The Age of the Dragon China's Conquest of Africa

China is conquering Africa as it becomes the preferred trading partner of the continent's dictators. Beijing is buying up Africa's abundant natural resources and providing it with needed cash and cheaply produced consumer goods in return.

Thomas Mumba was a devout young man. He spent his free time studying the Holy Scriptures and directing the church choir at the United Church of Zambia in his hometown of Chambeshi. Mumba, a bachelor, was also committed to abstinence -- from beer and from sex before marriage. A larger-than-life depiction of Jesus Christ surrounded by a herd of sheep still hangs in his room. The poster is pure "Made in China" kitsch, like most things here in the Zambian copper belt, located more than a six hours' drive north of the capital Lusaka.

Mumba, a shy, slight young man, bought the Chinese-made religious image at a local market and hung it up at home. It was cheap, cheaper than goods from Europe, at any rate. Mumba's Chinese Jesus cost him 4,000 kwacha, or about 75 cents. "It was his first encounter with the evil empire," says Thomas's mother Justina Mulumba, two years after the accident that would change her entire life.

Thomas Mumba died on April 20, 2005 when an explosives depot blew up in the Chambeshi copper mine. He had just turned 23 and had been working in the mine for two years. To this day, no one knows how many people died that day, because the mine's Chinese owners attempted to cover up what they knew about the accident. Besides, they had kept no records of who was working near the explosion site on the day of the accident.

According to the memorial plaque, there were 46 victims, but it could just as easily have been 50 or 60. Only fragments of the remains of most of the dead were recovered. Mukuka Chilufya, the engineer who managed the rescue team, says that his men filled 49 sacks with body parts that day. The Chinese have deflected all inquiries about the explosion.

Justina Mulumba wears a mint-green dress as she kneels at her son's grave, whispering almost inaudibly: "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do." The cemetery is by the side of the road, only a short distance from the plant gates. Chinese trucks drive by, churning up the dry African soil and briefly coating the entire cemetery in a cloud of red dust.

The drivers are in a hurry to get their trucks, filled with copper, to the port of Durban on the Indian Ocean, where the copper will be loaded onto ships bound for China. Mumba wasn't the only one whose fate was sealed by copper. All of Zambia depends on copper, which is by far this southern African country's most important export, well ahead of cobalt. Copper accounts for more than half of all its export revenues.

The precious metal attracted scores of white colonizers to the country north of the Zambezi River in the early 20th century. The British flag flew over Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was then called, until 1964. That was followed by the era of independence and of Socialist leader Kenneth Kaunda, who initially benefited from rising copper prices.

Kaunda, a religious man, was obsessed with bringing education to the people of his country. But he had little understanding of economic matters. He had so many schools built that the government eventually found itself lacking the funds to pay the teachers. When Kaunda decided to nationalize the foreign-owned mines to raise cash for the government's coffers, it was his bad luck that copper prices soon plunged.

Feeding China 's Hunger for Raw Materials

In the early 1990s, Zambia abandoned its socialist planned economy, Kaunda withdrew from politics and the ongoing slump in copper prices precipitated an economic crisis. In the late 1990s, when then-president Frederick Chiluba felt compelled to give in to pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to privatize the unproductive, unprofitable state-owned mines, the price of a ton of copper was barely $900.

At the time, no one in Africa -- or, for that matter, in New York, London or Geneva -- foresaw India's and China's rise as economic powers, or the attendant thirst for resources. When rising demand suddenly drove up copper prices to previously unanticipated levels, it was yet another stroke of bad luck for poor Zambia that the country had already sold off much of its copper-mining rights to the Australians, Canadians, Indians and Chinese.

A ton of copper costs $8,000 today. Zambian mines are currently producing 500,000 tons a year, a number that could soon increase to 700,000. This is good for the foreign mine owners, but the Zambians see next to nothing of the profits.

The Chinese need the copper for their booming industry. The metal is used primarily to make wires, cables, integrated circuits and metal products like pipes and toolmaking machines -- in other words, in almost every branch of industry, from automobile manufacturing to the construction industry.

By 2004 China was already the world's second-largest importer of copper ore, after Japan. "If copper scrap and residues are added, China imports a quarter of the world's copper production," writes the research department of Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank in a report titled "China's Commodity Hunger." The report concludes that the demand for copper will "remain high."

Privatization couldn't have gone worse for the Zambians. But in the age of the dragon descending upon Africa, things could get far worse. Michael Chilufya Sata sits in a cramped, smoke-filled office behind mountains of paper, smoking one cigarette after another. Sata, who as head of the Patriotic Front is Zambia's most important opposition leader, is also a demagogue.

