Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Anene Ejikeme, "Africa: Africa Might Be China's Next Imperial Frontier, Base," The East African Standard (Nairobi), January 8, 2007.

Chinese Foreign minister Mr Li Zhaoxing will spend more than half of this month in Africa, visiting about a dozen countries.

China is making itself an indispensable player in Africa. A recent study indicates that it has overtaken Britain to become Africa's third most important trading partner after the US and France. Chinese loans and investments to Africa continue to increase rapidly.

Today, about 30 per cent of Africa's exports go to Asia. Five years ago, the figure was half that. Trade between Africa and China grew 50 per cent in 2005. If this pace continues - and there are no indications to suggest otherwise - the ripple effects could be massive.

Critical to China is secure access to the raw materials it needs to feed its roaring economy. China has invested billions of dollars in Africa and more are earmarked for the future. China is active all over Africa - building railways, mines and manufacturing plants.

It is probably the largest investor in Sudan and has poured billions of dollars into oil industry, money welcome to a regime with few friends. China recently signed a loan deal with President Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, another country with few international friends.

China meddling in African affairs

Last November, something remarkable happened: China hosted 48 of 53 African heads of State and many high-ranking Africans at the China-Africa Cooperation Forum Summit in Beijing. But amid the Sino-Africa celebrations and congratulations, there is cause for concern.

Take, for example, what happened in Zambia last September. Just weeks before Zambians went to the polls to elect a president, China announced suspension of its investments until after the outcome. The two major candidates were incumbent President Levy Mwanawasa and Mr Michael Sata.

China threatened that if Sata won, it would pull out its nationals and resources. It accused Sata, a populist who drew huge crowds with nationalist rhetoric, of having met Taiwanese officials. Sata denied this, saying he had met businessmen and recognised Taiwan as a sovereign state. To China, Taiwan is a rebel province.

Mwanawasa won the elections. During the campaigns, he apologised to China for Sata's "anti-China" stance. There is no doubt that Zambia would have lost much had China really made good its threat and pulled out. The Chinese government owns and operates mines and manufacturing industries in Zambia. Dozens of Chinese entrepreneurs also operate in the country.

Chinese business practices questionable

However, Chinese business practices have drawn considerable criticism. Zambian workers complain of low wages and poor work conditions. Critics have also raised questions about safety regulations in Chinese-owned firms. In April, 2005, Zambia's worst industrial accident killed more than 50 people in a Chinese-owned explosives' factory.

At home and abroad, China puts economic growth before human rights. It has vetoed UN attempts to issue a resolution critical of the repressive Sudanese government. China needs Africa's raw materials to fuel its economy. If African leaders do not act, they will be remembered for presiding over a time when Africa cast off Western imperialism to embrace an Eastern variety.

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