Ratnakar Sadasyula
The Dragon in Africa
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered history,The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this realm of fancy there is neither room for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.-Nicolas Sarkozy,2007

It[Africa] boasts a time-honoured history, rich natural resources, talented and courageous people and significant contribution to the advancement of human civilization and world development-Jia Qinglin, Inauguaring the African Union HQ.

The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies.I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid.

–  Paul Kagame, Rwandan President.


The African Union HQ built with Chinese aid and support in Addis Abbaba

Just a month ago on 28th  January, the newly built African Union Headquarters  was  inaugurated in Addis Abbaba, at a cost of  200 million USD, 20 storeys tall, with a conference center having a seating capacity of 2500.  This 100 m high tower  now dominates the skyline of the Ethiopian capital,  and  was  built entirely with Chinese support and financial aid. Yes the Chinese  pumped in the 200  Million USD  needed for the construction, contributed  the  technical know how, got a Chinese construction firm to build it, employed Chinese worker. And  as  Jean Ping, the Chairman put it, even the furniture  was contributed by Chinese, so that  the  complex  would be  functional immediately.   Africans  describe it as the largest  Chinese project  after the Tanzam Railway  connecting Tanzania and Zambia in 1976.   China  calls it a donation from their Government, a  “symbol of  Sino-African friendship”.

Chinese manager with African workers at a site

Before  going deeper, let us  look at  some very  interesting  statistics

  1. In 1950, the amount of  trade between China and Africa was only 12.4 million USD, it touched the  1 billion USD mark in 1980.  In 2000 it  touched a figure of  10 Billion USD,  and here it is  by 2010  the volume of trade jumped to a whooping 114.81 billion USD, almost a 100% increase.  And  in 2011, when the Arab Spring, dominated the media headlines, a more unreported fact,  was that the trade between Africa and China  was now around 120 million USD.  In other words from 2008-11 when the economy in the West  was actually floundering, the trade between  China and Africa  was  pushing ahead.
  2. In 2009,  when  the global economy  was disrupted,  China-African trade volume dipped  from 100 Billion USD in 2008, to  around 91 billion USD, but  that  was more than enough  for  China  to replace  US  as  Africa’s  largest trading partner.
  3. In 2003, China  invested  490 Million USD directly in Africa, by 2009  that  shot up to 9.33 billion USD, and  operating in around  49  countries.  China has bilateral  agreements  with 33  African nations, and  agreements with around 11 African nations to avoid double taxation policies.
  4. China has invested around  250 million USD in infrastructure  all over Africa, and  has  six  economic -trade zones in Zambia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia.

To many in the  West,  Africa  is  that one place,  where  you go  to disburse aid,  to those poor,  starving  souls,  and  then feel good about doing your  bit  for  humanity.  So you have these rock stars doing  the Band  Aid  and all  those  Aid  concerts,   urging guilty souls in the  West  to contribute .  Or on the other  hand  you  have  the  Angelina Jolies  and Madonnas, adopting  poor  kids  from Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia or wherever  civil  conflicts  have broken out, flashing   in front of   cameras,  and  columnists  preening about  how  noble these  rich celebrities  are.  But how  effective  have these  Aid  Concerts  and  Ms.Jolie’s  kid adoption programs  have been.  Sometime back,  there  was a  really good article on my  blog  Rising Africa  about  Aid in Africa, by one of  my  friend, James  Wilson,  where  he  made some  relevant points.

Between 1970 and 1995 aid to Africa increased rapidly and aid dependency (measured as the aid-to-GDP ratio) stood at nearly 20% in the early 1990s. Measured differently, the mean value of aid as a share of government expenditures in African countries was well above 50% between 1975 and 1995. During the same period, GDP per capita growth in Africa decreased and was for many years even measured in negative figures. The unfortunate fact is that most African countries are poorer today then they were at the time of their independence from colonial powers.

To  read  more about  that you can check it out here  http://risingafrica.blogspot.in/2011/06/has-decades-of-sending-aid-to-africa.html

Again it  is important  to  recall an old  Chinese  saying “Give a man a fish, he has food for a day,  give him a fishing rod, he has food for a lifetime”. It has  been a cornerstone  of  Chinese  economic  policy in  the  post  Mao era, as  exemplified  by  Deng Xiapoing’s  famous  quote “It  does not  matter  if  the cat is black or  white,  as long  as it  helps  to  catch mice”. The  Chinese  actually  take  that  fishing rod concept, a bit further, they don’t  mind, if  the  lake  is  drained,  or  blasted ,  as  long  as  the man gets  to  have his fish end of  the day.  The fact remains  that  Aid  and  social welfare  programs  however  well intentioned,  however noble their  aims  are, will always  have a  limited utility.  Chinese  industrialists  and entrepreneurs,  don’t  get  their  pictures  flashed all around the  globe, nor  would  you  see  TV channels going  gaga over them like Oprah Winfrey  or  Angelina Jolie. Nor are  Chinese  very good  at  communicating either, am yet to see  a Chinese manager come up with a book  on management techniques.  Chinese business  culture  is  somewhat  reminiscent  of  the Wild West  and  those  early American robber barons,  a kind  of  “Anything goes,  as  long  as you  achieve  the  end  result”  attitude.

