Has China been a friend in Africa?

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Despite its undeniable symbolism, Xi Jinping’s first trip to Africa as China’s president hasn’t brought any substantial change to Beijing’s rhetorical approach to the resource-rich continent. In his opening address in Tanzania, Xi drew on the same pompous language used by his predecessors. His speech kicked off with a disarming “my dear friends”, he referred to “mutually beneficial co-operation” between China and Africa, and labelled the nature of the bilateral relationship as “sincere friendship”. He then wrapped the whole thing up with: “Africa belongs to the African people.”

But despite the neat and appealing words, the picture he evoked is only partially precise. China’s contribution to Africa and to the developing world is irrefutable, as China’s insatiable hunger for natural resources has led to dozens of billion-dollar investments and loans – in most cases linking oil or minerals exploitation with infrastructure projects built and financed by China. This is changing many African countries’ infrastructures and opens the door to a future of real development.

Such a role is what Xi was suggesting when he said China’s investment in Africa had reached US$15 billion last year, while bilateral trade had jumped to more than US$200 billion in the same period.

In this perspective, it is understandable that African political elites are the most enthusiastic supporters of China’s role in Africa. On top of the economic impact of Chinese capital, Beijing is perceived as the best partner to help them pave their road to development.

Furthermore, China is also seen as a reliable diplomatic ally – Sudan, Zim- babwe and Angola are good examples – as well as the friend who, behind the “no interference” principle that guides Beijing’s foreign policy, doesn’t ask embarrassing questions about human rights, corruption or bad business practices. All this explains why China is such an alluring alternative for those recipient countries’ elites.

But the sugar-sweet atmosphere in bilateral or multilateral summits, where China typically displays its financial muscle, is only one side of the coin. The other, less visible side happens on the ground and shows us a less idyllic world when giving voice to local populations, as we did in our field research in 25 countries in the developing world, eight of them in Africa.

Surprisingly enough, behind China’s multibillion dollar investments and loans, and behind the “win-win situation” official rhetoric, local populations are not always so welcoming of Chinese investment. This raises the key question of who is really benefiting from Chinese engagement with Africa.

Our research showed that many local populations across the developing world have the perception that China is doing business in their countries purely for its own benefit. In Zambia’s Copperbelt, in Sudan’s Merowe dam region, or in Mozambique’s Zambezia forests, just to name a few, there’s a deep feeling that Beijing is engaging with the local elites only to pursue its goals and objectives, disregarding the side effects that come along with Chinese projects.

In addition, the most damaging factor to China’s image and reputation abroad are the very poor labour conditions linked to Chinese projects – in most cases the worst among Africa’s foreign investors. The complaints go from low wages and labour discrimination, to almost despotic treatment and minimal transfer of know-how.

Another issue of concern is that, in many countries, China is exploiting the local natural resources and shipping them back to the Middle Kingdom without leaving any added value to the local economies. This is something that probably cannot be blamed on China alone, as the governments of the recipient countries could easily be asking China to invest in their processing industries in the same way that Beijing has required foreign investors to do in China for the last 30 years.

But African countries have few cards to play vis-à-vis Beijing when they negotiate multibillion agreements. Also, their ability to enforce agreements within the terms that were originally signed, including the collecting of royalties or fines for environmental damage, is quite limited for young African countries with fragile institutions.

Probably the best example that we came across in our research was a contract signed between a consortium of Chinese state-owned companies and the Democratic Republic of Congo – dubbed the “contract of the century”. Originally a US$9 billion deal – it was later downgraded to US$6 billion after the intervention of international financial institutions – the contract was supposed to be a healthy example of “win-win” exchange: Congo’s minerals for Chinese-built infrastructure.

But a more detailed examination of both the contract and its amendments reveals China was the real winner in the relationship. The Asian giant secured a potential return of more than 20 times its investment, while the workforce, technology and materials needed to carry out the construction works are all Chinese. No surprise, therefore, that this tailor-made contract for Chinese interests raises lots of questions about the real nature of the “win-win” official rhetoric.

Many of the patterns that we’ve seen in the field might very well have been what prompted Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria’s central bank chief, to recently warn about China’s presence in Africa and accuse the Asian giant of colonialism and predatory practices.

The echo of his words leads us to the certainty that investment doesn’t necessarily mean development – which is what the “dear friends” of Africa are expecting from China.

Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo are the authors of China’s Silent Army

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on Apr 02, 2013 as Friends in Africa?