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.
Across Africa, meanwhile, Chinese companies have outbid other foreign firms on construction projects, winning contracts to pave highways, build hydroelectric dams, upgrade ports, lay railway tracks and build pipelines -- all of which stand to help Chinese companies more effectively transport African resources.
Chinese companies have developed a reputation for going where others won't because of political, environmental or ethical concerns, or because profit margins are too slim. State-owned companies in China, analysts say, have the ability to forgo short-term profits in pursuit of the government's long-term strategic interests.
Infrastructure improvements often are explicitly traded for raw material contracts. In Angola, where the government has done little to alleviate poverty or stimulate democracy since the end of a devastating civil war in 2002, China has promised $2 billion in aid as part of a deal for oil rights. Human rights activists say that influx of cash has stiffened the government's resolve against outside pressure -- mostly from the West -- to reform.
Countries that sign deals with Chinese companies also win diplomatic protection. China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has threatened to use its veto power to block sanctions against Sudan, which U.S. officials and others accuse of committing genocide in its Darfur region. China also resisted efforts by the United Nations to investigate and punish Mugabe for a "clean-up campaign" last year in which police destroyed slums and markets, depriving 700,000 Zimbabweans of either their homes or their jobs.
China has been a significant supplier of jet fighters, military vehicles and guns to Zimbabwe, Sudan and other repressive governments.
"Wherever there are resources, the Chinese are going to go there," said Peter Takirambudde, head of the Africa division for Human Rights Watch. "They see no evil. They hear no evil. That's very bad for Africans."
The Chinese influx does have benefits to African economies. Commodities used in manufacturing, such as oil, copper and platinum, are surging because of demand from China and other Asian nations. Copper prices have increased sixfold since a 2001 low, topping $8,000 per ton in some recent trading. Platinum prices have tripled over that time.
The availability of Chinese motorcycles, air conditioners, T-shirts and kitchen utensils has meant lower prices for consumers across the continent. In South Africa, two companies are planning to introduce Chinese automobiles to the bustling domestic market at discount prices.
Even the blue glazed tiles on top of Mugabe's newest presidential palace, north of the Zimbabwean capital of Harare, are from China, according to news reports.
But the payoff to ordinary Africans -- especially those who are poor or unemployed -- is mixed.
In South Africa and Lesotho, low-cost Chinese imports have been blamed for tens of thousands of layoffs in the textile industry. And as the rates of economic growth have climbed, Africans have reported that both their national economies and the financial conditions of individuals seem to have stagnated, according to Afrobarometer, a polling project that has sampled public opinion in 12 sub-Saharan countries since 2000.
In the latest numbers, released last month, only 27 percent of those polled expressed satisfaction with their own finances, a drop from 31 percent in 2000. The sharpest decline was in Nigeria, where upbeat ratings of personal finances fell from 68 percent in 2000 to 45 percent. The decline came despite surging oil profits there and growing trade with China.
Other factors, including political turmoil, likely are affecting views of economic circumstances, but Nigerians also complain that growing ties with Chinese businesses have come without major new investments in manufacturing.
Even supporters of expanded ties between Africa and China express concern. "They are selling. They are trading. They are not producing locally," said Victor N. Chibundu, a former Nigerian ambassador to China who is now chairman of the Nigeria-China Friendship Association, based in Lagos.
In that way, analysts say, burgeoning Chinese business interests are following a pattern long established in Africa: Foreign powers treat the continent mainly as a source of raw materials and a market for finished goods.
Those with money to spend benefit from the cheaper, more abundant products, but most of the jobs are created elsewhere, in factories thousands of miles away.
"There's no question that for upper classes, it's a boon," said Neva Seidman Makgetla, an economist for the Congress of South African Trade Unions, speaking from Pretoria. "The problem is any lower-class South Africans would rather have a job."