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China: Infiltrating The Heart Of Africa

Not All Is Rosy

China’s inroads into Africa’s agricultural sector include the 20 demonstration centres that President Hu said will “help African countries increase production capacity.”

But there was a backlash when the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo leased thousands of unutilized hectares of land to ZTE International, a Chinese company, in a deal that Oxfam, a UK charity, and others have labelled a “land grab.”

The “land grab” accusation may be overstated, according to a study by the UK’s Standard Chartered Bank. But the authors of the study believe that in the longer term China could well seek to import much more food from Africa which, by World Bank estimates, has 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land. “Given Africa’s potential, China is likely to turn towards it.”

The furore over land adds to growing criticisms of the manner of China’s aggressive Africa penetration. Many Africans often refer to the poor quality of Chinese products and blame their low prices for the collapse of local industries. Comatex and Batexci, two leading textile companies in Mali, have been severely affected by cheap inferior fabrics from Asia. “Hundreds of textile factories collapsed across Nigeria because they could not compete with cheap Chinese garments,” noted the Economist, which approvingly added that the Tanzanian government has stopped Chinese from selling in that country’s markets.

Chinese are welcome as investors, but not as “vendors or shoe shiners,” said the Economist. In May, Neil Bruce, head of Zimbabwe’s Furniture Manufacturers Association, told the country’s parliament that imported Chinese furniture, “which is not strong,” is crippling the local furniture industry.

Performance assessments of some Chinese investors have not been stellar. The managers of Chinese-run mines in Zambia have been accused of not taking adequate safety measures for their local workers. A Chinese oil firm is exploring in a Gabonese national park, angering environmentalists.

Bridging The Culture Gap

On the flip side, Chinese investors face huge challenges in Africa. In an article in the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, David Berman maintained that cultural differences between Chinese and Africans, including the language barriers, often lead to social tensions, and that poor infrastructure in Africa makes business operations difficult.

Frequent power outages in some countries raise production costs, while policies towards businesses are inconsistent. African governments can raise taxes at a whim. And most African economies are still fragile, subject to shocks from the global economy.

China hopes to minimize social tensions by bridging the information gap. Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, has increased its bureaus in Africa to more than 20.

In 2008 the China Africa News service was launched, to report “China-Africa news stories from African, Chinese and Western sources.” In early 2012 China Central Television (CCTV) opened a broadcast hub in Nairobi, Kenya – its first outside of its Beijing headquarters. Its strategy has been to hire some of Africa’s brightest journalists to report on Africa to viewers in about 170 countries.

“We have the news of what is happening in Africa, we tell a positive story,” says Pang Xinhua, the CCTV managing editor. But Yu-Shan Wu, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, sees a broader motive. “China is actively introducing its culture and values,” she says, and calls the push “the rise of China’s state-led media dynasty in Africa.”

Western Concerns

In the view of David Shinn, former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, the West is nervous about China’s activities in Africa. Mr. Shinn adds that China’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of African countries and its fast approach to aid delivery make it more attractive than Western donors, whose aid often comes with demands to improve human rights and democracy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned against a “new colonialism in Africa,” in which it is “easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave.” It was a veiled jab at China. But Ms. Clinton’s point echoed across the continent, and it appears that African leaders are now treading cautiously.

South African President Jacob Zuma warned in July that the current “unbalanced” trade pattern is unsustainable. He was referring to the tendency of Africa to export raw materials to China while largely importing only cheap manufactured goods. Maged Abdelaziz, the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser on Africa, said that the continent must develop a strategy for its dealings with emerging economic giants such as China, Brazil and India.

Along this line, talks began in South Africa in June 2011 to merge three regional trade groupings (the East African Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community) into a “grand free trade area” incorporating 26 countries with a combined gross domestic product of $1 trillion. Such a combined strength could give Africa a more assertive voice at the negotiating table.

The China-Africa relationship will get stronger. The editors of China Returns to Africa sum it up: So long as Africa’s development requires huge foreign investments, so long will China continue to be relevant. “Irrespective of the concerns being voiced in some circles in Africa, Chinese involvement is widely considered to be a positive-sum game.”

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