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China's African impact

While western politicians chide African leaders for tolerating corruption and staying in power far too long, China continues to expand its economic reach on the continent.

Its influence is being exerted in countries formerly within European and American economic and political spheres of influence. It is prepared to enter into relations with states ostracized by western countries.

In 2000, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established, and at its 2006 summit in Beijing attended by more than 50 African countries, China declared a “Year of Africa” for China, and released a document, “China’s African Policy,” aimed at presenting its policies towards Africa. A range of trade, investment and aid proposals were announced.

By 2009 China had become Africa’s biggest trading partner, buying raw materials for its industries and selling finished goods to African consumers, exchanging about $160 billion worth of products a year. Two thirds of African nations now list China as a top-five trading partner.

More than one million Chinese, most of them labourers and traders, have moved to the continent in the past decade. Chinese companies now routinely make multi-billion dollar business deals in Africa.

Chinese businesses also keep increasing their foreign investment. China’s share of foreign investment in Zimbabwe stands at 82 per cent, in Sierra Leone 70 per cent, Guinea 69 per cent, Niger 53 per cent, Cameroon 35 per cent, Congo-Kinshasa 31 per cent, Uganda 28 per cent, and Mozambique 22 per cent.

These are mostly poor and unstable countries, so China is willing to take risks for potential future profits. In any case, they are abundant in natural resources, needed for China’s burgeoning economy. Iron ore, copper, platinum, timber, cotton, are among the commodities imported.

China’s oil consumption is now second worldwide, behind the United States, so Beijing has helped African countries develop their oil sectors in exchange for advantageous trade deals.

Beijing provides low-interest loans to countries with low credit ratings, and in turn receives favorable rights to develop oil and mining projects. Its African suppliers of oil include Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and the Republic of Congo.

China’s state-owned oil company has a large stake in South Sudan’s oil fields, and China has deployed an infantry battalion to the United Nations peacekeeping mission there.

The government and private enterprise work hand-in-hand. China has established banks such as the China Export Import Bank and the China Development Bank to provide finance in order to meet government objectives; the latter set up the China-Africa Development Fund in 2007 to promote Chinese investment.

China is also a major arms supplier in Africa, third behind France and Russia; state-run arms companies have sold weaponry to unsavoury regimes in Libya, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

But social and environmental complaints about Chinese companies are common. Many of them use Chinese nationals for management and technical positions in their African projects, leaving the more menial work to locals, who are often exploited. Chinese companies have been accused of underbidding local firms and not hiring Africans.

Ironically, this opens China to the charge of replicating the earlier colonialism of European nations in Africa.

Chinese workers have been murdered in a number of countries and there have been anti-Chinese riots as well.

In Senegal residents’ organizations last year blocked a deal that would have handed a prime section of property in the centre of the capital, Dakar, to Chinese developers, while in Tanzania labour unions criticized the government for letting in Chinese petty traders.

In September 2011, Michael Sata won Zambia’s presidency largely by tapping into anti-Chinese resentments after Chinese managers shot protesters at a coal mine a year earlier. Gabon withdrew an oil field permit from a subsidiary of the Beijing-based oil and gas company Sinopec in 2013 due to environmental concerns.

Aware of this rising criticism, in May 2014 China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, acknowledged “growing pains” in the relationship. In a speech at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Abuja, Nigeria, Li discussed his dream of one day connecting Africa’s major cities by Chinese built high-speed railways “with no strings attached.”

And the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said last January, while on a five-nation African tour, that “we absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists, and we absolutely will not sacrifice Africa’s ecological and long-term interests.”

Is China’s relationship with Africa one of “North-South” imperialism or “South-South” solidarity?


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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