For many Zambians Sata is a saint, but for others he is a reincarnation of the devil -- that includes the government, which has had him thrown in jail repeatedly. In one instance he was accused of sabotage when he and his supporters allegedly smuggled explosives into a copper mine, and he was recently arrested on charges of having provided false information about his financial circumstances.

Sata captured more than 29 percent of the vote in the September 2006 presidential election, while the winner in that race, current President Levy Mwanawasa, claimed 43 percent. But Sata believes that the election was rigged. According to opinion polls, he was initially clearly in the lead in the capital and in the copper belt. But when the tide turned in favor of the incumbent, Sata cried election fraud and violence erupted in the streets of Lusaka for several days.

If there is one issue which Sata uses to mobilize the masses, it is the Chinese. He has warned voters that they plan to export their dictatorship to Africa, colonize the continent and introduce large-scale exploitation. Unlike Western investors, says Sata, the Chinese have little interest in the Africans' well-being.

The politician quickly talks himself into a rage. Chinese have little interest in human rights, he says. They are only interested in exploiting Africa's natural resources, which they have carted off using their own workers and equipment, and without having paid a single kwacha in taxes. Sata sums up his position as follows: "We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return. They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilization."

A majority of Zambians likely agree with Sata. On his recent and third trip to Africa, Chinese President Hu Jintao canceled his planned visit to the Zambian copper belt at the last minute, fearing demonstrations by disgruntled workers and the resulting embarrassing TV images. Only last year, protestors in Chambeshi were injured when police fired into their midst.

'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.

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."

A Fatal Tendency to Accept Charity

The upswing in the Far East could give Africa a much-needed boost. According to Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which is aligned with the center-left Social Democrats, Africans see China "as the model and potential motor of their own economic development." This raises the prospect that a modern market economy could replace the foreign aid-based, planned economy that is currently crippling Africa.

It would be about time. Ironically, one of this oppressed continent's biggest problems is that the availability of aid from the affluent world makes it far more attractive to be poor than rich. The industrialized countries, of course, are more willing to help the poor than the rich. But this understandable tendency to accept charity is disastrous for Africa, richly blessed as it is with natural resources.

Africans have to begin to liberate themselves from this trap of their own accord. They should improve the infrastructures of their countries dramatically, fight corruption, liberalize markets and privatize large swathes of government land. All of this would also make the continent more attractive for urgently needed foreign direct investment. The substantial revenues from the countries' business dealings with China could be used to embark on such a course.

It shouldn't take much for Africans to recognize that China, a future superpower, maintains a much stronger presence in Africa than it would seem at first glance. Last year's volume of trade between the Chinese and the Africans amounted to $55 billion, a rise of 40 percent over 2005 and more than five times as high as in the year 2000. China's share of the African market is currently 6.8 percent, compared to a US share that has declined to only 5.8 percent.

This makes China Africa's third most important trading partner, with trade volume expected to increase to $100 billion within the next three years. The Chinese seem to be everywhere: prospecting for uranium in Namibia, buying manganese, iron ore and gold in South Africa, drilling for oil in the Gulf of Guinea and Sudan and exporting tropical hardwood from Congo.

China has invested $4 billion in oil production and the development of ports and pipelines in Sudan alone. Angola's highly corrupt regime supplies China with more than 500,000 barrels of oil a day and, representing 18 percent of all Chinese oil imports, has already replaced Saudi Arabia and Iran as the country's most important oil supplier. Almost half of the lumber cut down in Gabon is shipped to China, which also buys up 60 percent of Equatorial Guinea's lumber exports.

In a memorandum, the US State Department even cites experts who refer to China's expansion as a "tsunami." According to the report, "after decades during which the Chinese built soccer stadiums for dictators, railroads and highways in Africa in exchange for political support, their interests are now almost exclusively economic."

China imports everything the continent produces: tropical hardwoods, oil, metals and even a small amount of cotton. Africa's five most resource-rich countries -- Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Congo -- account for more than 80 percent of all African exports to China.

Cheap Consumer Goods for Africa

In return Africa gets cheap, mass-produced items, basic consumer goods like household devices, television sets and clothing. From South African supermarket shelves to Uganda's flea markets, the products with the strange characters printed on their packaging are available everywhere. In fact the flood of cheap Chinese goods has already destroyed the textile industries in Swaziland and Lesotho.

"When it comes to production, it is difficult for Africa to compete with China," writes the Brenthurst Foundation, a South African think tank, in a report titled "China's Economic Takeoff: Implications for Africa." According to the report, despite low wages in Africa "the continent's disadvantages, such as poor infrastructure and high transport costs" make African products too expensive.

