China’s footprint on the African continent is increasingly becoming big and bold, but in some of the countries where the Chinese are doing business, all is not well. Politicians in Botswana, for example, have pointed to problems with large building contracts awarded to Chinese companies. As a story we published on September 18 makes clear, some of the projects have already stalled, with the contractors running way behind schedule.
Botswana is not alone. Several other countries such as Zambia, Senegal, Namibia, Malawi, and Tanzania have reported problems with the Chinese. And China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang himself has admitted to “growing pains” in Sino-Africa ties, amid allegations by Africans of shoddy construction and a lack of respect for labour and other local laws.
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Li – who visited Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya last May – said the problems in China-Africa relations were “isolated”. The locals in countries where the Chinese are doing business continue to complain, though, but none of the African countries has reported issues that can potentially lead to a severance of diplomatic ties with Beijing.
China and Africa are a bit like car and battery. They need each other, and the Asian giant continues to make inroads into Africa – home to minerals, oil and other resources that help feed its phenomenal economic growth.
China’s march on the continent has been fast and furious. Last year, China-Africa trade reached $210bn, with more than 2,500 Chinese companies operating on the continent, according to Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
A paper published in 2013 by China’s cabinet titled “China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation” said that by the end of 2012, China had signed bilateral investment treaties with 32 African countries – the continent has 54 – and established joint economic commission mechanisms with 45 African countries.
The China-Africa Development Fund, established as one of the eight pledges China made at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Beijing Summit, had, by the end of 2012, agreed to invest $2.385bn in 61 projects in 30 African countries, and had already invested $1.806bn for 53 projects.
China’s approach to doing business with Africa has endeared the country to African leaders. The Chinese do not concern themselves with how countries they deal with govern their people and whether they respect human rights, something for which Beijing itself does not have a clean record.
Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping – such as “whether the shoes fit or not, only the wearer knows”, and the “domestic affairs of a nation should be decided by its own people” – strike a chord with African leaders whose countries have poor human rights records.
China’s top leaders have demonstrated the importance they attach to Africa by way of state visits during which major deals and cooperation agreements are signed. For instance, Xi’s first overseas trip as president took him to South Africa, Republic of Congo and Tanzania. (The four-nation visit began in Russia, which is part of BRICS – an economic bloc of emerging economies consisting of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa.)
Commentators have called the China-Africa cooperation a symbiotic relationship from which both parties stand to gain. And Chinese leaders say China and Africa have been “a community of shared destinies”, and they will forever be reliable friends and sincere partners.
are doing, which makes this arguably very far from a win-win situation, is China is creating these very powerful feedback loops for its own victory … that really cut Africa or African countries out of the equation in terms of the benefits.”]
But the author of a new book controversially entitled China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, suggests the existing cooperation benefits China much more than it does Africa. Author Howard French, an American journalist who has lived and worked in Africa for the New York Times, says China is just an imperialist power out to secure raw materials for its industries back home.
China is building ports, roads, railways, and airports in sub-Saharan Africa and African countries that are pressed for cash would struggle to build such infrastructure themselves. They view the cooperation as a win-win arrangement. The Chinese take natural resources; African nations get their infrastructure developed. But French sees things differently.
“This is what imperial powers do. They build ports so that they can send their goods to that country, and so that they can export from that country to their markets the things they need from that country. Africa desperately needs infrastructure. Whether it needs infrastructure on these terms is the question,” Howard told Al Jazeera.
“The second thing that they [Chinese] are doing, which makes this arguably very far from a win-win situation, is China is creating these very powerful feedback loops for its own victory … that really cut Africa or African countries out of the equation in terms of the benefits… I have been on projects where even people pushing wheelbarrows are Chinese.”
Jobless Africans detest the fact that work that they should be doing is going to foreigners. But their hands seem to be tied and there is nothing or little they can do about this. As French says, the two parties – China and Africa – are not equally strong. The weaker party, he says, has an inability to resist for a lack of an alternative.
Predictably, relations between the Chinese and the locals are fraught with tensions. Worse, the Chinese are dangerously inching towards a “kind of casual primary racism”, according to French.
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His book says that Africans are routinely derided by the ordinary Chinese as lazy and incompetent; a leading entrepreneur in Namibia says “90 percent of Africans are thieves”. In Liberia, a Chinese hotelier tells how the Chinese even bring their own towels for fear of using those Africans (the contemptuous term they use for black people is hei ren) have previously used.
Prime Minister Li calls these tensions isolated cases, but only time will tell whether or not they undermine the China-Africa cooperation.
This week our coverage focuses on the first anniversary of the deadly siege on Kenya’s Westgate shopping mall. We have brought you stories of those who survived the attack, including a photo gallery from a photographer who was at the mall when the four-day siege happened. The coverage also looks at what a trade union is doing to reduce risks for security guards who put their lives in harm’s way to secure building and key installations.
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