Saturday, December 08, 2007

China in Africa

One of the biggest current affairs dynamics of recent times has been China’s burgeoning presence and interest in Africa. Chinese migrants to Africa total about 750000, and these include shopkeepers, business executives, construction workers, and even – surprise – farmers. China needs energy and mineral resources to maintain its spectacular economic growth, and Africa has plenty to offer. Africa also has plenty to gain in return: it gets massive and much needed infrastructure projects from the Chinese, a number of which are currently in progress. One expensive Chinese gift to Africa, worth $150 million, will be a swanky conference center for the African Union in Addis Ababa.

But what are the nuances that go with China’s engagement in the continent? China does not carry – at least not yet – the baggage of an exploitative colonial past, an accompaniment, for better or worse, to any modern day Western initiative in Africa. China also claims not to interfere in the politics of the countries it is involved with. In fact, if you look at this graph, its largest investments are in Sudan, whose government has a terrible record in the Darfur conflict. And because China deliberately looks the other way and is so powerful in Sudan, it has come under intense pressure from activists to alter its dubious stance and put pressure on the Sudanese government.

There's no doubt that African economies are benefiting from Chinese investments. But there are murmurs of protest as well – and this is only to be expected in what is a clearly complex and still unfolding engagement between two regions with very different historical experiences and differently positioned on the ladder to development. In Zambia cheap Chinese manufactured textile goods (in some cases made from cheaply procured Zambian exports) have flooded the market, affecting local Zambian industry adversely. A recent blast in a Chinese owned explosives factory in the town of Chambishi – the worst industrial accident in Zambia’s history – has further fueled resentment. The blast killed nearly 50 people, most of them young men and women in their twenties. Though the causes of the blast are not yet understood, one Zambian employee who lost family members in the accident told the New York Times that he'd had concerns about how Chinese managers ran the factory. According to him, they emphasized productivity but were careless about the safety of the employees.

In other cases – Angola for example – construction workers from China making a living in Africa stay in strictly utilitarian, low-cost, barrack-like settlements, segregated from where the locals live. Cooks brought from China make the food for these workers. And work keeps them so busy that they don’t get to explore the places they are helping rejuvenate. I am not sure how useful such separation will be – a lack of interaction can only increase resentment, and development projects can only be beneficial in the long run if skills are exchanged and pooled. But it would be simplistic to assume that there's no give and take and reaching out going on. In Ethiopian road construction projects some of it does seem to be happening as this article suggests: the supervisor interviewed in it is part of a small group from the China Road and Bridge Corporation, and works closely with Ethiopian engineers and designers despite language difficulties.

The big question is: where will the Chinese African courtship lead the two regions, say 30-40 years from now? I suspect there won’t be a clear answer then either: Africa is way too diverse for there to be any uniformity in results. And the answer is also tied to China’s rise, endlessly trumpeted in the media (along with the parallel rise of India) as the biggest event of this century.

Both the BBC and New York Times have recently had special features and articles focusing on China in Africa. (This piece is based almost entirely on what I've read in these articles and some from - unfortunately, I'll have to rely on them until I actually travel and learn more. Hopefully that will happen in the next few years.) The BBC, true to its style, keeps its articles short and crisp (see 1, 2, 3 and 4) while the NYTimes ones are more elaborate (see 1 and 2). And there are photo features as well with notes on the side; I’ve often found them interesting and informative. Here are a couple: Chinese Businesses in Africa (the pictures are mostly from Malawi); and the rather naughtily titled China’s African road gangs. I pilfered the second picture from the latter feature, while the first picture is from this NYtimes article, and shows Chinese goods on display in a street in Lusaka, Zambia.


Omodudu said...

very illuminating one of my favorite subjects.

Hari said...

Thanks Omodudu!

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