The initial enthusiasm is slowly turning into fear of these successors to Africa's former colonial masters. This explains why Chinese President Hu Jintao makes so many trips to the continent, courting the Africans and making statements like: "China is a peaceful nation and will most certainly take no steps that would damage the interests of Africa and its people." Be it in Cameroon, the Seychelles, Liberia or Zambia, Hu has forgiven debts and handed out low-interest and even interest-free loans. He has lifted trade barriers on many products, 440 at last count, from 28 particularly poor countries.

Beijing is building power plants, hospitals, roads and schools, and it is installing railroad tracks and water pipes. The country has sent 16,000 doctors and nurses to Africa over the last 50 years. "China is doing things in a big way in Africa," writes Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper.

In Nigeria, it was not the World Bank but the state-owned China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation that secured the construction contract for a new railroad from Lagos to Kano. The project is worth $8.3 billion. The Chinese offered the Nigerians better terms than all other bidders, and Chinese banks will provide the financing. And unlike the World Bank, the Chinese demand neither proper accounting of funds nor the fair treatment of workers.

The two countries also appear to see eye-to-eye in the weapons business. The Nigerian air force has purchased 14 Chinese warplanes, while the navy has ordered patrol boats to fight rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

The Chinese, for their part, are in Nigeria mainly for the oil. CNOOC, China's state-owned oil company, paid $2.3 billion for almost half of the OML 130 oil field, and another $4 billion for drilling licenses. Fu Chengyu, the company's chairman and CEO, called the deal a "milestone in our efforts to expand one of the world's richest oil and gas fields."

Black Gold in the Gulf of Guinea

It is easy to understand why China is eying the black gold in the Gulf of Guinea so covetously. Experts estimate oil reserves in West Africa alone at about 110 billion barrels. It's an enormous prize, and the Chinese are not exactly holding back in the fight for this wealth.

To elbow out foreign competitors from the competition for a large oil field, the state-owned China Eximbank granted the Angolan government a low-interest loan for $2 billion. The contract was promptly awarded to Chinese energy company Sinopec. Oil deliveries will serve as collateral for the loan.

Meanwhile, the American oil giants are increasingly coming away empty-handed, prompting Newsweek to talk about a "Sino-American war for future petroleum supplies."

China's rulers are also busy wooing Africa's political leaders. Last fall the Chinese Communist Party invited 53 African heads of state to a summit meeting in China, the largest international conference the Chinese had ever hosted. Forty-eight Africans attended, prompting the Beijing leadership to draw comparisons to the old days, when Mao Zedong (who famously said: "We will never forget our black friends") celebrated his partners from the nonaligned world.

Hu's promises to his guests included 30 hospitals, 100 village schools, low-interest loans valued at $3 billion, the construction of a giant conference center for the African Union and preferred loans for the purchase of Chinese goods valued at $2 billion. He also announced plans to train 15,000 young Africans in technical professions.

The Daily Nation, a Kenyan daily newspaper, was ecstatic: "China gives without demanding anything in return." For this reason, the paper continued, "Africa's leaders, who are tired of the West's big brother attitudes, are willingly accepting China's generosity." The Nairobi-based East African Standard issued this recommendation to the continent's political leaders: "Forget the West and embrace China."

But what Africans see as a stroke of luck only strikes fear into the hearts of European development aid ministers: China's indifference to the misdeeds of African potentates and cleptocrats, and its avowed commitment not to intervene in the internal affairs of another country.

The most alarming example of such an amoral alliance is China's attempt to liberate Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, whose foreign aid the West cut off long ago, from international isolation.

Since the Chinese stepped in, things have been going downhill for Zimbabwe, but Chinese weapons help the unstable government to retain its grip on power. China has already provided Mugabe with military aircraft worth $200 million. In return, the Chinese were given a stake in the country's platinum mines.

The Sudanese shopping list for Beijing, which Amnesty International recently published, is also long. According to Amnesty, China provided the Sudanese army with Chinese-made Z-6 helicopters, its "East Wind" military trucks and many other weapons which can be used to hunt down rebels in the Darfur region.

China has good reason to be so accommodating to the government in Khartoum. The China National Petroleum Corporation now owns 40 percent of Sudan's Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, which controls the country's biggest oil fields. State-owned company Sinopec has built a 1,600-kilometer (994-mile) pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where another Chinese state-owned company has already built a tanker port. Sudan already exports about 60 percent of its oil to China.

