Is China really interested in development of Africa?

Contributed by Pradeep Mittal

As I travel to North Africa also as part of my business portfolio, getting to see the upcoming African countries face the dilemma of to be or not to be China’s partner is sometimes intriguing. Apparently it all looks so benign for the countries who need investment badly. You look deeper in the thought process of local residents and realize why probably the dilemma is on sound foot.

China in all probability goes by its book of goals and rules which may be inspired from The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. The core belief here is that the “ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”. That may underline the diplomatic and corporate culture values also for China. Is China what it talks and looks? I have noticed they talking good to Indians but then considering Indian territories as part of theres and promoting Pakistan as their biggest regional partner while keeping Indian worries on terrorism on sides.

Going by this observation, are they not applying same Sun’s idea to Africa? There China’s prime objectives are to secure energy and mineral supplies to fuel its breakneck economic expansion, open up new markets, curtail Taiwan’s influence on the continent, consolidate its burgeoning global authority, and clinch for themselves African-allocated export quotas. South African and Nigerian textile quota use by Chinese after taking over those business is classic case.

China puts Africa – West relations exploitative to prove that its own are “win-win”. China is on same path of exploitation if we see through the eyes of residents (like my discussions with some Sudanese last year). What the Chinese are silent about is that their country’s growing engagement in Africa has created both opportunities and risks for African development.

Although China’s trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), and aid may broaden Africa’s growth options, they also promote what can only be called a win-lose situation. For, excluding oil, Africa has a negative trade balance with China (like West has).

Making matters worse, African exports to China are even less technology-intensive than its exports to the world (unlike West). China’s share of Africa’s unprocessed primary products was more than 80 per cent of its total imports from Africa. Equally, imports consist of cheap Chinese products of appalling poor quality (unlike West). China’s credo of ‘non-interference in domestic affairs’ and ‘separation of business and politics’ is, not surprisingly, music to the ears of African leaders, who fall over each other to sing the praises of Chinese cooperation with their countries.

China has struck bargains across Africa to secure crude oil, minerals and metals in exchange for infrastructure built by Chinese companies. As a unwritten rule it does bring excessive import of Chinese labour into a continent not lacking in able-bodied workers. Some studies indicate that within less than a decade Chinese surpassed the number of immigrants than what West left even after centuries of colonization. There has been incidence of gunning down of local workers by a Chinese manager in Zambia, Chinese managers impose appalling working conditions on their African employees, is this anything different than colonization by West in 18th/19th century.

Today, China has seized control of a huge swath of local African industries, in the process grabbing their allocated export quotas. As China’s global economic role increases, its labour costs will rise and its currency will appreciate, eroding its competitiveness. Might Chinese manufacturers then look to Africa as a base for production, using the facilities they have built and the hordes of workers they have been steadily exporting there?

In perpetuating a partnership with the same breed of corrupt leaders that colluded with Africa’s previous invaders and exploiters, the Chinese have forgotten that Africans, albeit often their own worst enemies, have nonetheless gained the upper hand over their foes in the end.

The descendants of slave traders and slave owners in the US now have a black man as their president; Africa’s colonisers have all been defeated; and apartheid’s proponents are now governed by those they despised and abused for generations. Will Chinese mend their ways?