Is China Transforming Africa?

And, if so, is this transformation for the better? Part of an ongoing series of discussions with ChinaFile.
africachinabanner.jpgTanzanian women wait to greet China President Xi Jinping (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

Jeremy Goldkorn:

The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the "China shops"-- small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware -- that have become ubiquitous in Southern Africa, to oil, infrastructure and mining projects across the continent, China's government, private and state companies, and individual Chinese immigrants are changing the continent that the west gave up on sometime in the 1990s.

There are both very positive and negative aspects to the Chinese presence in Africa. I think arguments that China's involvement in Africa is a form of neo-colonialism are both simplistic and prejudiced, but there also plenty of people looking at Chinese economic and political ties to Africa through rose-tinted glasses. It is certainly refreshing for African countries to deal with an enthusiastic new global player with deep pockets and little interest in pushing an ideology. It is up to African political and business leaders to make sure that their own countries do not get a raw deal.


Isabel Hilton:

Jeremy, I agree that China is already transforming Africa in hundreds of ways and that the Western response has verged on the hysterical at times. But there are also well documented instances of exploitation, illegal resources extraction and bad business practice, as well as any number of white elephant infrastructure projects that have fueled a negative response to the Chinese presence in many countries in Africa.

It may come badly from former colonial powers, but the fact is that China's operations in Africa in many cases are uncomfortably reminiscent of 19th and early 20th century colonial operations. In China's Silent Army: The Pioneers, Traders, Fixers and Workers Who Are Remaking the World in Beijing's Image , two Spanish journalists, Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, do a fairly heroic job of reporting on the Chinese presence around the world, asking repeatedly who benefits from China's activities. They interview Chinese traders and entrepreneurs at every level, as well as local employees of major Chinese corporations. What they observe is that Chinese companies, especially state-owned enterprises (SOEs), reproduce the same patterns of exploitation that are common in China.

A more pointed question might be, will China's activities spur self-sustaining African development?
While the Chinese executive class is decently rewarded and lives comfortably, Chinese workers often suffer from familiar abuses, including exploitation and non-payment of wages; local workers complain of fourteen hour days, rotten food and wage rates far below local minimum standards, conditions that go some way to explain the persistent troubles that Chinese companies have experienced in, for instance, Zambia.

Other negative impacts include deforestation and over-fishing, the latter compounded by local corruption that threatens to log out supplies of hardwood in Mozambique and many other countries. China may not be responsible for local corruption, but too often Chinese operators benefit from and encourage it.


Donald Clarke:

ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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