Assessing China’s Growing Presence in Africa, by Paulo Duarte

The symbiosis could not be more perfect. As Serge Michel noted, “a growing country that is looking for markets and influence meets a continent rich in resources but with a lack of investors” (Michel, 2008: 39). It is not surprising, therefore, that Africa appears as a good option in the eyes of Chinese leaders. Moreover, it is not surprising that Chinese workers wish to embark on the African dream, because with wages often less than 150 dollars per month in the farms and factories, and with excess manpower in the coastal cities of China, Africa seems to be the land of dreams. In turn, the African continent seems to have every interest in diversifying cooperation with other regions throughout the world.

Currently, we have witnessed a remarkable and rapid conquest of Africa by China, which surprises the West (mainly Europeans and Americans), which used to consider the African continent more like a ‘charity case’, than an investment opportunity. The continent is also at the heart of an increasingly aggressive game of influence and, quite often, to the detriment of African countries themselves.

Among the sectors in which the Chinese are investing more in Africa, black gold is the main issue. Since the African continent provides about a third of the oil consumed by China, it is therefore natural that the large Chinese companies are well represented there.

In addition to investment in oil and gas, China’s African strategy is highly concentrated in the exploitation of raw materials and minerals extremely necessary for its growth. Uranium, gold, iron, phosphate, lead, cobalt, copper, bauxite, cotton, are some of the materials that China can find in Africa. Some African countries are obviously more endowed than others in these areas. That is why China strives to judiciously diversify its sources and partnerships in a continent so vast and rich in natural resources. For instance, 85% of the imported cobalt from the Middle Kingdom comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and almost all of Zimbabwe’s tobacco production is exported to China (Jornal de Notícias, 2009).

Why can the Chinese presence in Africa be seen as ‘win-win’ for both partners? China gains access to raw materials which are, in essence, the basis for the great economic revolution that the country is experiencing today. On the other hand, Africa takes advantage of the Chinese interest in the natural wealth of the continent to improve and/or create infrastructures, such as roads, schools and railways which it sorely needs. This means that the Chinese have the tools, the technology, the ability to mobilize thousands of workers as well as the opportunity to achieve a leading position in Africa and to deeply transform the continent. The Chinese seem to actually harvest the potential to succeed where others had not been effective before.

Among the traditional sectors where Chinese cooperation is felt in Africa, let us stress the building of great infrastructures – such as football stadiums, sports complexes, cement works, buildings, hotels, Palaces of Culture and of the Senate, National Assemblies, housing, roads, railways, air terminals, airports, ports, dams, power stations, and even an experimental nuclear reactor, and also civil aviation.

Although President Hu Jintao, during the speech he delivered on 16 February 2009 in Dar es Salaam, has ensured that China will be a good brother and a good partner (of Africa) forever,recent experiences have witnessed some tensions. Of course, even if African governments are able to benefit from the fact that Chinese competition breaks the monopoly of the former colonizers and that, compared with Americans and Europeans, Beijing does not concern itself with ‘internal affairs’ (good governance, human rights, democracy…), feelings in Africa oscillate, however, between enthusiasm and distrust.

In fact, China is currently experiencing the same obstacles which the Westerners had to face for a long time. What are they? The social instability, the serious problem of corruption that undermines politics, the economy and society, and lack of interest of the population, mixed with its resistance to Beijing’s projects in the region. The Chinese are seen as foreigners who take jobs from local people, or that present negligent behavior towards the rights of African workers who are subordinated to them. In this regard, we note that in the past, there have been tensions between Chinese and African countries, mainly in Senegal, Zambia and South Africa. An anti-China feeling has been growing: from Congo to Angola, taxi drivers, street vendors and even Africans who work with the Chinese criticize such an invasion. Chinese companies are accused of flooding local markets with counterfeit or poor quality products, especially in the field of textile and mopeds.

For all these reasons, Jean Servant (2005) questions whether the Chinese model of win-win (for Africa and China) does not eventually prove to be a new form of neocolonialism disguised as the illusions of a South-South development.

In almost all of Africa dissatisfaction and criticism against the Chinese presence has been increasing. Although China has promised to be a ‘good brother’ in its partnership with Africa, the African trade unions (in Dakar or in Lesotho, for example) threaten to boycott the sales of Chinese products that contribute to the growth of unemployment. The complaints manifest themselves, among other ways, through murder and/or kidnapping of Chinese that work in Africa. However, there are also environmental issues that we must not overlook. In fact, Africa has been witnessing a repetition of very similar problems to those that occur frequently in China: deforestation, contamination of land and water, lack of respect for the environment, resulting from a search for unbridled productivity.

It follows from all of this that the future of the Chinese presence in Africa seems to depend not so much on the economic potential of the Sino-African partnership (since this is extraordinary), but more on the issue of adapting Chinese attitude to Africa in environmental terms, of course, but also with regard to greater respect for local populations.

References

JORNAL DE NOTÍCIAS, <http://jn.sapo.pt/PaginaInicial/Mundo/Interior.aspx?content_id=1221377>, 2009, Accessed 22 jul. 2011.

MICHEL, Serge (2008). When China met Africa, Foreign Policy.Washington: Research Library Core, 215 p.

SERVANT, Jean-Christophe (2005). “La Chine à l’assaut du marché africain”. Le Monde Diplomatique.Éditionimprimée, <http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2005/05/SERVANT/12218>. Accessed 4 feb. 2011.

 

Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at the Institute for Social and Political Sciences of the Technical University of Lisbon – ISCSP-UTL, Portugal. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in Lisbon (duartebrardo@gmail.com).

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