Ian Birrell: This massive invasion will benefit the continent

Now Beijing is even hoping Africa can help feed the growing Chinese population
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The Independent Online

Each week, the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellensbosch University in South Africa issues an update on China's activities in Africa. The latest issue is typical: one company has finished a bridge in Angola, another is building an agricultural research centre in Mozambique, and direct investment in the first six months of the year stood at £345m, nearly twice that of the same period last year.

The bulletin highlights the pace of China's scramble for Africa, arguably the most important geo-political change since the fall of the Berlin wall. When the Chinese turned to Africa in 1996 to provide the raw materials to fuel their astonishing growth, trade between the two was worth a paltry £3.5bn. Last year it stood at £66bn, with hundreds of Chinese companies operating on the continent. India, South Korea and other Asian countries are following in their wake.

The focus is on the resources that should have made Africa rich: oil from Angola, gas from Nigeria, copper from Zambia, cobalt from the Congo. Beijing is even hoping Africa can help feed the growing Chinese population, buying up precious agricultural land and investing in research projects. In Mozambique, for example, China has offered £500m to modernise farming infrastructure, together with financing a canal and sending over more than 100 agricultural experts to help improve crop yields.

The Chinese are not just plundering Africa's natural resources. They have built roads, railways, schools and stadiums. Shops are filled with Chinese-made goods; look closely and you will find that even some traditional African fabrics on sale in the markets are made in China. You will also notice a lack of Western goods on sale.

With this relationship comes political, diplomatic and strategic power, strengthening China's hand in foreign policy and on international bodies – the 53 nations in Africa comprise more than a quarter of the UN General Assembly.

China's policy of ignoring human rights issues has led it into deals with some of the more unsavoury figures on the continent. Many view it as a malign influence, propping up Robert Mugabe and, for a long time, refusing to put pressure on Sudan over Darfur. The loathsome offer to the Guinea junta will underline such fears.

There are other problems with the Chinese invasion. Some are minor: visiting Mali three years ago, a new electronic scoreboard in Bamako's football stadium was on display. Unfortunately, it was out of order since the Chinese contractors had returned home and the instructions were in Mandarin.

Others are more serious. Cheap Chinese goods are stifling African markets. And many Chinese companies win contracts by paying low wages, bribing officials and ignoring environmental concerns. Some deals insist that the majority of work goes to Chinese companies or that a majority of the workforce is Chinese, hindering development and angering residents who see much-needed jobs go to immigrants. Resentment is growing to such an extent in some areas that politicians have campaigned on anti-Chinese sentiment.

For all these justified concerns, however, the Chinese are ultimately benefiting Africa. They are offering vital competition to Western companies and finance for African nations. Their insatiable demand for raw materials has forced prices up, meaning more money flows into the continent. And, most importantly, they are ensuring the rapid development of infrastructure, something that is desperately needed and has been ignored for decades by the West.

The West must be wary of hypocrisy, given its own record. In recent weeks we have seen one British company involved in a massive bribery case in Tanzania and another accused of dumping toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. And, of course, Western nations are not immune to propping up their own favoured despots.

Instead, we should push for greater transparency to eliminate corruption and tighter regulations to protect the environment. But it is little wonder that Paul Kagame, the dynamic President of Rwanda, defended China this week. "The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies," he said. "I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid."

i.birrell@independent.co.uk

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