Is China’s support to Malawi truly unconditional?

In the very early years of the state, Malawi successfully resisted diplomatic allurement from China in favour of Taiwan in the one-China policy antagonism. The adamancy of President Hastings Banda in fervently recognizing the Pro-Western Taiwan, perhaps, informs why the contemporary presence of the Chinese on the land is less cerebrated. It widely appears that a large section of the Malawian population, minus, maybe, President Bingu wa Mutharika and his government, is skeptical of China’s apparent benevolence.

As the irrelevance of which territory between Mainland China and Taiwan should represent the whole China prevailed among Malawians, shrewd politicians in the likes of President Mutharika became aware that the diplomatic rivalry between the two territories was crucially profitable for the economically depressed Malawi. In other words, President Mutharika deliberately exposed his government as a prey in the eyes of the two in order to weigh economic advantages presented by either territory.

Indeed, some economic gains from the eventual winner, China, can be noticed, thanks to its unrelenting desire to ensure the fulfillment of the promises it made at the inception of its formal relations with Malawi. The construction of the giant parliament building, the magnificent 5 star hotel, and numerous other ongoing projects including the University of Science and Technology in Thyolo, Karonga-Chitipa road, and the presidential Villa, all but indicate China’s dedication to developing Malawi as well as its perceived munificence.

Friends indeed: Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda with Chinese Ambassador to Malawi Pan Hejin

 This greatly pleases the country’s leadership which recently proclaimed that China “has given [Malawi] all these development structures without any preconditions. They have given [the country] these things simply from one friend to another friend. They have not asked Malawi…to adopt political, economic and social policies that harm [the country’s] national integrity or destroy [its] customs and traditions. And they have not at any time undermined [its] national sovereignty.”

While acknowledging China’s non-interference in government affairs as aptly summarized by President Mutharika above, it is important to consider that a foreign policy of a state is hugely crafted in line with its national interests.

Just as Malawi maintains diplomatic missions in other countries, including China of course, which it deems are crucially significant for its survival, it would be utterly inconceivable that China would be willing to spend its hard earned billions of dollars on Malawi for ‘free’ under the noses of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens who live in abject poverty, particularly those in rural areas.

It would, therefore, be erroneous to postulate that China is only playing a Good Samaritan as the leadership wants (ordinary) people to believe.

The truth is that Malawians are paying dearly for China’s extolled benevolence. The uncontrollable influx of Chinese nationals into this country since the establishment of formal relations nearly five years ago is already enough to doubt the sincerity of the lauded ‘unconditionality’ of China’s support given that this has not happened with Taiwanese nationals whose diplomatic marriage with Malawi spanned 40 solid years or even the Britons who have immensely subsidized the country’s national budget (save the current financial year) since independence.

This, however, does not signify that Chinese nationals are not welcome in Malawi. The problem is that a good number of them come into the country as vendors or shoe-shiners and not as investors, a phenomenon which is in sharp contrast with government’s drive for significant foreign direct investment.

Moreover, it is not a secret that Chinese products lack quality including their construction work which is commonly known to be slapdash. This could mean fragile structures, the consequences of which shall be far-reaching and heavily regrettable in the near future.

So, while the leadership wants the entire country to cerebrate Malawi’s increasingly new look “under China,” it is important to remember that there is nothing for free in this anarchical world. Moreover, ordinary Malawians are at the end of paying heavily for China’s perceived charity.

By the way, is it less anti-imperialistic to urge Malawians to emulate the Chinese culture and surely their hard working spirit?

 *Eugenio Njoloma is a  Foreign policy analyst

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