The ambition, speed and scale of Chinese involvement in Africa is extraordinary. According to Chris Alden, author of China in Africa, two-way trade stood at $10 billion in 2000. By 2006, it was $55 billion, and in 2009 it hit $90 billion, making China Africa’s single largest trading partner, supplanting the U.S., which did $86 billion in trade with Africa in 2009. Today the Chinese are pumping oil from Sudan to Angola, logging from Liberia to Gabon, mining from Zambia to Ghana and farming from Kenya to Zimbabwe. Chinese contractors are building roads from Equatorial Guinea to Ethiopia, dams from the Congo to the Nile, and hospitals and schools, sports stadiums and presidential palaces across the continent. They are buying too. Acquisitions range from a $5.5 billion stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank to a $14 million investment in a mobile-phone company in Somalia. (See one of the most ambitious public-works programs in China.)
Beijing insists it is a partner in Africa’s development, delivering investment and gaining a new market for its products and new access to resources. Western businesses say China is on a resource grab. They worry that it is playing unfairly, undercutting them by paying low wages and skirting standards on safety, the environment and human rights, and coordinating commerce, assistance and diplomacy in ways impossible, not to say illegal, in the West. The truth is somewhere in between. To the extent that China is using Africa as an experiment — to try out ideas of how it might be in the world — its African adventure is worthy of close study. To do that, we must answer two questions: How is China changing Africa? And how is Africa changing China?