China’s Long March Across Africa

Despite Western suspicions, China is offering concrete solutions to Africa's economic woes.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

By now, we’re used to seeing foreign fingers in the African pot. For the latest act of this timeless drama, one need look no further than the Chinatown in Lagos, Nigeria. For years, a small community of Chinese workers ran restaurants or sold textiles in the city; today, however, a walled-off square is brimming with Chinese traders and business ventures. China’s Huawei, a telecommunications giant, boasts a downtown Lagos office with 600 foreign workers. There are already more Chinese living in Nigeria than there were Britons during the height of the empire. In similar hubs in cities from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Dakar and Casablanca, the decade-long project known playfully as “ChinAfrica” is exploding the old economic order.

Bilateral friendships have bloomed along with African pagodas, as 48 of the 53 African governments have broadened or initiated ties with China’s juggernaut economy. Angola has become China’s No. 1 source for imported oil, having surpassed Saudi Arabia in 2006. Sudan is also a leading energy partner. Mozambique and Zambia provide timber and copper. As China seeks to play in the Middle East, Egypt is an essential political ally, while in eastern Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia are important hubs for commerce and foreign relations.

China’s expanding footprint across Africa has raised hackles, both on the continent and in the West. China’s indifference to human rights, labor and environmental standards—a tense component of many Western business agreements—is proudly ignored on the continent. And China has displayed a brash willingness to cozy up to and deal with despotic and corrupt governments—chief among them, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the genocidal regime in Khartoum.

But, perhaps most importantly, China has not had to grapple with the colonial hangover that has plagued European countries and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Speaking recently of Western military involvement on the continent, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said as much. “You risk the backlash from the people, from the legacy that was left in Africa because of the era of colonialism,” he warned. And when it comes to development and commerce, Westerners still appear to believe more in humanitarian aid than in humanitarian trade.

As a result, African nations—whose long-term needs are better met with roads and steel than with 10-point plans—find laissez-faire China a more attractive partner. This dynamic does not apply to every country in Africa, or to every Chinese business deal. But despite uncomfortable echoes of imperialism, in practice China is the only global power laying the tracks for an Africa-wide economic renaissance.

Most of the world wants to know how China does it, says David Shinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, who is writing a book on Sino-African relations. The formula, he says, is simple: “One, they take greater business risk, and two, they don’t attach the political conditions that the West tends to impose.” Indeed, China’s remarkable control of its private sector is a clear advantage when it comes to partnerships with less economically sophisticated nations. Eight hundred Chinese companies have set up shop in Africa, and some giants, like Sinopec and Chongqing Telecom in addition to Huawei, have at times operated at a short-term loss (underwritten, naturally, by the Chinese government).

China’s aggressive march across Africa has also been fueled by a desperate appetite for resources. State-backed companies have unleashed a blitzkrieg of oil, gas and mining contracts, as well as construction deals. Chinese President Hu Jintao and his prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have visited 10 African countries since 2006, and trade deals with African nations have jumped 34 percent over that period. In May, the Chinese announced a $5 billion “Afro-Chinese development fund,” and, along with it, their aspirations to push the continent-wide trade volume past $100 billion in 2010. China hopes such undertakings will smooth the way for continued access to the riches of African ports and soil over the long term.

The rapid escalation of Chinese development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is a fine case study. In 1997, China established a partnership with Gécamines, the Congolese mining company. And China and the Congolese government recently negotiated a $9 billion deal that would fund construction of the DRC’s major development needs—water, roads, electrification, a health and educational infrastructure—to be completed in the next decade. In return for its investment, China will gain near-monopolistic access to the DRC’s copper, cobalt and coltan mineral reserves. Keep in mind that cobalt and coltan are key components in any mobile phone—and that the iPhone hasn’t even hit mainland China yet. Naturally, the opportunity to corner this valuable commodity market sparks a gleam in the dragon’s eye.

But will these deals help Africans?