Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

Africa, China's new frontier

Chinese entrepreneurs are invading Africa and reviving the fortunes of the world’s poorest continent. Are they just stripping it of its resources - or have they finally found the answer to a problem the West has been unable to solve?

Jon Swain

The Sunday Times magazine, 10 February 2008

During the last decade tens of thousands have uprooted themselves from China and migrated to Africa, with Chinese-government approval. There are estimated to be 750,000 Chinese across the continent, 900 Chinese companies, and an overall Chinese investment of $6 billion. Yet most Chinese speak neither English nor any African language.
Where will it end? One Chinese expert was so bold as to suggest that China needed eventually to send 300m people to Africa to solve its problems of over-population and pollution. What Africans think of the idea is another matter. But they may have no choice as African country after country succumbs to Chinese advances.
The Chinese work in agriculture, trade and construction, and are doing everything from producing oil and developing giant state-financed infrastructure projects building roads and railways, to smaller enterprises producing shoes, textiles, motorbikes, TVs and CDs.
Nowhere in the world is China’s rise more evident. It is a far cry from 30 years ago. Then, at the height of the cold war, Africa was convulsed in intrigue and rivalry, caught between the world’s super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, vying for influence on a continent that had grown used to being dominated by Western interests, businessmen, soldiers and adventurers.
The foundations of modern China’s massive expansion in Africa were laid then. Bilateral trade was negligible – less than a billion dollars a year – but that did not matter to the communist Chinese who were discreetly cultivating Africa in the background, committed, above all, to solidarity with a continent which, like China, was part of the under-developed world. They were also busy wooing African countries seeking recognition of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.
Today, by contrast, the relationship is strictly about trade. It has expanded 50-fold and is growing fast as the Chinese rush for Africa’s raw materials and have become some of the biggest capitalists on the continent.
The rare African leaders of those spartan early days who had put their faith in the Chinese development model, like President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and been criticised or ostracised by Western governments for doing so, would not believe their eyes if they could see how much China now rivals the West in influence.
Nor would my Chinese spy friend, the well-informed Mr Hu, whom I met 30 years ago. He had a passion for history, and I remember he had told me proudly that the Chinese links with Africa were in fact age-old. The Chinese had first set foot in Africa back in the early-15th century, years before the arrival of the first Europeans. And, presciently, he had predicted that one day they would be back in Africa again, trading with a vengeance. Hu was the chief Chinese spook in Zaire, the former Belgian Congo, which was then ablaze with war. His responsibility was gathering intelligence across the whole of central Africa. How he went about the task was typical of Chinese cleverness, then and now, in finding ways to forge close personal bonds with African leaders.
Hu operated under journalistic cover in Kinshasa, the Zairean capital, as the Africa correspondent of Xinhua, the official news agency of China. Attached to the Chinese embassy his entré to President Mobutu Sese Seko – himself a former journalist – was by keeping him supplied with potent brown pills, imported specially from China, to enhance the Zairean dictator’s flagging sexual powers. Hu consequently found himself in an enviable position of trust and was always interesting and well informed.
The wily old Mobutu eventually died in exile of prostate cancer, triggered perhaps, who knows, by the bad effects that Hu’s pills had been having on his overworked prostate.
If the Chinese avoided the spotlight then, they no longer can. Then, they were quietly sending technicians to Africa, concluding military co-operation agreements with ideological friendly countries like Tanzania, and throwing open the doors of their universities to thousands of African students.
They built prestige projects like national sports stadiums and parliament buildings.
Most notable of them all was a 1,100-mile-long railway across Tanzania to carry exports of copper from landlocked Zambia to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam – bypassing apartheid South Africa.
The railway was a valiant enterprise. Built by 50,000 Chinese and costing $500m, it was the largest foreign-aid project undertaken by China at that time. Dozens of Chinese engineers died in its construction. Today you can see their graveyard on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, with a marble plinth saying: “Cemetery for Memorable Deceased Chinese Experts Assisting Tanzania.” Years later, Chinese workers are again risking their lives on projects in remote parts of Africa and sometimes dying, as they did at a petroleum site in Somalia last year when attacked by rebels. Africa still wallows in conflict and deprivation. There are no shortages of haunting images of starving children, ethnic strife and mindless violence – as in today’s Kenya – to remind us of Tony Blair’s phrase that the continent is a “scar on the conscience of the world”.