Hu Jintao at the African Summit

China’s  policy  with  African nations  is driven primarily by  the  Beijing  Consensus , pretty  straightforward  ” We need raw materials, you  have that  resources, we do business with  you,  how good  your Governance  or  human rights record is none of  our  concern”.   The Chinese  really do not  care  about  whether you are  a dictatorship or a quasi  dictatorship  or  a monarchy or  republican form,  that is something  the  countries  have to deal with.  Nor  does it  matter, if  your  human rights  record  is one of  the  worst  in  the  world,  that is  for  Amnesty International  to fret over, not  our  problem.  Now  that  may  lead  to China  propping  up rogue  regimes like those in Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe  with  their  appaling  human rights  records  and  bad  governance. Alternatively  it  could  also mean  that  unlike their  Western counterparts,  the  Chinese  do not believe  in spreading  democracy  or  civilizing  the  heathens,  and  we have  quite  often  seen  that  such noble  aims  have been  fiascos in recent times.   Yes  as of  now  it  is  early  days,  and even the East  India Company,  came  here primarily  as traders,  but  will  it  lead to  a Chinese form of  colonialism in the  future,  I have no answer, only time will tell.

African workers at a Chinese plant

For  sure,  the  Sino-African  love story  is  driven  primarily by self  interest  than  any  altruism  or  noble ideas, notwithstanding  all those  flowery  speeches.  China  needs  raw materials  on a large  scale  to  sustain  it’s high rate of  economic  growth,  it needs the coal, oil, copper, iron ore,  Africa  has them,  untapped, raw,  and  most  important  it  is a region where the  competition is  not  so  fierce.  In  order  to  exploit  those  resources,  China has  the  technical know how, the  people, the machinery.  And  it  goes  ahead  and  builds  roads,  railways, ports,  factories in the African  continent  to  exploit  those  resources.  To  the  cash  strapped  African nations,  Chinese investments  mean money, and  the investment in  manufacturing  and  infrastructure mean  jobs  for  the  locals.  Ordinary  Africans have their own issues with  the  Chinese, their  firms  would do  Stalin’s  labor  camps  proud,  exploitation is  rife,  and  many  see  the  Chinese  as  exploiters  of  natural wealth.  But  for  long  many  Africans too have  been  tired  of  being  seen by  the  West  as  those  poor  people,  who have to be sympathized  with and  showered  with  bounteous  aid.  More  than aid, they needed  something  more  concrete, they  needed  jobs, they  needed roads,  schools, transport.  China  provided  them with that,  and  they  were  willing  to put  up with them  for  that.  To  the ordinary  unskilled  African worker, slaving  away  for 12-14 hours  under  horrible working conditions  might  not  be  the best  way,  but  much  better  than  starving  and having  to be at  the mercy  of  aid  donors.   That  underpaid, overworking job,  enables  him to  buy his  first TV set  or  refrigerator,  and maybe  even dream of  providing a better  education for  his  children.  Mind  you corruption is still rife  in  Africa,  and  one  does  not  see  that  problem  vanish so soon.  But  as  one of  my  African friends  recently put it  “Earlier  we had corruption,  but  there  was  no  development,  and  we had  to live on handouts from the West, now  we are  as corrupt  as ever,  but  at  least  we have  chances  to move up,  we have the jobs”.

African workers receiving technical training

In Congo, a resource rich nation,  that has been wracked by years  of  civil war,  China  entered  into a  6 Billion USD  deal.  Congo  has huge  reserves of  copper and  cobalt, two minerals  which China badly needs  in  large  numbers.   China  agrees to building  6 Billion worth infrastructure  projects  to  build  roads, railways, schools, hospitals  and  what do  the  Chinese get 10 million metric tons of  copper, 600,00 tons of cobalt.  The  Congo  Govt  of  course  puts in a stipulation  that  12%  of  the  work be  subcontracted  to  Congolese firms, and around  80%  of  the  workers  must be  locals. In  short a  win win situation for both,  China gets  the  raw materials  it  needs,  Congo  gets  the  infrastructure, the roads  and more important  the  jobs  for  the  local.  Add to it  Congo  has negotiated  a 32% share in a joint  mining venture, ensuring  it  has  rights  over  the  resources.  Contrary to  what  is projected,  it is not  a case of  Chinese  exploiting  gullible  Africans, there has been some  hard headed negotiations on both  sides.   Or  consider  the  case  of  oil rich Angola,   where  China  has  been funding  infrastructure  projects  worth 6 billion USD,  and in return  it  gets  the  oil  it  needs so much at  a much lower  price than ever.  Exploitation, yes, but  for  Angola, those  infrastructure  projects  mean a lot  in a nation devastated  by civil war.    Or  consider  this,  China  has  picked up a stake  of  20%  for  5.46 billion USD  of  the  South African based  Standard Bank,  the continent’s  largest bank,  and  that  gets  it’s  access to the banking.  Yes with operations in 17 nations  and assets  of  172  billion  USD,  Standard Bank is  the largest  player, and  it  would  also  play  a major role  in  facilitating  China’s  promise of  low interest  loans amounting  to  10 billion USD to  some of  Africa’s  poorest  nations.

