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Patron Saints of Africa

By Michela Wrong
Sunday, August 16, 2009

CHINA SAFARI

On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africa

By Serge Michel and Michel Beuret

Translated from the French by Raymond Valley

Nation. 306 pp. $27.50

In 1994, when I lived in the chaotic African country then known as Zaire, I regularly drove past a magnificent sports stadium that loomed over downtown Kinshasa. Built by the Chinese in a gesture of friendship to President Mobutu Sese Seko, it sat empty for nearly a year. The Chinese had left it to their hosts to provide the finishing touch, a road giving access to the site. The Zairians had failed to deliver, so the stadium stood idle.

That memory was revived as I read "China Safari," an exploration of China's galloping involvement in Africa. Beijing, which once confined itself to grandiose yet largely symbolic African projects, has become one of the continent's most aggressive investors. Bilateral trade quintupled between 2000 and 2006. China has already replaced Britain as the continent's third largest business partner and more than half a million Chinese are estimated to be living in Africa.

It's easy to see what the Chinese -- hungry for oil, timber, uranium and other minerals lacking at home -- get from the arrangement. The question is whether ordinary Africans will draw lasting benefit from this new association, or suffer as their leaders repeat the mistakes of the Cold War and colonial era, when they were routinely outmaneuvered by foreign partners with a similar lust for the continent's resources.

Accompanied by photographer Paolo Woods, Swiss journalists Serge Michel and Michel Beuret put in extensive legwork trying to provide an answer. Frustrated by the empty rhetoric of the 2006 China-Africa summit attended by 48 African nations, they spent nearly two years talking to those lower down the food chain: Chinese loggers in Congo-Brazzaville, ditch-diggers in Angola, curio sellers in Egypt. The result is a work whose style may occasionally come across as peculiarly baroque -- the translator stumbles when attempting to convey the irony of the original -- but whose message is clear: Africa has much to gain but needs to be on guard.

China's sales pitch, stubbornly trumpeted despite its insincerity, is that it refuses to preach, impose conditions or interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations. In stark contrast with Africa's former partners, the line goes, China is only interested in trade.

The authors skewer that claim. If the Chinese refuse to acknowledge the political ramifications of their growing economic presence, the locals will make that link for them. In Niger, Chinese working the uranium mines are being kidnapped by Tuareg rebels, in Ethiopia's Ogaden oil fields Chinese have been attacked by separatists, and in Zambia's copper belt miners have revolted against Chinese bosses refusing to recognize the union.

One of the most worrying elements to emerge from these pages is a consistent lack of transparency in all these Chinese ventures. "Not a single Chinese official in the region would agree to meet us," the authors write. Their requests for interviews with African officials and Chinese managers were routinely ignored, access to work sites barred and information on contractual terms withheld.

Domestic parliamentarians have been similarly stymied, unable to uncover even basic details of projects they were promised would transform their countries. None of this bodes well on a continent where top-level sleaze and capital flight have already leached away billions of dollars earmarked for development. Opaque, unscrutinized contracts threaten more of the same.

Michel and Beuret are admirably even-handed, unsparing in their attacks on the cynical agendas and sad outcomes of past French, British or U.S. intervention. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seven-nation tour of the continent last week underscores that the United States remains engaged.) But Michel and Beuret hold out hope for this brash, colossal Chinese experiment. "If nothing checks China's momentum, its infrastructure work alone will help unify the continent," they write, pointing to planned construction of a coast-to-coast railroad, electricity and water networks and an oil pipeline. China's arrival, they conclude, has been an unexpected boon to a region forgotten by the rest of the world.

But the lesson of that Kinshasa stadium is that the gift of massive infrastructure, while important, is not enough on its own. For Africa to seize the historic chance presented by China's involvement, the continent's leaders must get their own house in order. Ministers should open the books to their own parliaments and ensure that their new partners employ Africans, pass on vital skills and respect local labor and environmental laws. If this once-in-a-century opportunity is wasted, it is they, and not the Chinese, who will rightly bear the blame.

Michela Wrong writes on Africa. Her third book, "It's Our Turn to Eat. The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower" was published in June.

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