But analysts warn that the reluctance of leaders to challenge their benefactor comes at a high price.
African leaders cheered when Chinese polit-buro chief Jia Qinglin inaugurated the African Union’s headquarters, paid for by China, in Addis Abba this year. There was no inkling of unease at receiving such a generous gift.
But in the corridors some wondered about the symbolic significance of the $200-million headquarters and the way African leaders seemed to embrace China’s aggressive investment and trade in Africa. “Gifts are general not innocent”, said Professor Bola Akinterinwa, director general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.
Last week President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the fifth Forum for China-Africa Co-operation, created some stir when he described the unequal trade relations between Africa and China, characterised by “the supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer”, as “unsustainable”.
“Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other countries,” he said.
China’s trade with African countries reached $160-billion last year, a thirteen-fold increase in the past decade, and investment is said to be up to $15-billion. Although the volumes favour Africa because of the export of large amounts of raw materials, the value of Chinese manufactured goods far outstrip that of African exports.
At the summit, Chinese president Hu Jintao said China would provide an additional $20-billion of credit to African countries.
Following Zuma’s remarks, some are asking whether this is an indication of a shift of thinking by African leaders.
Daouda Cisse, from the centre for Chinese studies at Stellenbosch University, said Zuma’s statement was welcomed by academics and civil society members, who had been raising concerns about Sino-African relations for some time.
“Africa does not need foreign investment for its economic growth,” Cisse said. “The volume of trade and investments in Sino-Africa relations will not change a lot in the fourth-coming years.
The only way change can take place is if Africa can diversify its exports to move away from raw materials to include, for example, processed goods, manufactured products and services.
China would also need to take sustainable development into account in the countries where it had a presence, Cisse said.
In Zambia, as elsewhere, one of the major gripes about the Chinese is the large number of unskilled labourers brought in to work on the mines and construction sites.
The generous aid and grants, dished out from Ethiopia to Angola, are also not bound to political conditions but tied to the use of Chinese companies, equipment and contract workers.
“China has either low or undeveloped environmental, health and safety standards in several sectors, even within China (for example in mining), and the use of Chinese companies and contract workers for a majority of Chinese aid, trade and investment projects in Ethiopia has the effect of transferring these weaknesses to Ethiopia, because regulation is weak in Ethiopia,” the African Forum on Debt and Development states in its 2011 report.
China is aware of the feeling among Africans that it is on the continent merely to take out raw materials and inundate the informal markets with cheap goods.
To boost its image and increase its soft power in Africa, China is greatly increasing its media presence.
But, as power shifts from West to East and some predict Shangai will soon replace London and New York as the world’s financial capital, African leaders can ill afford to be seen anti-Chinese.
Mail & Guardian July 27 to August 2 2012