Chinese shopkeeper in Africa

The  West  for a major  time  avoided  investing in Africa,  considering it as a hell hole, a  dark pit. Problem  is  the  West  saw  the  African continent  as  one  big  place  where  civil wars took place,  nasty  dictators  ruled, true to a large extent, but  there  were  more  peaceful  nations too like Ghana  or  Botswana. The  fact  is  that  the  West  used  Africa  as  a battleground  for  a long time, as a chessboard  for  it’s  strategic  objectives,  the  native  Africans  just  being  mere  pawns.   What  China  has done  by  investing  big  time in  Africa,  is  that  it has motivated  other  nations  like  India, Brazil,  Turkey, South Korea  to  come in too.   Unlike  in the good old  days, many  nations  now  consider  Africa  as  a place  to invest  and do business  too.  This in a way  has  evened   up  the  competition too,  so  while  China  is  still the largest  investor  in Angola,  of  late the Brazilians  have  been  making  significant  progress  in  that  nation too.  Honestly  though never  understand  why  the Western media has major issue  with Oil for Infrastructure  policy of  China in Africa,  they  have  been doing the  same  in  the  Middle  East  for decades. Fact  remains  that  most  Africans   take  the  warning from the  Western media  and people  about  dangers  of  Chinese colonialism  in a matter of  fact manner,  having experienced  the  worst  of  Western  colonialism,  they  feel  that  nothing  can be worse  than  that.

Sadly the West  seems to have not yet learned, as can be seen from Sarkozy’s  statement  that  was stupidity  at  it’s  best.  Funny that in a culture, that thrives on being tolerant to the extent  of being  “Politically Correct”, Sarky  should have  just dismissed  the entire history  of  Africa as not  being too significant.  Fact  is people of  any  nation, however  dirt poor  it is, would  always  take  pride  in  their  history. And  Africa has had  it’s  own  history, it had it’s own kingdoms,  it  had it’s  own dynasties,  it  had  it’s  own civilizations too.   Yes maybe  we may not know much  about  that, but then  considering  most  of  the  history  we get  to  read  is  from a Western perspective,  we rarely  have  the chance  to  know  about the non West.  Sarky  still seemed to have the  same “You Africans are so poor, miserable peoples, we are here to  save you from damnation”,  the standard  “White Man’s Burden”  that  characterized  their  colonialism.  It  did not  endear him to the  African people in any way. Now if we take Qinglin’s  quote, it  might not have been really sincere,  and who knows most  Africans would  have  taken  it  with a pinch of  salt, but they  would  take it any  day over Sarky’s  condescending  tone.  Ironically in this case, the Chinese not  known  for  their  verbal jugglery,  actually beat the West hands down  at  their own PR game.

The  concerns  about  China in Africa,continue to be genuine. Chinese companies  are notorious  for  their  human rights  abuses, workers in Zambia  had to go on a strike for better safety  measures  at a copper mine,  the incident of  a Chinese  manager  shooting protesting workers with a shotgun killing two  was  a major  embarrassment. But  then it  is not just  African workers,  even  Chinese workers  themselves  suffer from the labor camp style  working conditions  in  their  native land.  Add to it China dumping  cheap products  destroying  local African  industry, is  again  reminiscent of  the British Raj era.   It  happened in Nigeria, where cheap Chinese textiles  flooding the market, virtually  destroyed  the local textile industry, who  simply could  not  compete with that.  Add  to  it, their  penchant to bribe, cajole officials, a non transparent way of  operation, hobnobbing with  corrupt  officials  and directors,  means  China has a lot to be answering  for.

Chinese  involvement in Africa  has not  been a blessing altogether. There has been corruption, there has been large  scale  exploitation of the environment, there has  been  a callous disregard  for  human rights.  But  did  China  enter Africa, promising  to  spread “Democracy, Human Rights, fair business practices”? No.  From the beginning  China  was up front  about it’s objectives,  it  was  here  to do business, it  looked  at  Africa  as  a resource supplier,  notwithstanding  all those pious  platitudes. And  on  that  count  it  has been doing quite  well.  But  would the  corruption,  exploitation  lead to a  Chinese colonialism in Africa, would it lead to a sort  of  Chinese Raj?   Honestly  speaking I just have no answer for  this one, though I am sceptical about  a Chinese Raj being formed, only time  can answer this. The  fact  remains  that  China is the major  player in Africa right now, how beneficial will it be, how  well the African nations cope with the challenges, well all I can say is wait and see.