China makes Africa its business

By Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times, August 18, 2006 – Excerpts: … China, it seems, is suddenly everywhere in Africa, not just in oil-rich states. Trade between Africa and China has almost quadrupled since 2001, and last year reached almost $40 billion. China is hardly the first nation to seek its fortune in Africa. First the Arabs, then the Europeans built their empires on African riches and sweat, followed by the Cold Warriors, fighting their proxy ideological battles in Africa’s marketplaces for influence and profit.

Through all the iterations of the world’s engagement with Africa, most of the continent’s nationsprimarily supplied valuable raw materials to the developed world while serving as a marketplace for cheap manufactured goods. But China seems to be offering Africa something new, a straightforward business relationship between equals based on mutual interest and noninterference in the internal affairs of its allies. Or as the economist Jeffrey Sachs phrased it at a conference in Beijing this week, “China gives fewer lectures and more practical help.” But is China’s interest in Africa truly different from that of the earlier powers? Or is Beijing, as some are beginning to say, peddling the same exploitative formula in an attractive dressing of Third World solidarity?

Certainly, China sees itself as offering something superior to the standard Western prescription. “Now African countries have more choices,” said Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to Senegal. “They have the panaceas of the World Bank and the IMF, and at the same time the experience of China. They can compare and choose the best.”

China’s recent history presents seductive possibilities for sub-Saharan Africa. In the past two decades, China has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty and transformed itself into the world’s fastest-growing economy. Its presence is certainly greatest in the resource-rich countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan (where its role has been criticized as contributing to the crisis in Darfur). But China’s growing presence is also manifest in less obvious spots. In Sierra Leone, Chinese companies have built and renovated hotels and restaurants. In Mozambique, Chinese companies are investing in soybean processing and prawn production. At the African Union meeting in Banjul, Gambia, last month, the Chinese delegation dwarfed the ones sent by France, Britain and the United States.

Here in Senegal, a country whose economy was long dominated by peanut farming, Chinese construction companies are working on roads, bridges, waterworks and other projects. Small-scale Chinese enterprises have sprung up, importing inexpensive goods and running restaurants and Chinese medical clinics. In the post-independence era, the fad was state control aimed at rapid industrialization, an expensive and generally badly managed experiment in most countries. In the post-Soviet world, many adopted the “Washington consensus” of open markets, macroeconomic stability, loosened state controls and more transparent government.

But economic reform has yet to improve the lives of most Africans, and many have grown disenchanted with the West. “The West has closed its doors to us,” said Amadou Niang, a Senegalese forestry expert working in Mali on a UN development project. “Even if we follow their plans, at the end of the day their interests are more important.” But it may be too soon to say that China will be different. A study published earlier this year concluded that so far China’s main interest in Africa has been raw materials. In return, it said, China mainly exports manufactured goods. In other words, China has done pretty much what the rest of the world has done in Africa, but without the moralizing about good government and fighting corruption … Elizabeth Dickinson contributed reporting for this article.

(Read the whole article on International Herald Tribune/Asia-Pacific).

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