Places like Darfur, or the Congo, where I first met Hu in a discotheque in Kinshasa, a suitably murky establishment for a meeting between a Chinese spy and a Western journalist, or Somalia or Zimbabwe, are synonymous with Africa’s misery and mismanagement.
But the continent has come alight with Chinese enterprise. It is a new frontier for them, a land filled with promise, and Chinese faces are everywhere. Having jettisoned the communist ideological and revolutionary ideals that had tied them to Africa in the first place in favour of trade, today the Chinese are Africa’s newest, most enthusiastic and rampant capitalists.
Nor do the newcomers seeking their fortune view Africa as a place of drought, war, disease and poverty – often the Western perception of Africa. “Africa is a paradise for wide lives,” said Luo Hung, a famous Chinese photographer who has been wooing fellow Chinese to Africa with photographic exhibitions in the big Chinese cities. “The landscapes, animals and human beings there create a harmonious and beautiful picture.”
A family in China will save for years to send just one of its members to Africa. Unlike cautious Westerners they are not afraid to start small – a massage parlour or restaurant here, a sewing shop or pharmacy there – which offer modest but quick returns on investment. Many live in small apartments on small wages in conditions that no European would consider.
For almost a year Serge Michel, a Swiss-born journalist with the French daily Le Monde in West Africa, and Paolo Woods, a photographer, have been criss-crossing Africa, travelling thousands of miles, to chronicle the story of how China’s involvement is changing the world’s poorest continent.
The idea stemmed from a meeting they had in 2006 with Lansana Conté, the ailing old president of the former French West-African colony of Guinea. It was a gloomy conversation. Conté labelled most of his ministers “thieves”, berated the whites “who have never stopped acting like colonialists”, and was despondent about the discovery of oil off the coast. He feared it would fan the country’s rampant corruption. However, at the mention of the Chinese his face lit up. “There’s no one like the Chinese!” he exclaimed. “At least they work. They live with us in the mud. Some of them grow rice like me. I gave them a worn-out piece of land. You should see what they’ve done with it!”
“The Chinese are advancing throughout Africa,” Michel says. “The scale of their activities is growing ever-faster. As their projects balloon they are penetrating the imagination of an entire continent, from the old president of Guinea who only leaves his country to go to Switzerland for medical treatment, to the children, too young to distinguish a European from an Asian.”
Like it or not, China’s growing economic presence in Africa is a reality that Europe and America have to face. It is unstoppable and has brought Africa to a tipping point. It could be a moment of immense opportunity.
Chinese contractors are fast and competitively priced. There is plenty of positive spin-off. One is China’s provision of cheap chemicals enabling, in Tanzania’s case, the local pharmaceutical industry to manufacture life-saving generic anti-retroviral drugs for the millions of Africans with Aids. They cost less than £6 a month.
The Chinese cash is a godsend for Africa. But it could yet turn out to be a curse if it is misused by Africa’s leaders who, Africa’s record on corruption shows, can be easily tempted.
Some Chinese enterprises have turned out to be just as greedy and cut-throat as their old Western counterparts, with behaviour on the margins of legality. Authorities in Congo, the former Zaire, have been investigating, for example, the circumstances in which nearly 18 tons of radioactive minerals from primarily Chinese-owned mines were dumped in a river recently, poisoning the water supply to a big mining town.
Back in spy Hu’s time, Western companies had been the dominant force in the copper and cobalt mines of Congo. The arrival of Chinese businessmen to meet the needs of the voracious Chinese market has changed that. But it has not made the mining industry any less opaque.
The Chinese closeness to the Khartoum government, which Western governments have condemned for atrocities in Darfur, is more controversial. The Chinese have a special relationship with Sudan, the provider of 8% of China’s annual oil imports. Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars in oil wells, a refinery and a pipeline to carry the crude oil to Port Sudan, where it is loaded onto Chinese tankers bound for the Chinese mainland.
