The Chinese invasion of Africa is, for many people, a simple morality tale with an obvious villain. For the past decade, Beijing has poured money into the continent, doing deals with despots, dictators and democrats alike in its quest to plunder natural resources to fuel relentless growth. Human rights concerns are brushed aside, the environment wrecked, local businesses crushed, and corruption is endemic. And in the process China has propped up some of the world's most loathsome regimes and fanned some of the bloodiest conflicts.
This is the picture of rampant neo-colonialism taken as gospel by many in the West. But the truth is rather different, which explains why some of Africa's more visionary leaders embrace the Chinese advances. Now comes a timely book by American academic Deborah Brautigam, an observer of Africa and Asia for three decades, which uses personal experiences combined with powerful research to puncture myths and fears that cloud understanding of one of the most important geopolitical shifts since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Take Angola, which as Brautigam writes is one of the prime exhibits in the chorus of condemnation against China. Cursed with natural resources, it was crippled for more than 40 years as a proxy battleground for the Cold War, emerging with wrecked infrastructure, huge debts and a deeply corrupt government. The International Monetary Fund demanded that it clean up its act and start accounting for swelling oil revenues, when the Chinese supposedly muscled in with a massive no-strings-attached aid deal, defeating the fight for transparency and provoking international outrage.
The reality is more prosaic. China offered a low-interest loan, not aid, with payment guaranteed from oil revenues. And the money had to be spent rebuilding a shattered nation that had seen 300 bridges bombed and fields littered with landmines. It was a risky deal, but it offered hope that some of Angola's riches might be translated into development for the first time.
Sure enough, roads were rebuilt and schools erected. Meanwhile, Western banks gave loans without demanding transparency, charged higher interest rates and even exported Angolan oil, ensuring that cash continued to flow into politicians' coffers.
The Chinese involvement in Angola counters claims they are just plundering Africa's wealth, only building infrastructure in order to ferry out natural resources. Angola's oil is deep offshore, but China has built hospitals, schools, irrigation systems and roads inland. Indeed, unlike Western donors, who tend to have their favoured nations, China has given aid to every country in sub-Saharan Africa - except those nations supporting Taiwan, with whom it has engaged in something of a bidding war across the continent.
The case of Angola demonstrates two themes that emerge clearly from this important book. First, the endless hypocrisy of the West as it watches the long march of the Chinese through Africa. The critics, often woefully ill-informed, ignore the West's own history of exploitation, encouraging corruption and supporting unsavoury regimes. Even after 60 years of Western aid, there remains a reluctance to accept its failure to promote development or tackle poverty.
Secondly, there is fascinating insight into the way China methodically evolves its policies, moulding them to experiences, listening to criticism and never scared to experiment in the pursuit of its long-term goals. As Deng Xiaoping said in his dig at Mao's great leap, if you are crossing a river it is best to keep your feet on the bottom and feel the stones.
Brautigam says the Chinese strategy, based upon models tested at home during its own phenomenal growth, was designed to meet three challenges. First, to tap into Africa's natural wealth since Chinese growth was outpacing its own resources. Second, to reassure other developing nations that while China was a rising power, it was a responsible power – while also heading off the challenge of Taiwan. And third, to create new markets for its fledgling multinational companies.
The template was set with the first involvement in Africa, which came in Guinea after the French were told to leave in 1959. An interest-free loan led to the building of factories, paddy fields, a plantation, a cinema and a conference centre. Seven years later, there were an estimated 3,000 Chinese aid workers, including 34 medical experts. Unlike Western aid workers, they live in similar style to the locals. "How can you reduce poverty but live in a five-star hotel?" asks one Chinese expert pointedly.
By the late 1980s, as Western companies pulled out of what was being branded as "the failed continent" and aid for infrastructure dried up, Beijing saw only a land of opportunity. The West failed to notice the Chinese teams managing state-owned factories, building bridges and repairing irrigation systems. Markets across the continent began selling textiles and metal bowls made in China. Their methods were rigorous. When Liberia asked China to rehabilitate a sugar-cane factory and plantation, it expected a rapid and positive response. Instead, a 50-man unit was sent over for a feasibility study, concluding that the project would need an annual £2m subsidy and telling Liberia to find better projects.
Over the past decade, the links between China and Africa have solidified, with considerable political capital invested on both sides. But with perhaps 750,000 Chinese moving to Africa in this time, tensions have grown, with local politicians whipping up resentment.
Some concerns are justified – there is clear evidence of Chinese companies importing the low standards common in their homeland, of violating minimum wage laws and destroying the environment. And even this author has qualms over Chinese firms taking over large tracts of agricultural land, although she is too forgiving of China in other areas, such as its support for Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
Others concerns are less clear-cut: for example, she points to research in Ethiopia which found that, following trade liberalisation, Chinese firms seized 80 per cent of the shoe market and put local firms out of business. Several years later, however, the leather sector was booming and surviving shoe firms had sharpened up and were competing effectively.
Brautigam also makes a strong case that, while there are worries over the number of Chinese working in Africa, especially at more senior levels, Chinese staff levels decrease over time and local employment is boosted.
The author concludes that China's embrace of Africa is strategic, long-term and still evolving – and that it is up to Africa's leaders to shape the relationship to serve their own ends. The West, she says, should admit the shortcomings of its own approach and learn from the way the Chinese use investment, trade and technology as levers for development. There is little doubt that while the dragon's gifts are cloaked in ambiguity, we would do well to stop believing in myths and start engaging with the reality of a rapidly-changing world order.
Testbed for Chinese influence: Angola
Angola, a focus for Chinese investment in Africa, was subject to Portuguese power after the 16th-century founding of Luanda (left). It became a Portuguese colony from 1655 and an overseas province from 1951. Anti-colonial insurgency began in 1961, and independence came in 1975. But almost 30 years of sporadic civil war between the ruling MPLA and its UNITA-FNLA rivals killed more than a million and displaced a third of the population. It ended with rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's death in 2002.