Billions from Beijing: Africans Divided over Chinese Presence
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.
"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."
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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