A 500-mile Chinese-built highway and railway line links Khartoum, the capital, with the Red Sea port. But as part of the deal, the Chinese are selling Khartoum arms, effectively underwriting the war effort in Darfur.
This shows that China, some Western critics say, is not interested in transparency or good governance. It ignores human rights, corruption and environmental standards in Africa, and that is exactly what makes it so attractive to the more repressive African leaders, tired of what they see as Western busybodying. They have readily embraced the Chinese way of doing things, seeing the Chinese model as offering a long-wanted opportunity for growth, free of irritating Western conditions.
“We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets,” said Robert Mugabe predicting a new dawn for Africa thanks to the Chinese. As an international pariah, Mugabe’s critical remark went unnoticed.
But he is not alone. His view is also shared by the West’s respected friend President Festus Mogae of Botswana, who runs arguably the best-managed country in black Africa. “China treats us as equals, while the West treats us as former subjects,” he has said. “That is the reality. I prefer the attitude of China to that of the West.”
The fact is that the Chinese have invented their own way of dealing with Africa. Western nations’ post-colonial guilt has sometimes driven them to see Africa as a charity case, with hand-outs instead of a hand-up. Many Africans themselves are critical of this, wanting a more mature relationship. China, on the other hand, has made it clear it is not in the business of pumping money and counsel into Africa to try to solve Africa’s problems. But it denies it has turned a blind eye on human rights, and lately it has tempered its relationship with Zimbabwe and shown more responsibility over Sudan.
China’s overriding motivation is raw materials. It may have become the workhouse of the world but it has almost no natural resources of its own to sustain its new dynamic role, and has had no alternative but to seek them out in Africa.
The continent sits on 90% of the world’s cobalt, 90% of its platinum, 50% of its gold, 98% of its chromium, 64% of its manganese and one-third of its uranium. It is rich in diamonds, has more oil reserves than North America, and has been estimated to hold 40% of the world’s potential hydroelectric power. Africa is now supplying a third of the oil fuelling China’s economic boom. Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of oil.
Trade hit $55 billion last year, up 40% from the year before. It is expected to top $100 billion in 2010. China has overtaken Britain as Africa’s third-largest business partner and is fast catching up with France.
The European Union, which does $200 billion of trade with Africa, is rightly concerned. This was one justification that Portuguese diplomats gave for holding the first EU-African summit for seven years in Lisbon in December 2007.
“The Chinese don’t ask questions in Africa and we cannot ignore their growing presence,” a Western diplomat said.
“China has no friends, only interests,” said an African official repeating the great British statesman Lord Palmerston’s famous remark, in commenting on a recent visit by President Hu Jintao to oil-rich Gabon.
“Today it is very clear that Europe is close to losing the battle of competition in Africa,” warned President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal.
But it is not just the scale of Chinese involvement that surprises. It is the skilful way the Chinese have penetrated Africa and are making themselves felt.
The story of a couple of Chinese entrepreneurs in Nigeria, Africa’s top oil producer that has the largest population on the continent, a market of 160m people, is typical. Jacob Wood – like many Chinese in Africa he has adopted a Western name – is today a millionaire businessman in the capital, Lagos. He provides the government with so many services that, in addition to other privileges, he has been allowed to register his entire fleet of 20 4x4 SUVs as police vehicles to drive through Lagos’s anarchic traffic.
“It’s very practical for the go-slows [traffic jams] and it doesn’t cost me anything,” he said. “I just have to organise a banquet for the Association of Police Officers’ Wives once a year. Every year they get hungrier, but it’s still a good deal.”
It was Wood’s father, a refugee from Shanghai after the 1949 communist takeover, who first settled in Lagos. He set up a textile business to dress West African women. It was profitable for a while, then went bust, undercut by cheap imports. His son, Jacob, had grown up in Shanghai without his father. But he got out and in the early 1990s, after an education in Canada, he moved to Lagos to become the first Chinese from communist China to work in Nigeria.
