This article was originally published in French by InfoSud. Translation by Jessica Edwards.
May 8, 2010 – The arrival in force of Chinese operators on the African market is forcing both developed and African countries to reevaluate.
“When I want to build a highway, I need five years to strike a deal with the World Bank. With China, everything is decided in a few days. I say yes or no, and I sign.” This is how Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade summarized the new alliance between the Middle Kingdom and the countries of Africa during the 2007 European Union-China summit.
An oil rush in Sudan, a surge of road construction and other infrastructure in Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all-out mining operations in Zambia and DRC... the examples are infinite. China has made Africa into its very own “Far West”, to borrow the expression used by Michel Beuret and Serge Michel in their hectic collection of reports entitled La Chinafrique, Pékin à la conquête du continent noir (Chinafrique, Beijing’s Conquest of the Black Continent).
Over the last few years, China has captured the lion’s share of direct investment in Africa, increasing theirs from 327 million euros in 2003 to 5.2 billion in 2008. Trade between the two blocks, which amounted to 12 billion dollars in 2002, has grown almost tenfold to 107 billion dollars today. China has become Africa’s second most important partner after the US.
Caught off guard, the former colonial powers are critical of this seemingly unstoppable ramp up, referring in particular to the Asian partner’s low standards in terms of respect for human rights and the fight against corruption.
But what interests is this alliance based on? After Françafrique, “Chinafrica”? These burning questions were the subject of an animated debate at the African Book Fair in Geneva in late-April.
Opacity and Plunder
According to Congolese economist Fweley Diangitukwa, author of The Great Powers and African Oil-USA, China, the Chinese are in Africa today because the colonizers failed to do their job properly.
This view, somewhat victimizing towards African countries, is qualified by Swiss journalist Michel Beuret. He intimates that China has been able to assert itself as a partner by positioning itself as an enviable example for Africa. “If there is one thing the Chinese do not understand, it is the colonialist viewpoint”, Beuret maintains, drawing on his experience in Africa. “Africans are fascinated by these ‘yellow men’ who turn up there, toil day and night under the same conditions as the Africans themselves, and who also sleep in the street. That demands respect. In this sense, they do not necessarily see the Chinese as arrogant.” A very different perception, then, from the one they hold of Western colonizers.
An example to follow, certainly, but Jean-Claude Péclet, a journalist for Le Temps and moderator of the debate, underlined that China also means opacity, corruption, broken promises and the plunder of natural resources.
“When Westerners accuse China of plundering raw materials in Africa, it makes Africans snicker”, ironizes Thierry Bangui, a development consultant originally from Central African Republic.
Concrete quid pro quo
According to Bangui, Westerners’ criticisms are arguable to say the least. And we must not forget the amount of African money laundered in the West. This view is shared by Fweley Diangitukwa, who remarks that only Westerners are concerned about the Chinese presence in Africa, while 90% of the weapons sold in Africa are provided by the members of the Security Council.
Beuret agrees. “The quid pro quo offered by the Chinese consists of very tangible accomplishments. They are irrigating the black continent and offering to hook it in to the driving force of globalization. But this requires basic infrastructure. You can’t freeze meat without freezers. The Chinese build dams, roads, bridges and electronic networks.” This is a practical way of offering development aid without any obvious quid pro quo, and with immediate effects.
Even so, can this really be construed as a win-win partnership? “The Chinese have a strategy in regard to Africa. But what is the African strategy?” asks Bangui. For the Congolese economist, win-win relationships do not exist. By exporting its workforce, China is trying to resolve its internal unemployment problem. Now, the Chinese run the small businesses that were once owned by Africans.
Our three contributors agreed, however, in recognizing the real bargaining power of African countries. “Africans can assert their interests in contracts with Chinese partners. But in order to do so, they must take responsibility and play as equals, not only economically but also politically”, stresses Bangui.