The great leap westward

 

As China's economic and political influence grows in Africa, it is unclear who is the winner and who the loser in the relationship, writes Mary Fitzgerald

'NI HAO, NI HAO," yell the Zambian schoolchildren, as they spot a visitor walking past the scrubby patch of earth where they are skipping in a circle. These are the expansive grounds of the Sino-Zam Friendship Hospital in Kitwe, one of the main towns in the dusty copper belt of northern Zambia. The Mandarin greeting can also be heard echoing through the spotless corridors of the main building where Chinese men, grimy from working in the nearby Chinese-owned mine, queue for treatment alongside local women who chatter loudly as they bounce babies on their laps. A sign directs patients to the acupuncture section. In one room hung with Chinese medical charts, Zhang Shuzeng, a gynaecologist from Hunan province, struggles to piece her sparse English together. She came to Zambia to seek a new life after her son left for university two years ago. "It's an adventure," she smiles.

Dr Zhang's personal foray into a continent she admits knowing very little about before leaving Hunan is just one of the thousands of stories that make up what is undoubtedly the most significant and intriguing development in sub-Saharan Africa since the end of the Cold War - the arrival of China as heavyweight investor and political player.

Nowhere in the world is China's rapid rise to power more evident than in Africa, observes Chris Alden, a lecturer at the London School of Economics who has written a book charting the Middle Kingdom's push into a continent many in the West had written off as a hopeless charity case.

One former US assistant secretary of state has called it a "tsunami". Others have coined the term "ChinAfrica" to describe a phenomenon that is redrawing the economic and geopolitical map.

The figures that outline the contours of this relationship make for astounding reading. Between 2000 and 2007, trade between China and Africa shot up from €6.75 billion to more than €47 billion. China has now overtaken Britain and France to become the continent's second-largest trading partner after the US. Beijing hopes that trade will amount to more than €67 billion by 2010, and many analysts believe China will have surpassed US trade with Africa by then. Since 2000, China has cancelled billions in bilateral debt owed by African countries.

China's Export-Import Bank plans to spend some €13.5 billion in Africa in the next three years - an amount roughly on a par with the sum the World Bank expects to spend there in the same time. Last year, the China-Africa Development Fund was established, promising to dispense €3.37 billion to support sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, energy and transportation in Africa in addition to encouraging Chinese entrepreneurs to consider setting up business there.

Travel to any country below - and a handful above - the Sahara and the proof of China's rapid penetration of Africa is everywhere: Chinese construction workers rebuilding post-war Angola, Chinese loggers in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, Chinese farmers in Uganda, Chinese geologists in oil-rich Sudan and Chad, Chinese hoteliers in Sierra Leone, Chinese textile merchants in Kenya and Lesotho, Chinese traders in Malawi and Nigeria.

At present, some 800 Chinese state-owned or state-controlled companies are operating in Africa, with China's Export-Import Bank funding more than 300 projects scattered throughout more than 36 countries. Last year, Xinhua, the state news agency, estimated that more than 750,000 Chinese nationals are working or living for extended periods in Africa, reflecting China's deepening ties with the continent.

In cities across Africa, you will find Chinese restaurants, clinics, massage parlours, casinos and pharmacies selling traditional Chinese remedies. Last year, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) purchased a 20 per cent stake in South Africa's Standard Bank, the largest in the continent, for $5.5 billion (€3.7 billion).

Pagoda-like structures have popped up in several countries - Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's Chinese-built residence in Harare is one particularly ostentatious example. There are Chinese newspapers in South Africa and Chinese channels on African satellite television. On inter-continental plane trips, the in-flight announcements and entertainment are increasingly provided in Mandarin in addition to other languages.

On one level, China's growing engagement with Africa is easily explained. To power its booming economy, Beijing must source more raw materials and explore new markets for its manufactured goods. It's not surprising, then, that it turned to Africa, home to some of the world's richest mineral deposits including 90 per cent of its cobalt and platinum, 98 per cent of its chromium, 64 per cent of its manganese, half of its gold and one-third of its uranium. But most of all, China is interested in Africa's pockets of oil. Chinese oil consumption is predicted to grow by at least 10 per cent annually for the foreseeable future. A third of the oil fuelling China's economy now comes from the continent. Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China's main supplier of crude and Sudan sells some two-thirds of its oil to Beijing. China has also bought shares in Nigeria's oil stakes. Altogether, it has invested in more than 27 oil and gas projects in some 14 African countries.

