Tuesday, November 07, 2006

China & Africa: a new bride or merely a concubine ?

If the ability to halt Chinese construction work is any indicator of a big thing going on, then the Chinese - African summit held last weekend must have been a major gig. Which of course it was. The biggest diplomatic top meeting ever organized by the PRC (48 heads of state or government leaders from 40 different countries) focused on strengthening the ties between the Middle Kingdom and the Black Continent, which have steadily been on the increase in the last couple of years.

The situation is said to be a win-win for all parties: China gets access to the abundance of Africa's resources (especially the oil) and Africa gets an investor that asks no questions. At least not the troubling kind, such as on human rights abuses, genocide, corruption etc ... Seems like we are witnessing the birth (or better: the honeymoon) of a match made in Heaven.

Let there be no doubt: whatever would be able to show Africa and it's people a way out of the deadly spiral of poverty, violence, disease ... is to be applauded. The West till this day has failed to do so. While we have shed most of our colonial behavior, we have not been able to redress what we have ruined in the past. So to let the Chinese have a go at it, is only fair. They, as a country that also only recently has emerged from the ruins left after a century of wars upon disasters, may have more affinity after all with the situation on the ground in a lot of those African countries. I believe they have the clout to do it, they have the people to do it ... but I can't help wondering if the Chinese face is showing it's real intentions.

A honeymoon is fun while it lasts, but it tends to come to an end very soon when real life kicks in. China may start already to feel the first hiccups in the relation with it's new bride:

Despite the cordial relations that exist between China and Zambia, resentment towards Chinese businesspeople is widespread among small-scale Zambian businesspeople and poorly-paid workers.

Neo Simutanyi, a political scientist at the University of Zambia, says the anti-China sentiment that Sata raised in the run-up to the election endeared him to many voters in Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

Simutanyi believes the labor practices of especially Chinese businesspeople spurred some people to vote for Sata. The Chinese are frequently accused of being the main culprits in the use of casual labor, which involves lower pay and no social security benefits.

Let us also take a look at the results of the summit. 16 deals were inked with 11 countries (I'm wondering how that makes the countries feel that are not part of the 11) for a total value of 1.9 billion USD. Just for comparison: when Jacques Chirac visited China last month, he brought back deals totaling 10 billion USD. The comparison is unfair, as Africa has to date no company such as Airbus, who took the lion's part of the 10 billion (and Airbus is not entirely a French company either), but still, it gives some perspective, however relative, to the figures.

When we further look at the kind of business that was concluded, it is said to be entirely in the range of infrastructure, telecoms, mineral resources and insurance. Though the first two of course ARE crucial to the reconstruction of countries in decline, it seems to me that they are also first and foremost needed by the Chinese to get their part of the deal safe and sound out of those countries: oil. Isn't it a little bit strange, or worrying, that in a continent like Africa none of these investments bears on agriculture ? Judging from the Tanzam Railway, the "track"-record the Chinese have on building railways in Africa, seems also not much to boast about:

For the last two years, Africa has experienced an annual 5 percent increase in its gross domestic product due to China's demand for resources. The continent has gained increased access to Chinese markets and several countries have signed agreements with Beijing to implement a host of development projects.

But some observers say these gains do not provide a sound economic basis for future growth. They point to the TanZam railway as an example of how the Chinese send in their workers to construct a project and then withdraw once it is completed without leaving behind the expertise necessary to keep it going.

I sure do hope that for both "newlyweds" there is profit to be found in their relation and I am quite confident that in the short term there is going to be actual gain involved. I tend to be more sceptic on the long term, as I don't see enough altruism in China to make this relationship work over a prolonged period of time. What the weekends summit, by it's sheer scope and number of countries involved, for me has demonstrated, is China's anguish -not to say fear- to loose out on the oil it so badly needs for it's own continued development. By trying to lure an entire continent with one top-notch charm offensive, China may also have revealed it's main weakness: it's voracious hunger for fuel.

If this series of pictures (via "virtualreview: china") gives any hint to the warmth of the relations shared between both partners (take a good look to the pictures with Wen Jiabao), then we better prepare for a new Ice-age.

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