Chinese colonialism?

  • 19 July 2012
  • From the section Asia
  • comments
People working at an assembly line at the Huajian shoe factory in Dukem, Ethiopia
China has fast become Africa's largest trading partner, with varied investments

Is China becoming Africa's new colonial master? Is Beijing sucking away resources to drive its own economic growth, while offering little in return?

Or is such talk the product of fear and envy? Is it a sign of Western anxieties, that China is fast becoming the new power in Africa, building more equal relationships, and undermining Western influence on the continent?

China is certainly a real force in Africa. Just look at the clutch of presidents and the officials from many more parts of Africa who have made the long trek to Beijing this week for the China-Africa Co-operation Forum.

The visitors certainly have incentives to be here. They are being showered with attention, feted at banquets and tantalised with the prospect of preferential loan deals.

Neo-colonialist charge

But China is extremely sensitive to the charge it's a neo-colonialist power and is trying hard to refute it.

Ahead of the forum the People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party's main mouthpiece, warned that "a trickle of critics... have struck a chord of dissonance, warning of the 'new colonialism' looming on the continent in a veiled swipe at Beijing's efforts to forge closer ties with Africa".

The opinion piece, from the official Xinhua news agency which echoes official opinion, said the charge was "biased and ill-grounded", the relationship is based on "equality and mutual benefit... fact is more convincing than rhetoric".

"Africa's exports of crude oil, minerals, steel and agricultural products have played an active role in lifting the Chinese people's livelihood. Meanwhile, the continent also serves as an indispensable market with great potential for Chinese products," it explained.

"China also provides Africa with much-needed products and technologies, and a vast market for its commodities," said Xinhua. "What's more, Beijing focused on helping build the continent's productive capacity by improving its infrastructure and boosting the manufacturing sector, rather than involving the so-called "resource-grabbing practice".

President Hu Jintao picked up the theme at the forum, repeatedly calling this "a new type of China-Africa strategic partnership".

He said "the Chinese and African peoples have always treated each other as equals... we will... forever be a good friend, good partner and good brother of the African people".

Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) with South African President Jacob Zuma
China has pledged $20bn (£12.8bn) in credit for Africa over the next three years

He, too, had a barrage of facts to show China is bringing benefits to Africa. "China has built over 100 schools, 30 hospitals, 30 anti-malaria centres and 20 agricultural technology demonstration centres in Africa. It has met the pledge of providing $15bn [£9.58bn] of lending of a preferential nature to Africa....China has trained close to 40,000 African personnel...and provided over 20,000 government scholarships" said China's president.

Media barrage

China's commerce minister even got poetic, penning an article in the China Daily highlighting the way China is investing in Africa, not just stripping resources from it.

"In Malawi, a landlocked African country, rows of cotton cultivated by local farmers with instruction from Chinese experts are budding; in Ethiopia, a shoe factory built with investment from the China-Africa Development Fund is teeming with local workers; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a hydropower station financed by credit from China has just been inaugurated," wrote Chen Deming.

He went on: "In Yiwu, a city in East China, Chinese customers are selecting South African wine at the Exhibition Centre for African Products; at the New Port of Tianjin, a cargo ship loaded with fruit and textile products from Benin is preparing for tariff exemption procedures to enter the Chinese market. These are the encouraging scenes unfolding before us."

At the forum itself, China has promised $20bn of new loans, reduced tariffs on African imports and help for Africa's development. All of this is designed to show that China is different from colonial powers.

The English-language mouthpiece, the China Daily, gave space to Sehlare Makgetlaneng from the Africa Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, who wrote: "The West's claim that China's relationship with Africa is neo-colonialism... results from the fear its strategic interests will be harmed as a result of structural changes in African countries and China's growing presence on the continent."

A Chinese worker fixes pipes at a construction site in Khartoum, Sudan
A number of Chinese companies bring in their own people to Africa

Despite this media barrage, though, there are still concerns in many parts of Africa that this is not an equal exchange, concerns that the investment deals are opaque and open to corruption, that Chinese infrastructure projects often import Chinese labour rather than developing local skills, that Chinese firms may exploit local workers, that cheap Chinese products undermine Africa's ability to build it's own industries, that for all the new roads, railways and ports, this is not a mutually beneficial relationship.

Winning over doubters?

Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga is at the forum. He will be signing deals for new power plants and roads. But before he left Kenya, the PM Press Service said he wanted to talk to China's leaders about areas where trade has "not worked well."

"We import a lot of manufactured equipment like tractors, ploughs and harvesters. I feel that we should by now be having a tractor manufacturing plant here in Kenya. There is no reason why we should be importing tractors from China year in year out. These are some of the things we want to engage the Chinese on," Mr Odinga was quoted as saying.

"We should have a fertilizer manufacturing plant here instead of importing the product from China which causes delays and poor harvests," he added.

And that may be the key for China, if it can invest more in African factories and businesses, not just infrastructure and buildings, if it can create more jobs in Africa rather than export more Chinese-made products to the continent, if Kenya gets a tractor factory and a fertilizer plant, China may win over many of the doubters.