The Age of the Dragon China's Conquest of Africa

Part 2: 'At Least Western Capitalism Has a Human Face'


Thousands of workers felt they had been conned out of their wages and had staged a protest march in front of the local mine. These demonstrations have become almost a ritual in Chinese-owned mines. The Chinese pay wages of only $30 a month, less than the Indians and substantially less than the salaries paid by the Canadians and Australians.

While Zambians may have long considered Western capitalism barbaric, it now seems practically idyllic compared to the supercharged Chinese version. "At least Western capitalism has a human face," says Sata, "the Chinese are only out to exploit us." Indeed, the Chinese are currently toying with the idea of establishing two Special Economic Zones within Zambian borders. "Then they will have their state within a state," Sata believes, "and will truly be able to do as they please."

'The Silent Invasion'

It is especially irksome to many Zambians that the Chinese have created relatively few jobs in the country. According to Sata, there are already 80,000 Chinese in Zambia, "former prisoners who are housed in labor camps and mine the copper." The metal is shipped to China in the form of copper ore and processed there. Even the machinery comes from China. The Zambian government allows it to be brought in without imposing any duties. The Chinese workers don't even leave their camps for lunch or to drink beer, says Sata, who calls them "a strange people."

Resentment over the behavior of the Chinese is also smoldering elsewhere in Africa. China's involvement in the continent creates few jobs, says political scientist Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari. Instead, he says, "we solve China's problems by giving Chinese workers jobs in our backyard."

According to Hengari, who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, Africa is the only continent on which Chinese companies "apply for government contracts, get them and then import Chinese workers." Kenyan monthly magazine New People calls it a "silent invasion." Even South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose country maintains close ties to China, has warned that Africa threatens to become an "economic colony" of China.

When China Non Ferrous Metal Industry acquired the Chambeshi mine in 1998, copper prices had hit rock bottom and the mines were in terrible condition. The Zambians were desperate to find a buyer for the ailing state-owned mine, a business most investors deemed too risky.

When the government's initial favorite, Canadian-run Ivanhoe Capital, withdrew its bid after sluggish negotiations, the path was clear for the Chinese. They were awarded the contract for the bargain basement price of $20 million.

Graphic: Selling to the Chinese
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Graphic: Selling to the Chinese

From that point on the Chinese investors began celebrating what they called their "staunch solidarity" with their new business partners. "There is a long history of friendship between the Chinese and the Zambian people," the buyers pointed out, reminding the Zambians of the activities of their Maoist predecessors, who had built an 1,860-kilometer (1,156-mile) railroad, called the Tazara, from Zambia's copper belt to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. But back then Beijing's rulers were still dreaming of world revolution and those in Lusaka of a Christian communism.

At first China's involvement was greeted with open arms from the Cape to Cairo. Suddenly the Africans were business partners of the Chinese and no longer dependent on arrogant Westerners, with their colonial attitudes and talk about democracy, good governance and human rights. And suddenly Africa was attractive once again, and not just for armies of aid workers and their allies in the international entertainment industry.

Turning a Blind Eye to Human Rights Abuses

The Chinese promised to bring salvation from Africa's woes. They flattered the many African leaders who were mainly interested in securing their power. The new investors couldn't have cared less about human rights violations in Zimbabwe, corruption in Nigeria or atrocities in Darfur. On the contrary, they awarded an honorary doctorate to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe in 2005 and named him "China's No. 1 Friend." Any sanctions the United Nations Security Council seeks to impose on Sudan are routinely blocked by the country's new allies in Beijing.

The Chinese People's Daily newspaper praises the relationship between China and Africa, calling the Africans "good friends, good partners and good brothers" and highlighting what it calls a common history of old civilizations, both having had their "experiences with colonial devastation."

For this reason alone, said former President Jiang Zemin, there is a natural partnership between "China, the largest developing nation on earth, and Africa, the continent with the largest number of developing nations." Initially most Africans did not see the Chinese as pillaging conquerors, the way they had perceived the British and the French in the past.

The legendary Admiral Zheng He, the first Chinese person to reach Kenya when he arrived with an enormous fleet in the 15th century, left the locals in peace. All he took home was a giraffe.

China's current ascent in Africa is all but unstoppable. Whether it will be a blessing or a curse for the continent remains to be seen. But it is already clear that hardly any other region in the world is deriving as much benefit from the economic boom in the Far East as Africa. It could even make Africa a player -- and a winner -- in the globalization game, which so far has passed the continent by.

What is most critical for African countries now is whether they will be able to take advantage of the enormous opportunities with which they are currently being presented. If they could manage to sell their mineral resources for a reasonable price and invest the proceeds in their own development, they could even confidently do without the copious aid they now receive from industrialized nations.

According to the Deutsche Bank study, the countries of Africa and Latin America are the "greatest beneficiaries of China's hunger for raw materials," and they "should use their profits from raw materials to expand their manufacturing industries and service sectors, so as to enable themselves to generate lasting growth in the long term."

The world's hunger for raw materials is set to continue, so all current predictions for Africa are favorable. The demand for copper could increase from 3 million tons a year at present to 20 million tons in 2020, the demand from oil from 91 to 1,860 million tons and for wood from 34 million cubic meters to 150 million. "The results of our forecasts show," says Deutsche Bank's research department, "that the exporters of crude oil and metals will be the main beneficiaries of the insatiable Chinese hunger for raw materials."

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