In return for mining, logging and oil rights, Beijing has signed off on multi-billion dollar deals in the form of investment, soft loans and development aid. Much of this is funnelled into infrastructure projects.

Over the last decade, China has financed the building of roads, bridges, railways, dams, pipelines, airports, hospitals and parliament buildings across Africa. It has invested €2.2 billion in the construction of 10 hydropower plants which it says will boost power supply by 30 per cent - no mean feat in a region where millions live without electricity and those that do have it are plagued by blackouts. The Chinese have also built phone networks in more than a dozen African countries and last year they launched a communications satellite into orbit for Nigeria. Of course, proper infrastructure where little or none existed before helps China extract and transport more efficiently the raw materials it craves, but analysts argue it can also provide a crucial stimulus to moribund local economies.

In April, the UN forecast that Africa would experience economic growth of 6.2 per cent this year, up from 5.8 per cent - its highest in three decades - last year in spite of a slowing world economy. Many attribute that growth in part to the shot-in-the-arm effect of Chinese investment and trade.

Last month, a World Bank report praised China's infrastructural investment in Africa, saying it was helping lift the continent out of poverty. No doubt, the report delighted the Chinese, who like to describe their courting of African countries as a "win-win" situation for both sides.

Interviewing Chinese officials in Angola, Chad and Zambia over the last year, I soon discovered there is something of an official line in describing the relationship. It is always "win-win", based on "south-south co- operation" "equality" and "mutual interests" but is strictly one of "non-interference" when it comes to the internal affairs of each country. There are usually references to China's long relationship with Africa to demonstrate that the two are "all-weather friends".

During the Ming Dynasty, the first Chinese ships sailed to Africa. According to legend, some traders settled in Kenya and married local women. In 2005, Beijing awarded a Kenyan girl a scholarship to study medicine after announcing it had confirmed her Chinese ancestry using DNA testing. During the Cold War, China sent thousands of doctors, engineers and technicians to the continent to help ground fledgling diplomatic relations. It built prestige projects like sports stadiums and government buildings, and opened its universities to African students. I met one product of that time in Chad - a young man whose Chadian father met his Chinese mother while studying in Beijing.

Zhang Shudong, economic counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Zambia's capital Lusaka, included another commonly held view in his assessment of the relationship. "Africa and China are the same in that we are both developing countries. That makes it easier for us to understand each other in ways others may not," he told me. "We can share our experience of China's economic growth to help African countries develop their economies. We are like brothers and sisters who can grow together."

In expanding its footprint across Africa, China has ventured where other investors fear to tread because of unrest, corruption, human rights abuses or sanctions. Take the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country the World Bank ranks as the world's worst place to do business.

Last year, it signed a €4 billion deal with China in exchange for mining rights to some of the country's rich reserves of copper and cobalt. Beijing has promised €2.19 billion to resurrect DRC's mining sector and another €4 billion to build more than 6,500km of roads and railways. The package also includes the construction of two hydro-electric dams, more than 150 hospitals and health centres, a modernised sewage system for Kinshasa, two universities, a port, and 5,000 public housing units.

For all the talk of mutual benefits and co-operation, however, there are many who question China's role in Africa. The issue of whether China is good for Africa in the long term is one that is endlessly debated on the continent.

Some argue that the way China does business - particularly its willingness to pay bribes as detailed by Transparency International, and its "no strings attached" approach to economic support, which flies in the face of criteria set down by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - erodes efforts to tackle corruption and encourage transparency and good governance.

"China offers opportunities without constraints," a Chadian journalist told me. "We have a huge problem with corruption here and the risk with Chinese involvement is that corruption will grow because there are no controls." In Angola, a portion of investment monies provided by China were found to have been siphoned off to fund political campaigns.

