In Africa, China Trade Brings Growth, Unease

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

JOHANNESBURG -- Every time newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube visits his native Zimbabwe, he said, there seem to be more Chinese. He sees them shopping at boutiques, driving fancy cars, picking up their children from elite private schools.

And as in much of Africa, Ncube said, China's reach into Zimbabwe's economy is equally pervasive: The roads are filled with Chinese buses, the markets with Chinese goods, and Chinese-made planes are in the skies. Chinese companies are major investors in mining and telecommunications. The government in Beijing, meanwhile, is a crucial backer of Zimbabwe's authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe.

"They are all over the place," said Ncube, 43, who owns newspapers in Zimbabwe and South Africa. "If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place."

Such unease appears to be rising across Africa as Chinese become powerful players -- and, in some places, the dominant ones -- in economies across the continent. In a pattern replicated across the world, China's voracious appetite for raw materials is helping push sub-Saharan economies to their fastest growth in three decades, and inexpensive Chinese-made products are suddenly available across the continent. Yet many Africans say the influx, while offering consumers more affordable goods, has not improved their economic situation and has hurt local companies.

African and Western activists say China's increasingly close ties to the troubled governments in Angola, Nigeria, Sudan and Zimbabwe are undermining efforts to nurture democracy and improve human rights.

When Chinese President Hu Jintao toured Africa in April, he implicitly responded to concerns about his country's growing role on the continent.

"China's development will not bring a threat to anyone but, instead, will only bring more opportunities and space for development to the world," Hu told the Nigerian National Assembly, according to news reports.

He also reiterated China's policy of making business deals without any expectation that governments will improve democracy, respect human rights or fight corruption. He told reporters in Nairobi, the last stop of his tour, that China follows "a policy of noninterference in other countries' internal affairs."

China's overall trade with Africa rose from $10.6 billion in 2000 to $40 billion last year and continues to increase, according to Chinese government statistics. Sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth rate, meanwhile, has nearly doubled over the same period, from 3 percent to an estimated 5.8 percent this year, the best since 1974, according to the International Monetary Fund. Among the major factors, analysts and economists say, is the increasing trade with China.

"Those places that are energy-rich and mineral-rich are awash in cash," said J. Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, speaking from his office in Washington. "And that is driven in part by these new, rapid-growth Asian economies."

China has spent billions of dollars securing drilling rights in Nigeria, Sudan and Angola, and has exploration or extraction deals with Chad, Gabon, Mauritania, Kenya, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia.

The Chinese also have become investors in the booming copper industry in Zambia and Congo. They have been major buyers of timber in Gabon, Cameroon, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia. Chinese companies were widely criticized for keeping former president and war crimes suspect Charles Taylor flush with cash and prolonging Liberia's devastating civil war. The Chinese also have helped push up the prices of other African exports such as platinum, iron and coal.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company