RAILWAY IN UGANDA. PHOTO: US ARMY AFRICA. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
China’s economy has grown rapidly over the last two decades. Due to this growth, the standard of living has improved in China. At the same time, African exports to Asia have grown by at least 10 percent every year since the early 1990s, and Chinese investments in Africa have risen at a similar rate. The pattern seems to be quite clear: although the Chinese influence in Africa is still relatively limited, it is growing fast. Is China the new coloniser of Africa, or can the increasing economic investments help Africa out of poverty?
In the last few years China has increased its involvement in Africa through investment, trade, aid, and foreign policies. China is invested heavily in oil, mining, fishing, telecommunications, roads, transport infrastructure and power generation in several African countries, mainly Angola, South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan. Sub-Saharan Africa mostly exports natural resources such as oil and metals to China. But it appears as though African citizens will have little to gain from trade with China, since these Chinese industries have few ties to local businesses, and mainly use their own labour. However, trade between China and Africa could open the door to economic growth and integration into the world economy for Africa. Growth in many African countries is the highest it has been in decades as a result of increasing trade with China, while imports of cheap consumer goods have significantly raised the standard of living for many African citizens. Moreover, a growing population of African businessmen are already moving to China to ensure African companies successfully enter the Chinese market. In spite of all this, one cannot forget that Western countries and companies currently have a much greater influence in the continent than China.
ZAMBIANS CELEBRATING MICHAEL SATA’S SUCCESS IN THE RECENT ELECTIONS. PHOTO: COMSEC. FLICKR
While the economic consequences of China’s influence in Africa seem positive, can the same be said of the political consequences? China’s investments have influenced African leaders’ decision-making on several occasions. When theDalai Lama was planning a visit to the archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu, the South African government delayed his visa making it impossible for him to enter the country. Media, blogs, and oppositional parties in the country expressed outrage stating that the reason for the government’s actions were obvious; two weeks earlier the Chinese government had promised to invest another 2,5 billion in US dollars in South Africa, and the very same week the Dalai Lama was supposed to arrive in the country, a government delegation was participating in a political exchange with China’s communist party. Instead of standing up for a symbol of peace, many thought that the South African government had made money a bigger priority.
The newly-elected Zambian president Michael Sata has for the last five years strongly profiled himself as anti-Chinese. Zambian citizens claim that China causes heavy corruption and pays poor salaries to local workers.Transparency International confirms that Chinese companies are among the most corrupt in developing countries. Michael Sata has also suggested on several occasions that Chinese workers are taking Zambian jobs, and that China is extracting natural resources without local residents receiving any of the profits. Nonetheless, the Chinese investments have led to a yearly growth of 6 percent in the country, and Michael Sata has toned down his anti-Chinese rhetoric since he won the election. Whether the new perspective on China is a result of political corruption or because the country simply can’t make do without their investments only time will tell.
When it comes to foreign aid many African leaders have found China a more attractive source of income than theWest, simply because the traditional donors have many political and social conditions that must be met before granting aid. China’s policy of non-interference is therefore a welcome change. The objective of Chinese aid is however both to gain access to the many natural resources of Africa, and to find new markets for products through the above mentioned trade and investment (in many cases the policies of Chinese aid, trade and investment are indeed very entangled). In order to avoid the trap of a relationship based on dependency and underdevelopment, it’s important to ensure a win-win situation for both parties.
It is too early to tell whether China’s increasing influence on Africa is good or bad. However, the Chinese companies that are investing in Africa do not seem interested in raising social standards through their trade and business. As a result, African leaders must raise these standards themselves. The success of this partnership with China is dependent upon Africa’s ability to successfully navigate the politics behind the relationship, and in that way achieve continued economic growth that will benefit the entire population.