China in Africa

When Chinese supervisors recently shot at protesting Zambian miners, injuring 11, the story quickly became international news. A labour incident in a remote corner of a far-off African country is not often a story of interest for the international press. This was about more than a particular protest or tragic managerial overreaction; it is about the role of China in Africa and the tensions that this has caused.

China has pursued an aggressive policy of building relations with African governments. Its economy is dependent on vast quantities of raw resources, resources that Africa can offer in spades. Additionally, China’s cheap labour model is easy to implement in countries with low wages and few labour rights. Not to mention the African continent also provides a ready market for cheap manufactured products, China’s specialty.

There are benefits for African governments too. The Chinese do not ask questions about pesky issues such as human rights or corruption. They often provide much needed infrastructure or at least pet projects for cooperative governments. And the economic development spurred by the Chinese enables governments to free themselves, at least in part, from dependence on Western governments and companies.

However, questions remain. What are China’s true intentions in Africa? Does China’s investment in Africa represent a new form of neo-colonialism, where China can exploit Africa for raw resources while only returning a pittance? Or is this a new form of benevolent South-South collaboration that is mutually beneficial for both China and Africa?

I lived in Zambia during their 2006 presidential election. The election saw a populist opposition candidate, Michael Sata, elevate his popularity by condemning Chinese investment in Zambia. This investment, he said, was not equal. It provided low paying jobs in unsafe conditions, while managerial positions all went to Chinese workers. It was time, he said, for this type of investment to leave the country — and he even threatened, in a moment of bluster, to kick out the Chinese investors.

This message was incredibly popular with the people I worked with in the slums of the capital city, Lusaka. It was time, many said, for the Chinese to leave Zambia alone. There had recently been a major accident at a Chinese explosives factory in Zambia, killing over 50 people. Frustration was palpable.

And in many ways, it still is. Many continue to express concerns about safety conditions, low wages and unfair labour practices at Chinese-owned mines and other businesses throughout the country.

At the same time, however, the Zambian government continues to promote Chinese investment as key to the country’s economic development. As Western companies pulled back during the recession, Chinese investment moved in, leading many to praise China as a long-term partner that is to be trusted. China is building a series of soccer stadiums throughout the country, the first of which is now nearing completion. It has invested in roads and other infrastructure. And Zambia is home to one of China’s new “Special Economic Zones.”

China’s recent interest in Africa and its resources has provided valuable foreign investment, although it appears that this investment is no less exploitative than that offered by the West. It has developed much needed infrastructure, but in doing so has propped up unsavoury regimes such as those in Sudan and Zimbabwe. It has provided jobs for Africans, but the best paying administrative positions are almost all headed by the Chinese themselves.

Chinese investment is in many ways no different than the investment that has come from the West for years. It is designed to benefit China first, Africa second. China will see the profits that flow from cheap mineral extraction. While Michael Sata’s objective of kicking out the Chinese was extreme, it is important for African nations to think seriously about the implications of aggressively pursuing an economic development strategy dependent on China.

Stefan Epp is a research associate at the University of Manitoba, with a particular interest in African politics.