Chinese colonialism?

People working at an assembly line at the Huajian shoe factory in Dukem, Ethiopia China has fast become Africa's largest trading partner, with varied investments

Is China becoming Africa's new colonial master? Is Beijing sucking away resources to drive its own economic growth, while offering little in return?

Or is such talk the product of fear and envy? Is it a sign of Western anxieties, that China is fast becoming the new power in Africa, building more equal relationships, and undermining Western influence on the continent?

China is certainly a real force in Africa. Just look at the clutch of presidents and the officials from many more parts of Africa who have made the long trek to Beijing this week for the China-Africa Co-operation Forum.

The visitors certainly have incentives to be here. They are being showered with attention, feted at banquets and tantalised with the prospect of preferential loan deals.

Start Quote

We should have a fertilizer manufacturing plant here instead of importing the product from China which causes delays and poor harvests”

End Quote Raila Odinga Kenyan prime minister

Neo-colonialist charge

But China is extremely sensitive to the charge it's a neo-colonialist power and is trying hard to refute it.

Ahead of the forum the People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party's main mouthpiece, warned that "a trickle of critics... have struck a chord of dissonance, warning of the 'new colonialism' looming on the continent in a veiled swipe at Beijing's efforts to forge closer ties with Africa".

The opinion piece, from the official Xinhua news agency which echoes official opinion, said the charge was "biased and ill-grounded", the relationship is based on "equality and mutual benefit... fact is more convincing than rhetoric".

"Africa's exports of crude oil, minerals, steel and agricultural products have played an active role in lifting the Chinese people's livelihood. Meanwhile, the continent also serves as an indispensable market with great potential for Chinese products," it explained.

"China also provides Africa with much-needed products and technologies, and a vast market for its commodities," said Xinhua. "What's more, Beijing focused on helping build the continent's productive capacity by improving its infrastructure and boosting the manufacturing sector, rather than involving the so-called "resource-grabbing practice".

President Hu Jintao picked up the theme at the forum, repeatedly calling this "a new type of China-Africa strategic partnership".

He said "the Chinese and African peoples have always treated each other as equals... we will... forever be a good friend, good partner and good brother of the African people".

Chinese President Hu Jintao (R) with South African President Jacob Zuma China has pledged $20bn (£12.8bn) in credit for Africa over the next three years

He, too, had a barrage of facts to show China is bringing benefits to Africa. "China has built over 100 schools, 30 hospitals, 30 anti-malaria centres and 20 agricultural technology demonstration centres in Africa. It has met the pledge of providing $15bn [£9.58bn] of lending of a preferential nature to Africa....China has trained close to 40,000 African personnel...and provided over 20,000 government scholarships" said China's president.

Media barrage

China's commerce minister even got poetic, penning an article in the China Daily highlighting the way China is investing in Africa, not just stripping resources from it.

"In Malawi, a landlocked African country, rows of cotton cultivated by local farmers with instruction from Chinese experts are budding; in Ethiopia, a shoe factory built with investment from the China-Africa Development Fund is teeming with local workers; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a hydropower station financed by credit from China has just been inaugurated," wrote Chen Deming.

He went on: "In Yiwu, a city in East China, Chinese customers are selecting South African wine at the Exhibition Centre for African Products; at the New Port of Tianjin, a cargo ship loaded with fruit and textile products from Benin is preparing for tariff exemption procedures to enter the Chinese market. These are the encouraging scenes unfolding before us."

At the forum itself, China has promised $20bn of new loans, reduced tariffs on African imports and help for Africa's development. All of this is designed to show that China is different from colonial powers.

The English-language mouthpiece, the China Daily, gave space to Sehlare Makgetlaneng from the Africa Institute in Pretoria, South Africa, who wrote: "The West's claim that China's relationship with Africa is neo-colonialism... results from the fear its strategic interests will be harmed as a result of structural changes in African countries and China's growing presence on the continent."

A Chinese worker fixes pipes at a construction site in Khartoum, Sudan A number of Chinese companies bring in their own people to Africa

Despite this media barrage, though, there are still concerns in many parts of Africa that this is not an equal exchange, concerns that the investment deals are opaque and open to corruption, that Chinese infrastructure projects often import Chinese labour rather than developing local skills, that Chinese firms may exploit local workers, that cheap Chinese products undermine Africa's ability to build it's own industries, that for all the new roads, railways and ports, this is not a mutually beneficial relationship.

Winning over doubters?

Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga is at the forum. He will be signing deals for new power plants and roads. But before he left Kenya, the PM Press Service said he wanted to talk to China's leaders about areas where trade has "not worked well."

"We import a lot of manufactured equipment like tractors, ploughs and harvesters. I feel that we should by now be having a tractor manufacturing plant here in Kenya. There is no reason why we should be importing tractors from China year in year out. These are some of the things we want to engage the Chinese on," Mr Odinga was quoted as saying.

"We should have a fertilizer manufacturing plant here instead of importing the product from China which causes delays and poor harvests," he added.

And that may be the key for China, if it can invest more in African factories and businesses, not just infrastructure and buildings, if it can create more jobs in Africa rather than export more Chinese-made products to the continent, if Kenya gets a tractor factory and a fertilizer plant, China may win over many of the doubters.

