China and Africa: Trade or Exploitation?

21 Feb

China’s rapid growth and development over the past 30 years has led to a nation with an almost insatiable appetite for natural resources. This has not historically been an issue, due to large reserves of coal in the north west of the country; however with demand for coal increasing by the day there was always going to come a time when China’s supply of fossil fuels alone would no longer be enough. The same can be said of raw metals and oil, both of which are crucial to a production heavy economy.

Predicting this issue, the government has looked into two ways of combatting these issues: firstly through investing in renewable energy, such as massive investments into solar energy, and secondly investing across Africa to access largely untapped subterranean minerals and fossil fuels. On the surface it seems a good deal for both parties: China gets the resources it needs to continue to develop, while countries that permit China to enter gain Chinese constructed infrastructure and a healthy income. It’s a deal which in 2013 saw trade exceed $200 billion with new agreements being made by the month, Senegal agreeing further trade agreements and a long term partnership just days ago.

Angola is a perfect case study of Sino-African relations, displaying all the traits described: Angola is rich in oil, diamonds, gold and copper but has been ravished by 27 years of civil war. Unsurprisingly perhaps, in 2010 bilateral trade between China and Angola exceeded $25 billion with some estimates totalling over $120 billion. A key part of this total was Angola exporting more oil to China than any other African country although the presence of the minerals listed is equally important in China’s investment.  China has paid for this mostly through general infrastructure such as building roads and healthcare while also investing in infrastructure projects such as rebuilding the Benguala Railway which had previously run across Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia.

For many, the trade agreements are a continuing story of success. Many in Africa see the trade as a step up from receiving aid which although helpful, has hurt the pride of African countries wishing to be seen as more than a charity case. This was a sentiment shared by Faida Mitfu, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s ambassador to Washington who at the opening of the African Union headquarters in January of last year claimed, ‘There are people who still consider Africans like children who can be easily manipulated. The good thing about this partnership is that it’s give and take.’  However critics have argued that China is simply using its economic and political power to exploit Africa.

The first accusation is not an uncommon one for China to face: worker exploitation and, in extreme cases, slavery. On the 20th of February 2013, the Zambian government seized control of a Chinese owned mine over concerns about safety and working conditions, a year after a Chinese supervisor was murdered by a Zambian miner at the same location. There are reports of this nature from many locations across China’s investments, and it would not be farfetched to suggest that were it not for the authoritarian government’s control in China, stories of this nature would be more common in the homeland.

The second accusation China has faced is that they’re investing irresponsibly into corrupt governments hence enforcing terrible conditions for some African citizens. The most blatant example of this is China’s investment into Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe which who have seen great economic recovery with the aid of China. Fraser Nelson described the success as ‘deeply depressing… for those who would like to believe political freedom is the surest route to prosperity’. Mugabe, who has used brutal tactics in maintaining his position atop Zimbabwe, has been visited by Xi Jinping on a number of occasions and their nations now share a prosperous trade deal which saw upwards of $500 million worth of trade in the first 5 months of 2012. Of note, China’s decision to trade with these individuals is partly fuelled by the West’s refusal to. Without the US and the UK offering foreign direct investment, there was a lot of free economic opportunity in countries like Zimbabwe and also allowed for some political point scoring against the US by giving Zimbabwe an economic out from the effects of western sanctions. The political motivation is cynical from China, even if the economics are sound, and by supporting dictators like Mugabe they are strengthening the position of some of the most dangerous men in the world.  

A third accusation levelled at China is that of colonialism, with critics believing China is exploiting Africa in much the same way the European Empires had with devastating effect in the 20th Century. In a speech in Johannesburg, Jane Goodall spoke of China’s desire to take resources from Africa and ‘leave it poorer than how they found it.’(Source) One could respond with the degree of China’s investment suggest they have a much longer game plan than the smash and grab tactics that Goodall is implying here.

However, Goodall makes a second claim which is undeniably true. With the influx of Chinese companies into Africa there has been an eruption in the poaching of Rhinos and Elephants with Chinese medicine holding horns and tusks in high regard. Although illegal, the market has proven worth the risk for enough ‘businessman’ to have a significant effect on the populations of rare species such as the black rhinoceros.  Although this practise has been condemned by the government, Goodall says that China’s involvement in Africa has been fuelling resurgence in the market and, even if it’s unintentional, it’s a harmful side effect of China’s investment in Africa.

Overall, China has made huge investments in Africa which have handsomely paid off and look set to for time to come. The real test of whether Africa will benefit overall will come when their resources have dried up. If China invests enough, Africa will begin to develop its own industries and be in a much better position than before China invested. As for the human and ecological costs, they will join a long waiting list of morally ambiguous crimes committed in the name of China’s progress. And there aren’t many who see that list being dealt with any time soon.

George Chiverton


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