Billions from Beijing Africans Divided over Chinese Presence
Part 3: Growth Trumps Freedom
The concept of "West is best" is now a thing of the past. Disappointed by Europe and America, where their continent has often been written off as a hopeless case, Africans have instead looked to the Far East. There, they have found a strong ally, one that is mainly interested in doing business and doesn't interfere in their internal affairs. China attaches no political conditions to economic cooperation, unlike the West, which, at least on paper, demands good governance, the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and protections for human rights.
This is one of the reasons that despots like Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe hold the Chinese in such high regard. Cooperating with China fills their empty coffers and enables them to secure their hold on power. And Africa's dictators are not badgered when they oppress and prey on their own people.
For example, Beijing wasn't overly troubled when the regime in Sudan waged a criminal war of forced displacement in Darfur. It continued to supply the Sudanese government with weapons and blocked resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. Beijing's primary concern was that Sudanese oil would continue to flow. Next to Angola, Sudan is China's second-most important source of oil in Africa.
With Chinese economic dominance, the West's political influence is gradually being eroded. In authoritarian countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda, the model of the Chinese development dictatorship, which prioritizes growth over freedom, has long been a welcome alternative to liberal democracy.
At the same time, Europe's and America's cultural influence is waning. China's Xinhua state news agency now has 28 offices in Africa, more than any Western competitor. The state television broadcaster CCTV, which opened a new headquarters in Nairobi last year, is gaining more and more viewers. Instead of airing the usual disaster reports, the station tends to broadcast "good news" from Africa and portrays China as a "true friend."
Growing Resentment and Violence
Nevertheless, there is growing resentment in South Africa, where there are reportedly already 250,000 Chinese. In the townships, the new immigrants are berated as "yellow masters." Among South Africans, the Chinese are often seen as greedy, ruthless and racist, as people who are exploiting Africa, flooding its markets with cheap products and ruining an already weak domestic industry.
Union leaders in Angola complain that Chinese companies are creating too few jobs for local workers. There are rumors in the capital, Luanda, that the Chinese are using prisoners as forced laborers on construction sites.
In Zambia, there are frequent protests against the starvation wages and inhuman working conditions in Chinese-run coal and copper mines. Chinese guards have repeatedly fired on striking miners in recent years, causing bloodbaths. One of the miners, after being struck by a bullet in July 2006, said: "They simply don't see us as human beings." Angry workers killed a Chinese manager during a wage dispute in August 2012.
In Zimbabwe, Chinese products are called zhing-zhong, or junk products that don't last. Chinese vendors were recently attacked in the Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam. "They undercut every price and are spoiling our business," says a woman who runs a shop at the market.
A Gold-Rush Mentality
"What's all the fuss about? There's free competition everywhere in the world," says Janson Huang, the manager of the Chinese construction company in Tanzania. "We use our opportunities and are doing exactly what the West has done for centuries." The accusation that Chinese companies only hire Chinese workers is unfair, says Huang, noting that his company employs about 1,000 local workers and 50 Chinese in management positions. He says he encourages them to learn the official language, noting that it's important to adjust to the local culture.
Huang contradicts the cliché of the predatory Chinese pouncing on Africa. But now Huang has to cut our conversation short, as both of his smartphones are buzzing. The calls are about major projects in Bagamayo, where bids are being solicited. His company is expecting lucrative contracts.
India's Kumar Group plans to build a gas-fired power plant in Bagamayo, while a Japanese consortium has already submitted designs for the port facility. In recent years, HeidelbergCement, a German company, has invested $130 million in its subsidiary in Wazo Hill, a town in the special economic zone.
The gold-rush mentality is creating mixed feelings in Bagamayo. "People are anxious because they're not getting any information at all. Even the city administration doesn't know what lies ahead," says Baraka Kalangahe, 53, a project manager for a small environmental organization that is trying to protect the fragile ecosystem along the coast.
"Young people are hoping to get work, but many no longer believe it'll happen," Kalangahe says. She talks about fishermen worried about their future and about a small coastal village that was recently emptied out. "The government simply relocates people, offering little compensation in return," Kalangahe says. But, she adds, at issue is a project of continental importance, by far the largest port in Africa, which is projected to handle 20 million shipping containers a year.
But will it be a success story for Tanzania? The most recent Africa Progress Report serves as a warning to the government. In it, a panel headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concludes that Africa would lose about $38 billion a year due to non-transparent natural resource deals and tax avoidance, a loss far greater than the development aid it receives.
Winners and Losers
In the current boom, which is primarily driven by China's offensive, the old asymmetry is still in place: Africa remains a supplier of natural resources, while added-value creation occurs somewhere else.
"A small clique gets rich, while the masses remain poor. That's the curse of the natural resource bonanza. But we have the opportunity to change this," says Godwin Nyelo, 52, a geologist and adviser to the Tanzanian government on mining issues and a member of the board of an Australian uranium company. He lives in Wazo Hill, where the newly established special economic zone is practically at his doorstep.
Nyelo often travels abroad to dispel doubts and recruit investors. In a PowerPoint presentation called "East Africa: The Big Leap Forward?" he shows a chart that looks like a colorful treasure map. His country's resources are identified on the map: gems, gold, copper, nickel, cobalt, magnesium, phosphate, kaolin, coal, iron ore, uranium and natural gas -- all the things the global economy desires.
"The government is planning a transparent resource-management system," Nyelo explains. "We aim for sustainable development, and we want all Tanzanians to benefit from prosperity."
In the coastal city of Mtwara, where the Chinese-financed gas pipeline is to begin, people already feel cheated. They want a gas processing plant to be built in the region, which would provide jobs. When riots broke out about six months ago, the government sent troops to Mtwara, and several demonstrators were killed. Eyewitnesses spoke of "civil war-like conditions."
The Tanzanian government is promising a rosy future, but the wananchi, or ordinary citizens, have become suspicious. A government-appointed commission estimates that corrupt politicians and businesspeople have already deposited about $5.9 billion in illegal earnings into foreign bank accounts.
Shaba, the cultural activist, fears that the cunning negotiators from China and other countries will take advantage of the naïve and corrupt government officials. "It's very tempting for them," she says, "because we're like chickens, which can't fly." Africa is in the process of being divided up a second time, she adds, just as it was at the 1885 Berlin Conference attended by European colonial powers.
Shaba is standing at the jetty in Mbegani, gazing out at the mangrove islands in the turquoise-colored bay. Soon this idyllic scene will have to make way for the new port. Then giant ships will put out to sea from Bagamayo, loaded with the riches of Africa.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan