Enter the red dragon

AFRICA IS IN China’s sights. There has been a spate of recent visits to the continent by Chinese movers and shakers as well as 2006’s China-Africa summit in Beijing. This year, in a follow-up 12 day trip, Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, promised Africa aid and loans worth billions of dollars.

Why all the attention? Because China’s primarily industrial economy is growing at a voracious rate. To maintain momentum, it urgently requires raw materials – which Africa has in abundance.

The impending flood of money from China to Africa is not a good thing. China’s government is ruthlessly totalitarian, amoral and power-driven. Historically, it has proven that sustainability, good-governance and respect for human rights are not priorities. The economic powerhouse thus has no compunction in propping up corrupt and despotic African regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe so long as they provide the sorely-needed raw materials.

For African countries it is an alternative source of funding to the western world. Consequently, there is no incentive for undemocratic governments receiving Chinese aid to implement positive change and constitutional reforms.

European democracies’ loan and aid policies are invariably tied to constitutional reforms and poverty reduction initiatives in recipient states. It would be not only naïve but also blatantly wrong to accuse these countries of Nkrumah’s so called “neocolonialism” (although it must be admitted that the world’s trade system does disadvantage raw material-exporting nations – the reason why getting the Doha round up and running again is so important).

China exploiting Africa is a very real threat because there are no checks and balances, no accountability and no pressures for reforms that are, incidentally, sorely needed in the communist state itself.

On holiday in northern Moçambique I saw forests decimated by the unsustainable logging of majestic hardwood Camphor trees which become parquet flooring in Chinese factories. The labourers employed by the Chinese companies to cut down the trees are paid a pittance: only the Moçambican government benefits by being paid for the forestry concession.

“Investment” from China has already poured into Zambia where some of the world’s most dangerous copper mines are owned by the Chinese. Lax safety standards and shocking wages (sometimes as low as R352 a month) are the order of the day.

These are but two examples of the way China already does business in Africa. There are no signs of this changing. The Chinese benefit enormously and so do African governments – but to a lesser extent. Will the people? Despite Hu Jintao’s reassurances as to this being an equal partnership, I doubt it.


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