Investment with Strings Attached Cables Reveal Resentment at Chinese Influence in Africa

China has strengthened its economic and political ties in Africa in recent years in an effort to open up new markets and secure much-needed raw materials. The leaked US diplomatic cables reveal that Africans are growing increasingly resentful of China's aims and methods.

By Horand Knaup

Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Zambia: China's influence in Africa is increasing.
AFP

Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Zambia: China's influence in Africa is increasing.


The young worker had had enough. He was fed up with all the accidents, all the broken promises, the anger of the supervisors and, lastly, the pay raises that were pledged but which never came. So, in mid-October, Vincent Chengele, 20, and some of his fellow coal miners gathered in front of the Collum Coal Mine in southern Zambia. Before long, there were a number of miners protesting against their bosses -- Chinese investors who had bought the mine in 2003.

All of a sudden, shots rang out as Chinese overseers began firing wildly into the crowd. Chengele and 10 other miners fell to the ground injured.

A wave of outrage went through Zambia. Even President Rupiah Banda, who usually supported Chinese investment in his country, condemned the violent response. Elijah Muchima, a minister in Southern Province where the mine is located, complained that Zambians were "being treated like animals." He criticized how the workers were paid as day laborers rather than being given contracts, and condemned their "slave salaries."

It wasn't the first time there had been conflict with the Chinese. The mine had already been closed on several occasions due to dangerous conditions. In 2006, some brusque Chinese foremen simply refused to allow the Zambian minister responsible for mining to enter the complex.

And allowing the Chinese in Zambia to have weapons would also appear to be a bad idea: According to the Tanzanian English-language daily The Citizen, a Chinese foreman fired upon striking workers at a copper mine in Zambia a few months ago. The paper reported that some people were even comparing the Chinese to "Africa's former colonial masters."

Hungry for Markets and Materials

China is currently more active in Africa than any other foreign power. Chinese President Hu Jintao has already visited 20 African countries, and the Chinese premier and foreign minister have also made regular visits to the continent. Likewise, ministerial-level meetings between African and Chinese officials are frequently held -- and are popular with the Africans because they often return home with new contracts in their pockets. In 2009 alone, Chinese companies invested roughly $56.5 billion (€41.3 billion) in Africa.

In recent years, the Chinese government and private Chinese companies have signed hundreds of contracts with African partners. China has extended loans worth billions and sent thousands of workers to Africa, which is now home to almost a million Chinese. They have built hundreds of hospitals and thousands of kilometers of roads, as well as government buildings, railway lines and football stadiums.

If it weren't for this aid, many African countries would be significantly worse off than they currently are. China, the manufacturing giant, needs Africa as a market for its goods. But, even more importantly, it needs Africa in order to satisfy its need for raw materials. And the Chinese have a thirst for all kinds of natural resources, including gold, wood, copper, coal, oil and coltan.

Growing Resentment

American diplomats posted in Africa keep a very close eye on the activities of the world's only other major power. Indeed, they send very detailed reports to Washington from almost all of the countries in Africa. But the leaked dispatches don't only include information about the skyrocketing growth in trade. They also discuss the growing resentment among Africans toward the Chinese. Naturally the whole discussion revolves around issues such as power on the continent, security interests and spheres of influence. And often billions of dollars are at stake.

For example, international observers were astonished at the end of 2007 when the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo reached a comprehensive deal worth over $9.2 billion with Beijing. The agreement guaranteed China mining rights that will help it secure 10 million tons of copper and 620,000 tons of cobalt.

"The Sino-Congolese agreement immediately raised concerns among both multilateral and bilateral donors regarding the loan-agreements on the Democratic Republic of Congo's debt sustainability," is how one dispatch from American diplomats later described it. Congo already owed billions of dollars to the World Bank and other Western creditors, so a new contract with China would make it more difficult for them to secure payments on either the interest or the principal of their loans.

At a later point, William Garvelink, America's ambassador to Congo, wrote: "Throughout 2008 and the first half of 2009, neither the Chinese nor the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo indicated any real willingness to revise the agreement to ensure compatibility with debt sustainability."

The dispatches coming out of the US Embassy in the Congolese capital Kinshasa provide rare insights into the worlds of international finance and development policy. For example, in May 2009, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), came to Kinshasa. "While the visit was ostensibly to discuss the impact of the global financial crisis on a number of African countries, in reality, however, it was used to push the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to take the necessary political steps to engage the Chinese on renegotiating the Sino-Congolese agreement," reads one cable.

Eventually, Western pressure had an effect, and Congolese President Joseph Kabila caved in. The agreement was trimmed down by about a third.

Old Friends, New Partners

Beijing has long had close relations with a number of African states. For example, Cameroon has been considered an ally since 1971, partly because of its government's early decision to support China's hard line against Taiwan. In return, the Chinese constructed a hydro-electric power station in Lagdo, built hospitals and roads, sent doctors to the country and trained Cameroonian officer cadets in China.

The Chinese are also extremely active in Angola. After the country's civil war ended in 2002, Western donors were hesitant at first and were only willing to grant loans with tough conditions attached. But Beijing jumped right in. China's Eximbank extended a loan worth over $4 billion and reportedly issued another one soon thereafter. At least one of the loans includes a condition requiring Angola's government to grant major contracts to Chinese companies.

The Chinese also built four new football stadiums for the Angolans -- in Luanda, Benguela, Lubango and Cabinda -- which hosted the games of the 2010 Africa Cup tournament in January. They have spent millions to help repair the famous Benguela railway line. And they also plan to build a new international airport in Luanda, the Angolan capital.

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