China in Africa: old-fashioned colonialism or beneficial partnership?

Rich mineral deposits attract foreign investments. Photo by: Liane Greeff, FlickrChina’s commercial involvement in Africa has increased greatly in recent years. This has resulted in radical changes in the way Africa is developing. China is nowadays Africa’s biggest trading partner and its involvement has fostered significant economic growth in several underdeveloped countries. Nevertheless, there have been allegations that China’s presence in the continent constitutes nothing but old-fashioned colonialism.

A BBC documentary from 2011 attempted to shed light on this controversial issue. Reporter Justin Rowlatt travelled to a number of African countries to investigate the different aspects of Chinese involvement in the continent. Starting his journey in Angola, Rowlatt discovered that Chinese construction firms that are active in the country employ exclusively Chinese workers and therefore do not create job positions for local Angolans. The Chinese workers live in an entirely secluded environment and their contact with the local population is very limited. However, according to the documentary, the majority of Angolans view Chinese presence in their country in a largely positive light.

In Zimbabwe, Chinese presence has been significantly more divisive. China’s reluctance to react to Robert Mugabe’s actions has arguably made life easier for the despotic leader. As Miles Amoore reports, China provided Mugabe’s government with short-wave jamming equipment to shut down local radio stations believed to be supportive of the Movement for Democratic Change, the political party opposed to Mugabe. It should be noted, however, that China is not unique in its habit to ally itself with despotic regimes; Western countries have often resorted to similar practices.

Another important aspect of Chinese involvement in Africa is the utilisation of the continent’s natural resources. Numerous formerly British mines in the Zambian copper belt are nowadays owned by Chinese companies. These mines have been home to major controversies over low wages and adverse working conditions. In 2010, eleven Zambian miners were shot by their Chinese employers during a clash at the Collum coal mine in the southern Sinazongwe province. Members of Zambia’s Patriotic Front allege that even though China is required to pay taxes to the Zambian state, China’s exploitation of Zambia’s copper resources has yielded negligible benefit for the impoverished African nation. According to the BBC, similar controversial events have taken place in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chinese commercial involvement in the African continent has also led to concerns over animal welfare. A recent study of the ivory trade has shown that an increase in elephant and rhino poaching in Africa is directly connected to China‘s economic boom. Over the past years, an increasing number of African elephants and rhinos have been killed for their tusks and horns respectively. The recipients were primarily Chinese firms, catering to the high demand for these materials in China’s market. Ivory and rhino horns are used to manufacture various products, ranging from medicine to chopsticks.

The ivory from elephants is in great demand on China’s market. Photo by: meaduva, Flickr

Putting negative criticism aside, there is significant evidence to suggest that Africa has benefited greatly from China’s economic rise and subsequent involvement in its economic affairs. China has invested millions in infrastructure projects, including schools, sports stadiums and disease-prevention centres all over Africa. What is more, China has sent a large number of doctors and teachers to work in Africa. It is noteworthy that while many in the West suspect China of exploiting Africa, a number of Chinese people have the exact opposite concern. In their view, China is too generous in its dealings with Africa. Their primary argument is that a developing country, where almost 100 million citizens survive on less than one dollar a day, should not be spending so much on helping others.

In strict economic terms, the trade between China and Africa amounted to $200 billion-worth of goods in 2012. The overall boom in trade has helped Africa’s GDP to grow by 5.5% a year in the past decade. Even though the recent slowdown in China’s economic growth might result in lower demand for African raw materials, many Chinese firms are increasingly interested in carrying out other business activities in Africa due to the relative lack of competition and the rise of the continent’s consumer class.

According to Justin Rowlatt, the biggest difference between Western and Chinese commercial presence in Africa is that the West has simply been interested in taking advantage of Africa’s resources, whereas China has also encouraged smaller-scale entrepreneurial activity in the continent. Numerous Chinese people have moved to Africa in recent years, operating small businesses. In short, “communist” China is importing capitalism to Africa on a very large scale.

Whether it constitutes old-fashioned colonialism or a mutually beneficial business partnership, China’s involvement in Africa is not likely to end anytime soon. In today’s globalised world, it is apparent that China considers Africa a profitable market and that it will have an dominant role in the continent’s economic affairs for many years to come.


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