China Versus West In Africa

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[Column: View From West Africa]

China’s manufacturing demands have fueled a huge appetite for all types of raw materials.

Although the huge country has significant natural resources of its own, its population and the scale of its export-driven industrial thrust have necessitated looking outside its borders for more.

China has increasingly turned to resource-rich but capital and investment-starved Africa for its many raw materials needs. It has used its historically good political relations with much of Africa to now gain a significant economic foothold.

In the process, there has been great un-ease felt amongst Western countries who have considered Africa their sphere of influence. The Western concerns range from human rights issues to China’s seemingly very liberal credit and aid-granting practices. China is accused of having no qualms about doing business with African governments that are considered to be repressive, such as those of Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

The charge is that Chinese investments in these countries prop up their governments, and only benefit a small elite. There have also been concerns expressed that China’s relatively easy credit terms are worsening the debt traps in which many African countries have been in for decades.

China’s defense has been that just as it does not entertain interference in its internal affairs by other countries, it does not place any political or governance conditions on countries it does business with. This stance is particularly welcomed by those of its new trading partners who have often complained about the nature of their relationships with Western countries, including governance conditions put on trade, investment and aid agreements.

Most of the continent’s governments eagerly welcome China’s attention. But, among ordinary Africans, there are decidedly mixed feelings about China’s growing presence. In some places this is developing into outright resentment of Chinese people.

On the one hand, the flood of cheap Chinese goods is welcomed by many of Africa’s poorest consumers, who find in them a hitherto un-affordable source of brand new clothes, electronics and other consumer items. But those same goods that are welcomed and bought for their low prices are also widely, derisively considered of shoddy quality.

Poor safety standards at a mine in Zambia caused an explosion which claimed the lives of more than 50 workers in 2005. Despite good official relations between the two countries, the fallout over the accident proved to be a severe public relations setback for China. In Zambia’s presidential elections in early 2007, a leading contender made much political capital out of whipping up lingering anti-Chinese resentment over the accident.

In recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of Chinese people settling in major African urban centers. There are growing complaints that many of them set up in these countries under the cover of being investors, but then compete with the locals in areas such as petty trading.

Local contractors, such as in the construction trade, complain that larger Chinese companies, backed by subsidies from their government, often outbid them for public contracts by tactics such as offering quotes the locals cannot match, or by bribing tender officials. The Chinese have their own litany of complaints about how difficult it is to do business in Africa, despite the clear opportunities that attract them to the continent in increasing numbers.

There are clearly many teething problems with the new Africa – China relationship. There is also much debate in Africa about whether it will be beneficial for the continent. Africans are widely concerned that their governments do not fall into any deals that might end up in a new era of exploitation of Africa. But while there are concerns, it seems clear that on balance, most African governments not only welcome China’s attentions, but look at them as way to leverage their relationship with the West.

In a recent essay, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade outlined some of the reasons that so many African governments have enthusiastically embraced the new relationship with China, even if the sentiments of ordinary people are more mixed. He dismisses Western concerns that Africa may be too open to Chinese investors and says “China is doing a much better job than western capitalists of responding to market demands in Africa.”

Wade goes on to cite the speed with which China responds to African infrastructural and other developmental requests. He says the Chinese way “is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronizing post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organizations and non-governmental organizations.”

He goes on to say that contrary to popular perception, China’s many projects in Africa do not just benefit a wealthy elite, but stimulate growth and “raise the standard of living of millions of Africans.”

He further points out that in his country, Chinese companies can only win infrastructure contracts if they partner with locals. Other reasons Wade mentions for preferring to do business with China than with the West are the speed of concluding negotiations, greater empathy for Africa’s needs and more competitive pricing.

While the details of the new economic relationship between China and Africa may remain unclear and difficult for the foreseeable future, there is little doubt that the relationship will grow. Despite the many criticisms of it from various quarters, the relationship is driven by strong mutual needs whose imperatives are stronger than the many obstacles.

Makunike is The Black Star News’s West Africa correspondent based in Dakar, Senegal

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