Billions from Beijing: Africans Divided over Chinese Presence

By Bartholomäus Grill in Bagamayo, Tanzania

Photo Gallery: African Ambivalence About Chinese Investments Photos
REUTERS

Chinese companies have pumped billions into Africa to secure access to natural resources, boosting countries' economies along the way. Ordinary citizens aren't reaping the benefits, though, and have become increasingly wary of the new investors.

In a three-part series, SPIEGEL is exploring fundamental changes occurring in Africa -- a continent the West has long written off, but is now being embraced by other countries. This is Part I of the series. An introduction can be read here, while Part II explores the digital revolution's tranformative impact on the continent and Part III shows how women in Africa are making great strides.


Everything is as it has always been: decayed rows of houses, weathered doorframes with intricate carvings, potholed dirt roads, fishing boats rotting on the beach and, in the middle of it all, the Boma, a stone fortress built by the former German conquerors in Bagamayo, a sleepy coastal town in Tanzania.

Bagamayo was the capital of the colony of German East Africa from 1888 to 1891, when the administrative seat was moved to Dar es Salaam because the shore in Bagamayo was too shallow for a real seaport. Since then, time seems to have stood still.

"But soon nothing will be as it once was in Bagamayo," says Marie Shaba, "because now the new rulers of the world, the Chinese, are coming."

The 65-year-old radio journalist is wearing a bright, mango-yellow kitenge, the traditional dress worn by Tanzanian women. She calls herself a cultural activist. For years, Shaba has been fighting to have Bagamayo, an important arena for the slave trade in the 19th century and for colonial history, declared a United Nations World Heritage Site.

But now Shaba fears that the sleepy town will disappear in the waves of progress.

This spring, Bagamayo was the focus of a story in international business news, when more than 400 newspapers worldwide reported that China was making a low-interest loan of $10 billion (€7.4 billion) available for the construction of a modern container terminal 15 kilometers (9 miles) south of the city, and also planned to fund the establishment of a special economic zone in the hinterlands behind the port.

"This is good for Tanzania, very good. It's a poor country that will be making a giant step forward," says Janson Huang, 36. It's also good for him and his company. Huang manages the local office of Chinese construction company Group Six International in Dar es Salaam. A short, wiry man with a sparse moustache, he is dressed casually in an open, gray-and-white striped shirt and dark slacks. Huang speaks English well, and he speaks openly and directly.

This is unusual, as Chinese investors tend to shy away from the media. All other inquiries SPIEGEL made with Chinese companies registered in Tanzania were either rejected or not answered at all.

A Win-Win Situation?

The Group Six headquarters, in the Mikocheni industrial area, was not easy to find. The unpaved access road hadn't been named yet. The company is housed in an inconspicuous complex behind high walls topped with barbed wire. Across from the materials warehouse are two red Chinese lanterns, marking the entrance to the uninviting dormitory for the Chinese foremen. The manager's office next door is sparsely furnished with imitation leather armchairs and filing cabinets.

Huang, an engineer, has been working in East Africa for a decade, first in Kenya and then in Tanzania. He likes his new home and wants to stay here with his family. He would like to have a second child, preferably a son.

It wasn't easy to gain a foothold in Tanzania, he says, "but we Chinese are not afraid of taking risks. We see Africa with different eyes than the West, not as a rotten continent, but as an economic region with enormous potential."

Huang's privately owned company has had a hand in constructing many buildings. Most recently, it built the Crystal Tower in downtown Dar es Salaam. "We invest and create jobs. It's a win-win situation for both sides," he says.

The only decoration in Huang's office consists of framed photographs on the wall, which depict him during the presentation of company donations for humanitarian purposes. He is especially proud of a group photo with President Xi Jinping. Huang, a young economic pioneer from China, is standing directly behind China's first lady.

'A Galloping Lion'

The photo was taken during Xi's state visit in late March, when China's newly chosen president signed the investment agreement for the Bagamayo port and special economic zone, as well as 17 other bilateral agreements. The president and party leader had just come from Moscow, and it was no accident that the second stop on his first trip abroad was in Africa.

China, Asia's economic superpower, is hungry for natural resources, energy, food and markets for its products. Africa can offer all of these things: about 40 percent of global reserves of natural resources, 60 percent of uncultivated agricultural land, a billion people with rising purchasing power and a potential army of low-wage workers.

"Our relations are at a new historic beginning," the Chinese president told his Tanzanian hosts. He noted that Africa is one of the world's fastest-growing regions, pressing forward like a "galloping lion."

Xi reminded his hosts of the warm relationship between the Great Chairman Mao Zedong and Tanzania's first president, Julius Nyerere. He also praised the two countries' shared struggle against imperialism and invoked the common interests of all developing countries. "We are true friends," he said. "We treat each other as equal partners."

Before giving his speech, Xi had made a symbolic gesture of handing over a monumental conference center, built by a Chinese construction company in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, to the Tanzanian president. After his visit, he traveled to the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa, to do business with representatives from the other states in this group: Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

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1. optional
peskyvera 11/29/2013
Western colonialism being replaced by Eastern colonialism.
2. Interesting
kukaramanga 11/29/2013
So, China invests billions into African countries in things like infrastructure and boosts their economies but that's not really in a good thing. On the other hands, the "West" dumps billions of dollars worth of bombs, weapons and terrorism plundering the economy of every country they invade & occupy, terrorizing and slaughtering millions but that's not a problem. It is that kind of narrow-approach to the problems of the world that will be the end of humanity.
3. hmm
dtechba 12/02/2013
Kukuramanga, you apprently didn't read the article. Chinese investment is built by Chinese workers and benefits Chinese companies. The infrastructure they build is to extract natural resources and they grease the palms of ruthless dictators to get the concessions. Just which African country has the West bombed, terrorized and slaughtered? Don't bring up something that happened hundreds of years ago either. You seem greatly confused, I am guessing you are one of those being greased by the Chinese or one of the greasers themselves....
4. optional
poconocrib1 12/12/2013
It would seem, dtechba, that kukaramanga is referring to that which he perceives the US to be doing on a global scale and not in Africa. I get this because he says "every country they invade and occupy..," so he's not limiting himself to Africa. That being said, his accusations are more than a little over the top regarding US world activity. The fact of the matter is we've not gone anywhere in recent times where we've not been invited for military, economic or humanitarian purposes. Enough with the fatalistic "end of humanity" talk, already. Finally, with all that I've said, Africa must pay attention to China's activities lest they buy into new colonizers..
5. Lying discredits all your points pornocrib
10000369496 12/24/2013
Who exactly Invited the USA to invade Iraq?
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