‘Forgotten continent’ lays out welcome mat for China

Chris Pritchard charts the ever expanding influence of the Middle Kingdom in Africa, and looks at what the relationship means for both parties.

A new and perhaps surprising optional subject will become available next year in some South African high schools: Mandarin. Pretoria promises that lessons in China’s official language will be rolled out more widely across the country over the next few years.

The cost? China, using its embassy as a conduit, will pick up the tab.

South Africa wants as many of its citizens as possible to become fluent in the tongue of its major trading partner, which it notes is becoming increasingly influential in international relations. While some South African teachers are in China learning to teach Mandarin back home, most instructors will be imported Chinese.

China’s interest in South Africa has grown sharply in the past decade, with two-way trade and political links on the upswing. South Africa is the newest and only African member of the BRICS grouping, encompassing the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The latter was admitted belatedly after Chinese lobbying. Though Africa’s most developed economy, South Africa is BRICS’ smallest.

China’s expanding footprint across South Africa remains controversial. The country has Africa’s largest population of Chinese. Settlers first arrived before Chinese immigration was banned in 1904 but, in the past 15 years, a new wave of post-apartheid Chinese immigrants has boosted this ethnic presence to between 250,000 and 350,000 people (figures are rubbery, with some newcomers undocumented).

UNDERMINED: Human Rights Watch believes Chinese mines routinely flout Zambian workers' rights, which China denies
UNDERMINED: Human Rights Watch believes Chinese mines routinely flout Zambian workers’ rights, which China denies

South Africa’s media has in recent months published articles observing that almost all South African towns now have small general stores run by new arrivals from China (often with poor English skills). Young couples, sometimes with small children, commonly launch businesses in impoverished black communities. Some commentators maintain shopkeepers are small-time entrepreneurs seizing opportunities much as other Chinese retailers have done in other parts of the world and that they are motivated more by money than ideology.

Conspiracy theorists, however, see a Beijing-inspired plot to help expand China’s African presence. Those holding this view argue that Chinese arrivals are part of a bare-faced neo-colonialist strategy aimed at securing access to oil and other African raw materials, with the bonus of raising China’s diplomatic profile.

Certainly, in the case of South Africa, China has gained a regionally important ally. While the former apartheid regime maintained cordial links with Taiwan, these days China has considerable clout and can count on South African support at international gatherings. One South African decision widely interpreted as a response to Chinese pressure was the country’s denial of a visa to the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress government makes no secret of its support for closer ties with China, which it believes are crucial to the country’s future. (The African National Congress, now governing, is a formerly outlawed liberation movement.)

Elsewhere in Africa, Chinese influence is similarly ascendant. Estimates are notoriously unreliable but some sources calculate that there are two million Chinese in Africa, a trebling in a decade, with the former Portuguese colony of Angola second only to South Africa in numbers of Chinese residents, a fast-growing population believed to be about 260,000. But no-one has accurate figures.

China’s African popularity is boosted by policies of non-interference in internal affairs—even of strongman-led dictatorial regimes such as those in Eritrea, the Gambia and Zimbabwe—preparedness to make soft loans and paying bills on time.

Oil-rich Angola is a major target of China’s involvement. Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos has ruled since 1979 and heads a Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) government. The MPLA was a former anti-colonial liberation movement. He made a state visit to China this year. His opponents term Angola a ‘kleptocracy’, with a leadership and elite deeply embroiled in corruption.

China is Angola’s main trading partner. The southwest African nation is already China’s main African source of oil, with several new discoveries poised to start commercial production.

Among China’s Angolan projects are a new airport for the capital, Luanda, railways, roads, bridges, mines and buildings. For these and other projects, Angola is believed to owe China more than US$10 billion. China recently agreed to an Angolan request, sparked by plunged oil prices, for more time to repay loans.

Most high-profile of Chinese projects: the government-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) has built an entire town. Most residents haven’t yet moved in to an almost-completed development on the outskirts of Luanda. Called Nova Cidade de Kilamba, it comprises 750 eight-storey apartment buildings, a dozen schools, and more than 100 shops. The US$3.5 billion development sprawls across 12,355 acres and is intended to house about 500,000 people, including shack-dwellers. Other Chinese-built satellite towns are in the pipeline.

Oil and minerals are key drivers of China’s African adventure. Consequently, Chinese government and privately-owned companies have become powerful entities. One tally found 2000 China-linked enterprises, big and small, in 50 of the African continent’s 54 independent nations. Among these are several large-scale mining projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

One nation where politicians and commentators hotly debate whether enthusiasm over Chinese involvement has been over-egged is Zambia. China is increasingly important in the country’s large copper-mining industry, on occasion moving in after Western investors shut up shop in the wake of plummeted copper prices. So far, deep-pocketed Chinese interests have invested US$400 million in the sector, with companies claiming they’re in for the long haul rather than quick profits. Some analysts describe this as shrewd, foreseeing a rebound.

However, critics accuse Chinese operators of running unsafe mines. Human Rights Watch believes Chinese mines routinely flout Zambian workers’ rights. Miners’ protests endorse this view. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei insists criticisms are ‘inconsistent with the facts’.

Some Zambian politicians suggest Chinese interests have grabbed too much power in their country, drawing parallels with the once-dominant position of an immigrant Asian minority which ended up controlling 90 per cent of nearby Uganda’s economy. (Saying God had spoken to him, Idi Amin—a brutal buffoon who was president at the time—expelled 60,000 ‘Ugandan Asians’, mainly Indian Gujaratis whose families had lived in the country for more than a century. Most fled to Britain 43 years ago.) However, other commentators question whether such comparisons are meaningful and consider them unfair to the Chinese. For one thing, Ugandan Asians included operators of village-level Mum-and-Dad shops, while China’s Zambian investment is spearheaded by government policy and involves larger-scale mining companies.

Oil is an attraction for China in Sudan as well. China is the country’s main trading partner and number-one oil buyer. Sudan, in turn, imports Chinese armaments and a range of consumer goods. Chinese money fuelled a construction boom in the capital, Khartoum, and China has made soft loans to Sudan. While President Omar Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, the risk of arrest hasn’t kept him from visiting China, South Africa and several other countries.

China is also active in Sudan’s neighbour and Africa’s newest nation, South Sudan, despite that country’s prickly relations with Sudan (of which it was formerly part). China has given oil-producing South Sudan a grant of more than US$30 million for humanitarian projects and US$43 million to develop its mining industry. The Asian giant is also building a hospital, is involved in diverse projects, has made soft loans and is poised to become a major customer for South Sudan’s oil.

Availability of oil and minerals is set to propel China towards even deeper involvement in Africa, which may be deemed a forgotten continent in some quarters but certainly not in Beijing’s corridors of power. African countries, in turn, are unlikely to pull the welcome mat from under Chinese feet because it’s not in their economic interest to do so.

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