He opened a 1,500-seat restaurant, the Golden Gate, which specialises in banquets for Nigeria’s rich and famous, served by Nigerian waiters dressed mandarin-style.
This was not enough for Wood. Exhibiting the characteristic Chinese flair for business and enterprise, he expanded into construction. Today he heads a corporation employing more than 1,500 people, 300 of whom are Chinese. In under two years it has built and sold nearly 550 villas to oil companies for their Nigerian personnel.
The other prominent Chinese in Lagos is a Hong Kong-Chinese called Y T Chu, owner of the Newbisco biscuit factory and steel mills. Newbisco is a brilliant example of how Chinese entrepreneurial spirit can revive a dead business. The factory was built before independence from Britain in 1960, and consistently operated at a loss. By 2000 its biscuit production had stalled, the machinery was broken, and it had run out of ingredients. Not discouraged, Chu bought the factory in this parlous state.
Today he employs 700 people working in shifts, who produce 2,100 tons of biscuits per month. Newbisco is making a profit for the first time in its history, and Chu hints at plans to expand. “We barely meet 1% of Nigerian market demand,” he said.
On big construction projects, wherever possible, the Chinese insist on importing their own workforce from China. These workers live in sprawling camps, eat like they did at home, and make little or no effort to adopt African customs, learn the language, much less marry local African girls. It is a harsh existence that no comfort-loving Westerner would consider emulating.
However, where the Chinese have done this – oil-rich Angola and mineral-rich Zambia come to mind – resentment has often arisen because of their unwillingness to employ indigenous workers. Even the unskilled labour is fulfilled by the Chinese. In Angola, the government has agreed that 70% of tendered public works must go to Chinese firms, most of which do not employ Angolans. The Chinese are also causing concern at the way they have used African countries as dumping grounds for cheap goods. Many small companies across Africa have been forced into dire straits, even bankruptcy, by Chinese competition.
In Tanzania, for example, the scene of China’s great railway triumph, the country’s only flip-flop factory is dying. A few years ago it employed some 3,000 people and sold flip-flops across the continent. Now it employs only 1,000. Its Lebanese manager complains that he cannot compete with cheap Chinese imports sold for less than cost price. There have been stories that the Chinese were shipping goods in diplomatic containers to the embassy in Dar es Salaam, avoiding customs and import duty.
Back in China there are strong reasons why the communist party encourages Chinese to seek their fortune in Africa. President Hu, who has put Africa high on the agenda, sees it as a good way to lower demographic pressure, economic overheating and pollution at home.
“We have 600 rivers in China, 400 of which have been killed by pollution,” a Chinese scientist who wanted to remain anonymous told Michel, the writer. “We will have to send 300m people to Africa before we begin to see the end of our problems.”
As my spy friend Hu recalled, there is, in fact, an ancient thread to the modern Chinese economic invasion. Six centuries ago, a Chinese armada crossed the China sea, ventured into the Indian Ocean and landed on the East-African coast of Kenya with silk, porcelain and lacquerware to trade with. This mighty treasure fleet of huge junks, escorts and supply ships with as many as 27,000 soldiers and sailors on board was commanded by Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch acting on the orders of the great Ming dynasty warrior prince Zhu Di.
Had subsequent Chinese emperors continued these great nautical expeditions to Africa, there is every reason to suppose that the Chinese, rather than Europeans, would have been the first to colonise the continent. Zheng He’s expedition took place a full half a century before the Portuguese – the first European explorers – sailed round the tip of Africa.
Quite a thought, and as they deepen their African commitment and experience, the Chinese are keen to emphasise their ancient roots with the continent. Recently they invited a 19-year-old Kenyan girl, Mwamlaka Shariff Lali, to Beijing as a state guest after DNA tests had linked her ancestry to China.
I am sure that my friend Mr Hu, the spy, would be fascinated by these developments, wherever he is to be found today. Thirty years ago, he predicted that China would be a force to be reckoned with in Africa. He was a wise man; how rewarding for him that events have finally proved him right.