Chinese Trade Props up African Tyrants

It is precisely because of these close trade relations that German political scientist Denis Tull calls China's growing political influence in Africa "overwhelmingly negative." Tull is the author of the study "The Africa Policy of the People's Republic of China" for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and, as he sees it, China's unconditional willingness to engage in trade and its vehement "defense of the principle of sovereignty," far from forcing the Africans to bring about democracy and transparency, is only helping Africa's tyrants.

This Chinese-African relationship is governed by the old principle of give and take. In return for defending the Chinese government against criticism for the Tiananmen Square massacre or even, as former Namibian President Sam Nujoma did, congratulating the Beijing regime for putting down the "anti-revolutionary" democracy movement, Africans receive Beijing's blessing for their own ruthless treatment of dissidents.

According to the Washington-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, "China's willingness to arm and seek political support from African regimes jars with international efforts to foster democratization and good governance."

Pressing Sudan

Only recently, however, Beijing had to abandon its generous posture toward Sudan. Concerned that American celebrities could call a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics because of China's cynical position on Sudan, the Chinese government dispatched a special envoy to the Sudanese capital city of Khartoum.

The Chinese envoy finally managed to convince the Sudanese to agree, at least in part, to a United Nations peace plan for Darfur. The Chinese move was prompted in particular by the initiative of US actress Mia Farrow, who was already calling the Olympics the "Genocide Games" and had sharply attacked fellow Hollywood figure Steven Spielberg, who is involved in the planning of the opening ceremonies in Beijing. In response to Farrow's criticism, Spielberg wrote a concerned letter to President Hu.

But according to He Wenping, director of the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, it is not access to raw materials alone that is driving the Chinese to the Congo, the Nile and the Niger. She believes that political goals also play an important role. China, says Wenping, wants to become an influential player on the international stage, and a budding superpower needs to develop a following.

Hardly any region seems as open to providing favors as Africa, which has many votes in the UN. China hopes to win these votes, especially when it comes time to position itself against the powerful United States. Wenping, a petite scientist who wears her hair short and has an office in the former imperial ministry of the navy, is convinced that "nothing can happen without Africa."

There is yet another reason to explain China's growing push into Africa. More and more Chinese workers and farmers are settling in Africa because they can earn more money there.

In the first 10 months of 2006, more than 270,000 Chinese were already working in Africa. More than 100,000 of them have put down roots permanently -- as merchants, farmers and bar and restaurant owners. They include people like Li Shaofu, who wasn't earning enough money in China to pay his children's tuition and decided to work for a Chinese company in the Niger Delta.

A Wave of Chinese Immigration

Like dozens of others, Shaofu was hired by Teleken Engineering Co., a state-owned telecommunications firm. Intermediaries obtained passports for the workers, none of whom spoke any English, and put them on an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Africa. "All the boss told us was that we should not laugh or smile in front of strangers, say little and not wander around," says a worker from Jianqiang, a village in Sichuan Province.

The Chinese were tempted by relatively high wages. Shaofu brought home 50,000 yuan (€5,000) for slightly less than one year of work in Africa. He would have been lucky to earn 13,000 yuan in China in the same amount of time. "If there is an opportunity next year," says a farmer from Guanzi, "I want to go abroad. Even if it is dangerous, it is still better than working in the fields at home."

The excursion to the Niger delta almost ended in tragedy for Shaofu and his fellow Chinese. Nigerian rebels kidnapped him and four other Chinese workers from Sichuan Province, and only released them after holding them for two weeks. The nine Chinese oil workers in eastern Ethiopia who died the previous week in a rebel attack were less fortunate.

It is a fate that is unlikely to befall Si Su, a farmer from Jiangsu Province. Together with his wife and two children, Su settled near the Zambian capital Lusaka and founded the Sunlight Farm. He now stands in the fields every day, supervising his roughly 50 Zambian employees as they plough or pull weeds in his cornfield. He feels as if he were in his own paradise.

"The people are peaceful and friendly," he says, "I liked them right away." Su and his family entered the country in 1992 as workers in a Chinese-Zambian agricultural cooperative. Despite widespread anti-Chinese sentiments, they plan to stay in Zambia, and have already learned English.

They miss China sometimes, especially for its food. But they have not returned home yet, not even for a visit. Su is too worried about his farm to leave. There is a Chinese saying, he says, that goes like this: "When the tiger is in the mountains, the ape becomes king."

Behind Su, Mr. Enson, the Zambian tractor driver, confidently drives his red Chinese-made Dongfeng ("East Wind") brand tractor. Enson, feeling unobserved and playful, sings an African song about Zimba the lion as he works. Su is appalled. "Careful, careful!" he calls out.

But he collects his composure quickly. "We human beings must enrich one another. They will learn discipline from us, and they will teach us how to carry sunshine in our hearts."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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