mozambicans pay much less attention to it, instead training their focus on much smaller Chinese endeavors. In short, US-backed projects assume a default level of legitimacy among elites that Chinese projects have to try very hard to earn.
But to meaningfully persuade non-government elites—the only high-information, political demographic in Mozambique likely to be receptive to US messages—Washington will likely need to shift its current narrative. Even as these elites are concerned about the cozy relationship between China and its government, they are also not persuaded by Washington’s explicitly political framing of China’s presence. The dire warnings about China in Africa tend to fall flat and do little to sway local sentiment in favor of the United States.