Growing Unease at China’s Role in Africa

Heavy investment by China in Zimbabwe, recently reported in The Guardian, may now be derailed by reservations on the part of the Zimbabwean government. Finance Minister Tendai Biti is said to have been angered by China’s attempts to secure the rights to platinum deposits valued at $40 billion for a mere $3 billion. From The Zimbabwe Mail:

“The problem here is that China, the world’s second largest economy, thinks it get can railroad Zimbabwe into this deal because it is bankrupt, flat broke and desperate,” a senior government minister said.

“However, this deal is so dodgy and scandalously unfair that it eventually amounts to a major rip-off.”

A senior Asian diplomat told the Sunday Times on Friday that Biti, who has confirmed talks were on about the deal, was angry with the Chinese for trying to grab its . The diplomat said the minister considers the Chinese offer as a “grave raw deal”.

“After the Export-Import Bank of China (China Eximbank) recently offered Zimbabwe the $3-billion financial package, Biti was expected to travel soon to Beijing to finalise the deal with authorities there. Discussions have been going on for a while now, but Zimbabwe is very unhappy with China over this issue,” the diplomat said.

“Now we hear that Biti is not going to China because he feels the transaction is a fraud. He thinks the Chinese want to rip-off Zimbabwe because they know the country is broke and would not in their view refuse that amount of money. Biti is really disturbed and troubled by the deal. He thinks it’s a scam.”

Biti’s fear that the deal with China is too one-sided reflects a wider unease. Sanou Mbaye, a Senegalese development consultant formerly at the African Development Bank, writes that “Africa will not put up with a colonialist China”:

Astutely, China has sought to place its African investments and within the context of the old non-aligned movement and “Bandung spirit”, an era when many Africans viewed China as a brotherly oppressed nation, and thus supported efforts by the People’s Republic to gain a permanent seat on the United Nations security council, to replace Taiwan. And, of course, China offered firm backing for Africa’s anticolonial struggles and efforts to end apartheid.

In trying to depict its current dealings with Africa as “win-win” co-operation, China deliberately seeks to portray Africa’s current relations with the west as exploitative. Unlike China, its leaders claim, the west continues to hold African countries hostage through a combination of unequal trade deals, lack of access to capital markets, aid dependency, financial deregulation and economic liberalisation, budget austerity, crippling debt, political meddling and military intervention.

What the Chinese are silent about is that their country’s growing engagement in Africa has created both opportunities and risks for African development. Although China’s trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), and aid may broaden Africa’s growth options, they also promote what can only be called a win-lose situation. For, excluding oil, Africa has a negative trade balance with China.

Mbaye goes on to express concern at the large-scale influx of Chinese workers to Africa. Another recent article at The Guardian includes interviews with some of the million Chinese who have moved there over the last ten years.

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