Damian Grammaticas, China correspondent Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I cannot understand why anti-African racist posts are allowed in this thread. These racist deadbeats seem to protrude from their dens when colonialism and Africa is the agenda.
    Moderators (if any) do your job, will you?

  • Comment number 55.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    All empires begin as commercial enterprises, like the East India Company.

    It's followed by company rule, government intervention, exploitation and rebellion, then attempts to appease/suppress that turn the cash cow into a ball and chain, dragging down the originally powerful country.

    If China thinks "this time it'll be different" then they are as stupid as we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Africa needs to start believing in itself, and take a lesson from China and India. In China and India foriegn ownership of key industries and companies is restricted (in most cases to 50% and in some cases 25%). While short term growth will be slower, in the long term it empowers local people, and the growth is more sustainable - as seen in the two countries. Unfortunately few African countries are brave enough to go down this route.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    China wake up and smell the green tea, they won't be nice to you in the future, just look at Burma for the western blind side.

    Africa will be ungrateful and will be back at their old master's feet at the end of the day, ones the money is free flowing like beer again.

    They will not be your bros when the tides change.

    Buy insurance China, be on your toes and see what they did to SA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    What "if Kenya gets a tractor factory and a fertilizer plant" from the west 200 years ago?

    China won't need to do that in the next 5 years and what's the rush now.

    Didn't know the Africans want to be working slaves like the Chinese.

    That's nice to hear and good if they want a turn at it, gives the Chinese some free time to spend their money in the US and Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    As a chinese university student, I think it is a win-win solutions. albeit what we gave to Africa wasn't desirable enough, I think the that exchange or aid is benificial for the bilateral relationship and african people.

    However,Chinese autocracy always hold the viewpoint that such exchange is aid for impoverish and persistent afican brother, which will demolish the exchange and friendeship from Africa.

    There is countless vulnerable point in worrisome Comunist Party and China. We need some time to overcome difficulties and amend the deficiency.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    In the next 100 year we will see big changes The West will become energy self-sufficient . look to projected US Fracking Tech.. New Technologies will enable many materials to be Bio-Constructed. & for example good piece in on the BBC last week U.K. no produces 60 % of its own foodstuffs & increasing .. I wonder where this rule the West nonsense will be then ? back to the camels i am afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    If Africa was smart and grew some brains they would make rare earth their own and rule the world but they are not.

    Don't wait for China to help and don't look to the west for orders, just do it.

    Dare Africa to make rare earth and rule the west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Or maybe we'll end up with a China like this one

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Bad for China to send their money there, a black hole of a money pit.

    Africa will never do what is right for its people, they have no goal in life for the last 20,000 years.

    This will pull China down and they will take over China, just look at the US.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Western governments always talk about press freedom. Nowadays, more and more Asians understand that in fact, waster media is just these governments weapons. BBC, CNN and others are actually these Western governments mouthpiece.Whatever they post about China can only be negative.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    China in the 21st century reminds me of Britain in the Victorian Era.. y'know, gunboat diplomacy (Spratly Islands standoff 2012), stripping another continent's resources for their own (Africa), unfair control over natural resources (rare earth metal exports). Looks good for the rest of us(!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    yes the us did steal its land from the natives and then exported theyre belives of human rights to the west because of it's increased influence in europe after the first and second world war. what china is doing in africa is called capitalism. china is a communist state in its own borders and capitalism abroad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The US stole that country from the native Indians, before then wiping them out as part of a programme of ethnic cleansing. How, in a hundred million years, dare they talk about human rights, freedom etc?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    38.China Digest
    I'd tend to agree that this is exploitation of already poor conditions - Not colonialism. I wouldn't use the infrastructure argument, however... That tends to not hold much water with natives in a country. Just look at Britain and see why...

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    There is no good coming from China here in Africa, minerals are looted in their raw state and revenue doesn't even reach the Gov. coffers, local workers are underpaid and worked long hours, look at what happened at the Zambian mines where workers revolted, take this as a first hand account, don't believe economical pledges on TV

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Mr. Grammaticas, I think maybe you need to go back to high school to learn what the term colonialism means under the British Empire before you decided to use such word to question Chinese role in Africa now. Are there signs posted in public parks stating "No dogs or Africans are allowed" in some African countries today? I DON'T THINK SO! But surely there were public spaces that forbid local Chinese people and dogs to enter during a period of British occupation in several Chinese cities! I also feel most if not all of your "correspondences" about China were very boring and lack substances!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I think it is going way too far to call China's affairs in Africa "colonialism". There may well be exploitation - for example of low paid African workers - but this isn't necessarily wholly down to the Chinese.

    Too many comments on here overlook the fact that much infrastructural investment is being made in Africa. Are there too many schools, power stations, tarmacked roads, bridges etc already in Africa? Somehow I don't think so.

    One thing I'd like clarified - is Raila Odinga asking for China to "donate" a tractor manufacturing plant? Why can't/don't they build their own? Show initiative!

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I find it hard to believe we have people sticking up for China here. A nation who thinks nothing of suppressing its population, grabbing land and evicting farmers and peasants with little or no compensation. Of instant jail if you dare to criticize the government. Mass corruption and a high level 'clique' that knows no bounds.

    Guess it's just 'trendy' to be against what we should stand for.

    I consider myself fairly liberal, but those who are singing China's praises and slagging off our own...why not live there?


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