China Goes to Africa

China in Africa

“Nǐ hǎo!”

I glance back as two Congolese children giggle and repeat the Mandarin greeting. This marks my third time hearing the phrase while wandering Brazzaville’s streets.

The people around me are all clearly Congolese.

The children seem perplexed at my lack of response. I am equally perplexed by their linguistic choice.

When I lived in Tanzania, children often greeted me with “mzungu!” (Swahili for “white ghost” — I took it as a compliment for my zealous use of sunscreen).

But throughout West Africa I instead hear “Nǐ hǎo!”

Were African parents also enrolling their children in Mandarin classes to prepare for China’s inevitable world domination? Perhaps West Africa and Palo Alto had more in common than generally believed.

This premise, not surprisingly, proved false. A more interesting force was at play.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

My first clue is the flights. Most passengers are African, a sign of the continent’s growing middle-class. The expats tend toward specific professions. The Americans work for non-profits, the Europeans for governments, and the Chinese for corporations (which are often indistinguishable from the government).

Perhaps most notably, Chinese businessmen outnumber American NGO workers by 10 to 1.

While driving from the Kinshasa airport, I am awed by the freshly-paved six lane highway, particularly given the DRC’s miniscule national budget. The road makes the 101 from the San Francisco airport to town look like a national disgrace. We pass an impressive football stadium. I ask my Congolese driver about the roads and stadium.

He responds with one word: “China.”

I prod. “The Chinese fund the roads and buildings and then sends building crews. It previously took 4 hours from the airport to town. It now takes 45 minutes. The stadium holds 100,000 people. We have much new infrastructure — and many Chinese people.”

The light bulb goes off. African children are now more accustomed to seeing Asians than Caucasians.

New Chinese-built road in Kinshasa, DRC.

New Chinese-built road in Kinshasa, DRC.

Capitalism Versus Aid

In 2009, China surpassed America in African trade. Three years later, China’s African trade was double America’s, a remarkable growth trajectory. On a country level, China is also taking the lead. For instance, Angola replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil in 2010.

America historically viewed Africa as a poor continent needing handouts. Since 9/11, the US also deemed it a terrorist breeding ground. Consequently, most of America’s activity on the continent focuses on development aid or military relationships.

“What the Chinese did uniquely was viewing Africa as a market… when the rest of world viewed Africa as an economic basket case and a place for aid,’ says Richard Poplak, a Johannesburg-based journalist.

In Djibouti, home to a large US military base, an official tells me, “Americans bring drones while the Chinese build roads.”

China’s lead stems from both a greater focus by the national government and less restrictive regulations on businesses. One American diplomat confides, “American companies put in competitive bids, but since they cannot pay bribes, they often lose.”

In Kinshasa, a Congolese gentleman notes, “We are very happy with the Chinese. They are rebuilding our country. But don’t worry, we still love America – we watch your movies and listen to your music.”

So China brings infrastructure and America brings bombs… and Miley Cyrus.

It feels like a losing proposition for America — and Africa.

Chinese constructed Brazzaville airport.

Chinese constructed Brazzaville airport.

Beyond Resources

Conventional wisdom holds that China’s role in Africa is solely to extract resources.

Yet, a 2013 study by Johns Hopkins found that China committed $75B in development aid to Africa in the last decade, just shy of the $90B committed by the US.

Throughout Africa, I saw new roads, buildings, and organizations funded by the Chinese.

It is not only roads and buildings. The diverse list of projects includes school computers in Mali, new telecom networks in Eritrea, and anti-malarial drugs in Somalia.

As one gentleman who works in the Congolese finance sector tells me, “The Chinese were always active in infrastructure and business, but they are now also involved in soft power areas.” He continues, “The US is still important politically, today, but that too might change.”

Resource Curse

It’s not all just new computers and cultural centers, however. While excited by the prospect of new infrastructure, many Africans are leery of the true price of China’s so-called goodwill.

As one Burundian tells me, “China has no rules. This can be great for businesses, but terrible for the people.”

The classical challenge faced by resource-rich countries is Dutch disease, when extraction replaces other industries. But the issue plaguing many African countries is more akin to the Resource curse, when resource-rich countries paradoxically experience lower long-term growth than resource-poor countries.

In Africa, this curse has two main components: unsustainable development and diminished democracy.

Essentially, China deals with anyone on any terms. Despotic dictator? No problem. A few million dollars in “gifts” for the right people to make a deal happen? The price of doing business. A few human rights abuses along the way? Stuff happens.

Some African leaders pin their hopes on Chinese-backed development placating restive populations and serving as a substitute for civil liberties. A Belgian advising a Western Africa government tells me, “Often mining deals struck between African governments and Chinese companies promise the African government only 20-30% of market royalty rates. The rest goes straight to the pockets of the president and his cronies.”

The result? A national budget derived from resource wealth instead of taxes – and a strongman not reliant on citizens for income and therefore power, making democracy expendable.

Made in Africa?

The Chinese development model also relies heavily on imported Chinese workers instead of training and paying locals. I ask a taxi driver in Senegal who builds the new roads. “They are all Chinese laborers living in Chinese camps. We never see them, except when they work. But some stay behind and open shops.”

A Congolese man later explains, “The Chinese have stores and sell Chinese goods at very reasonable prices. They are putting the local shops out of business.”

It’s like Wal-Mart in America, except instead of Made in China, it’s also Owned by China.

Colonialism Redux? Or the African Century?

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” —Charles Marlow, Heart of Darkness

Africa is home to seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world. Africa now outpaces Asia in economic growth. By 2050, Africa will have two billion people spread over 50 countries. They will matter — for economics, security, and geopolitics.

China is making a strong play for Africa’s both resources and influence.

Yet, in every country I visit, I hear stories of Chinese-built roads washing away or Chinese-engineered buildings falling apart.

In exchange for extracting the finite and non-renewable wealth of Africa, what do the Chinese give in return: roads that last for a few years? Buildings that need repair immediately after opening? Locals sometimes derisively call the roads “disposable” and buildings “styrofoam”.

As Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote in the Financial Times, “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

I leave with more questions than answers. How should the US approach Africa: As an aid project or as an emerging powerhouse? Should we play by our own rules – or those of our biggest competitor?

Perhaps more importantly, on what terms should the US, China, and others view Africa’s resources: wealth to be extracted abroad at the lowest possible price – or a foundation for sustainable local economies in democratic countries?

What does seem clear is that America cannot ignore Africa or consider it solely as destination for sympathy. It also cannot simply discard its own core values in a race to the bottom with China.


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