China's Africa push: Who stands to benefit?

China’s push into Africa is prompting growing interest over Beijing’s motives in the world’s poorest continent, with opinion divided over who stands to benefit most.

Speaking at the launch this week of a China research programme run by the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), its chief academic said China had “changed the game of development” after years of domination by Western governments and donors.

“I think that’s probably the most important contribution that China has made to date in African development,” added Chris Alden, who is also a lecturer on China-Africa relations at the London School of Economics.

Trade between China and Africa is estimated to have increased tenfold between 1999 and 2006, with Beijing keen to find alternative sources of oil and other natural resources to fuel its economic drive.

While China insists both sides stand to gain, the balance of trade remains heavily in Beijing’s favour with complaints echoing across the continent that cheap Chinese-made goods are dumped on local markets.

Sceptics have also pointed to involvement of Chinese construction companies in projects funded by loans from Beijing as evidence that so-called largesse is in fact little more than self-interest.

But, speaking at the SAIIA launch, Singapore’s high commissioner to South Africa Justice MP H’aja Rubin said accusations of exploitation were unfair.

“I share the view with many others that the fears of any hidden agenda and economic hegemony on the part of China are somewhat overstated,” he said.

“Evidence does not support the insinuation that China is currently on the path of exploitation at any cost.”

A senior official at the Chinese embassy said African countries were regarded as equals, echoing previous pledges that Beijing is not about to forge a neo-colonial relationship.

“We don’t think we have the right to teach them how to run their countries, how to run their affairs,” said the diplomat on condition of anonymity.

“We prefer to have dialogues on all the serious problems, the environment, good governance, trade.”

A frequent criticism of China is that its involvement in Africa comes with no strings attached and it has shown a willingness to overlook abuses by countries such as Sudan.

Predator, partner?

Prince Mashele, a senior researcher with the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said Chinese companies have been met with fierce resistance in countries such as Nigeria, Zambia and in parts of Mozambique where there have been complaints over standards of pay and safety in Chinese-run factories.

“One pole is that China is a predator, the other pole is that China is a partner,” Mashele said.

Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have toured Africa in the last 18 months, partly in order to allay fears about China’s motives.

In a sign of unease in some quarters, Hu had to scrap a visit earlier this year to a Chinese-run copper mine in northern Zambia where 50 Zambians perished in a mine explosion in 2005.

Garth le Pere of Pretoria’s Institute for Global Dialogue said another source of complaint among Africans was a reluctance of the Chinese to appoint locals to management even if they are happy to hire them as labour.

“The cultural and linguistic distance also does not help,” le Pere added.

At the same time, said Le Pere, there has been a remarkable lack of a policy response from Africa towards China’s engagement on the continent that should not be blamed on Beijing.

“China is simply pursuing its national interest and ... cannot be blamed or held accountable for the absence of appropriate regulatory mechanisms and administrative systems in Africa.” - Sapa-AFP

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