Human rights groups have deplored Beijing's willingness to deal with unsavoury regimes in countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan. China has given Mugabe civilian and military aircraft and in its arms sales to Khartoum, campaigners charge, Beijing is effectively underwriting the conflict between Sudanese government forces and rebels in Darfur. Mugabe has been particularly effusive in his praise of China. "We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets," he once declared.

Some commentators have noted that despite the rhetoric, there are often strings attached when it comes to doing business with China. One is the Taiwan issue. Severing ties with the island Beijing considers a rebel province is a definite prerequisite. In December, Malawi ceased its 40-year recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty in exchange for a multi-million dollar package from Beijing. Now only four African countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan - Swaziland, Burkina Faso, Gambia and São Tomé e Príncipe.

Another "string" is that the major infrastructure agreements often stipulate that Chinese firms, labour and materials are used. The reconstruction deal in Angola, for example, demands that Chinese workers make up 70 per cent of the labour. The practice of hiring Chinese over Africans is not just confined to infrastructure projects. The issue has even arisen in the Sino-Zam Friendship Hospital. Earlier this year, a government minister requested that the hospital recruit Zambian doctors, explaining that the lack of local doctors was causing Zambians to shun the facilities. In a letter to a newspaper, one local wrote: "It's a pity that we have to beg foreigners to 'consider' employing us in our own country."

African critics also accuse Chinese companies of underbidding local firms and complain about the lax environmental and safety standards of some Chinese companies operating in the continent. Some of the most trenchant criticism can be found in Zambia, where an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine in 2005 killed 46 local workers. The resulting outrage was harnessed by a populist opposition leader who ran in the 2006 presidential elections on an explicitly anti-China platform.

Another frequently aired gripe is that Beijing has undermined or destroyed local industries by using the continent as a dumping ground for its manufactured goods. Traders selling African-sourced products and clothing at Zambia's Kamwala market told me they cannot compete with Chinese imports sold for less than cost price. But Beijing's defenders counter that cheap Chinese products have stretched African shoppers' limited budgets and given them access to consumer goods taken for granted in developed countries.

Two years ago, South African president Thabo Mbeki cautioned African countries against falling into a "colonial relationship" with China. He warned that if Africa simply exported raw materials to China while importing Chinese manufactured goods, the continent could be "condemned to underdevelopment". This, he added, would just be a "replication" of the relationship Africa had in the past with its colonial powers.

Several commentators argue that what Mbeki warned against is already happening. But talk of the Chinese becoming the new colonialists in Africa rankles with Chinese and African officials alike, particularly when, more often than not, it comes from Western sources. "We only come here to do business," China's ambassador to Angola, Zhang Bolun, told me. "We have never colonised another country, so there is no reason to believe this argument that China is the new coloniser of Africa. I think it is a ridiculous notion." Zhang Shudong in Lusaka believes the criticism stems largely from other powers' need to safeguard their own interests and influence in Africa.

"They want to reserve for themselves the resources and the market. Their attitude is: this is my field, why are you coming here?" Zambia's information minister Mike Mulongoti says African countries resent being lectured on their dealings with China, insisting there is no danger of a neo-colonial relationship developing. "The Western world is doing a lot of business with China. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. We are in a hurry to develop, we will accept assistance but we will not accept colonialism from anyone."

His colleague, Zambia's trade minister, Felix Mutati, puts it another way. "When we were colonised by the West, what benefits did we get? What, in a physical form, did they leave for us? They extracted the commodities but they did not leave us with any infrastructure.

"If the new wave of colonisation is to build badly-needed infrastructure," he adds sardonically, "I think that type of colonisation is beneficial."

Even someone like the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae, who has been feted in the West for his country's impressive record on good governance and economic success, welcomes China's embrace of Africa. "China treats us as equals, while the West treats us as former subjects," he has said. "That is the reality. I prefer the attitude of China to that of the West."

And so the debate over China's engagement with Africa and its consequences for the continent rumbles on. Perhaps the attitude of most Africans can be summed up in the words of Macharia Gaitho, managing editor of the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya. "As long as China is so willing to invest in Africa, we must not miss out on the bounty," he has commented. "But we must engage with our eyes wide open."

• This series has been supported with a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund