Into Africa: China’s Wild Rush

Copyright The New York Times

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NAIROBI, Kenya — For nearly a decade, as China made a historic push for business opportunities and expanded influence in Africa, most of the continent’s leaders were so thrilled at having a deep-pocketed partner willing to make big investments and start huge new projects that they rarely paused to consider whether they were getting a sound deal.

China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but as Africans are beginning to fully recognize, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife. As a consequence, China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more skeptical phase.

The doubts aren’t coming from any soured feelings from African leaders themselves, most of whom still welcome (and profit from) China’s embrace. The new skepticism has even less to do with the hectoring of Western governments, the traditional source of Africa’s foreign aid and investment (and interference). In a 2012 speech in Senegal, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then secretary of state, implicitly warned Africa about China. The continent needs “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it,” she said, adding that unlike other countries, “America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing.”

Some Africans found Mrs. Clinton’s remarks patronizing. What’s most remarkable, however, is how passé this now seems, given skepticism about China from Africa’s own increasingly vibrant civil society, which is demanding to know what China’s billions of dollars in infrastructure building, mineral extraction and land acquisition mean for the daily lives and political rights of ordinary Africans.

This represents a tricky and unfamiliar challenge for China’s authoritarian system, whose foreign policy has always focused heavily on state-to-state relations. China’s leaders demonstrate little appreciation of the yawning gulfs that separate African people from their rulers, even in newly democratic countries. Beijing is constitutionally uneasy about dealing with independent actors like advocacy groups, labor unions and independent journalists.

After a decade of bland talk about “win-win” partnerships, China seems finally aware that it needs to improve both the style and substance of its push into Africa. Last week, at the start of a four-country African trip, Prime Minister Li Keqiang acknowledged “growing pains” in the relationship, and the need to “assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did, or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa.”

This language came in belated response to a sea change that arguably began with an op-ed essay last year in The Financial Times by Lamido Sanusi, who was recently suspended as Nigeria’s central bank governor. He wrote: “In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labor imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

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1 thought on “Into Africa: China’s Wild Rush”

  1. I enjoyed your latest book and I hope to read more of your work in the future. Do you have any reading materials on Africa and china that you would recommend?

    Thanks!

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