Europe squeezed by China's scramble for Africa

As Portugal prepares to host a bonding summit of African and European leaders, the frenetic construction in its ex-colony Angola bears testimony to China’s growing influence on the resource-rich continent.

In all weather and on every day of the week, an army of Chinese construction workers is rapidly transforming the skyline of the Angolan capital Luanda in an alliance which has put the squeeze on traditional European partners.

“Human Rights, good governance, accountability are difficult questions that African governments hate and the Chinese don’t ask any of them,” says Justino Pinto de Andrade, a professor of economics at Luanda’s Catholic University, as he contemplates the transformation of the capital.

“I think if we are not careful, if we keep on depending on them financially and economically, China will gain so much influence over our government officials that there will also be a political dependency.”

Chinese leaders, desperate for raw materials to fuel their economic growth, have gone out of their way to insist their relationship with Africa should benefit both sides and have rejected any suggestion of neo-colonialism.

This weekend’s summit in Portugal, the current holders of the European Union presidency, is seen as a belated recognition on behalf of European governments that they need to work harder to cultivate their relationship with Africa.

But according to Chris Alden, author of a new book on China’s influence in Africa, many governments on the world’s poorest continent are more inclined to hook up with a partner that can provide the finance for construction projects quickly and without asking too many questions.

“Whether it be a railroad or a dam, by all accounts they provide finance very quickly [at a speed] which neither the World Bank or Europe, the traditional donors, can match,” said Alden.

“They have a very light touch when it comes to bureaucracy, while the EU is the master of bureaucracy.

“And in Europe there’s a pretty high level of oversight from Parliament and China does not suffer from such concerns.”

For the government of Angola, a country devastated by a 27-year civil war which began soon after independence from Portugal in 1975, China appears the perfect partner in the process of rebuilding the country.

As Chinese soft loans and workers help with the construction of everything from a vital rail link to office blocks, Angola in turn supplies China with some two million tonnes of crude oil each month.

Jose Severino, chairperson of the Angolan Industrial Association, said the Chinese involvement was beneficial in many ways, but worried that much of raw materials used in construction was of inferior quality.

“For example, they use cement bricks instead of oven-fired bricks which is the best thing,” said Severino.

“It’s good they’re rebuilding our infrastructure, roads, and factories etc, but it has to be quality.”

Complaints about the cutting of corners are echoed in other parts of the continent, whether it be over safety standards at Chinese-owned mines in Zambia or cheap clothing that undercuts the price of locally-made garments.

In Zambia for example, Chinese President Hu Jintao had to scrap plans in February to visit a Chinese-run copper mine where several workers died in a blast after unions threatened to stage protests.

De Andrade warned that China’s push into Africa was often at the expense of local producers.

“We have the Chinese lending us money, bringing in expertise and promoting their own products which leaves little room for the growth of domestic industry,” he said.

If local producers cannot compete with the low-cost Chinese, European businesses are also finding the same problem.

“They are finding that they are losing contracts to these new competitors,” said Alden. “They will have to devise some form of approach that takes into account the lower costs of China. - Sapa-AFP

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