In November 2006 almost every African head of state attended the largest international summit meeting ever held in Beijing. The event highlighted just how important Africa has become to China’s future economic growth – something that the Western media is only just starting to wake up to.
One of the consequences of China’s recent economic boom has been a parallel boom in imports. The export industries that power China’s growth need raw materials, fuel and components that the rest of the Chinese economy can’t supply. In fact, because of such imports China runs a trade deficit with the rest of the world, which is covered by its massive trade surplus with the US.
Africa has become one of the biggest sources of these imports. Chinese-African trade has grown tenfold in the last ten years, making China the biggest trading partner of a number of African countries. Much of this is to do with oil. Africa currently provides a quarter of China’s oil imports, and China is actively investing in oilfields, railways and ports in order to ensure future supplies.
As a result of this, African economies are growing at the fastest rate since the 1960s. Yet ordinary Africans are seeing little or nothing of the benefit from this – and for some, life is getting much worse. One of the best chapters in this collection is on China’s relationship with Sudan, which explains the government-inspired massacres in the Darfur region as a result of oil development.
Another chapter details the ecological damage being done in Mozambique by logging and Chinese-funded dam building, and a chapter on Zimbabwe links China’s need for raw materials to its support for Robert Mugabe’s attacks on democratic rights.
What’s clear from all three is that China sees Africa purely as a supplier of raw materials: “a dangerous equation that reproduces Africa’s old relationship with colonial powers”, as one South African activist argues. For all the rhetoric about “South-South cooperation”, the reality is that China is simply the latest imperialist power to exploit Africa’s backwardness, albeit with the support of a number of African rulers.
For there is a distinctive twist in the way that a number of African ruling classes now look to China. As one author puts it, “A distinctive ‘Chinese model’… is certainly appealing to Africa’s more repressive regimes… it represents a refutation of the view that democracy is an essential pre-condition for development.”
As a result, Chinese trade and aid are now propping up some of the worst regimes in Africa. Much Western commentary on this is gross hypocrisy, accusing China of the same crimes that the West has committed for centuries. What the editors primarily mean by “African perspectives” is a focus on the impact that Chinese economic expansion has on the lives of ordinary Africans. That angle allows them to illustrate how China fits into the wider framework of imperialism and globalisation, and how China has become another of the powers keeping Africa poor.
As a collection of essays, this is a series of snapshots of the relationship between China and Africa, rather than a fully rounded account. And although it was produced for the recent World Social Forum in Kenya, it’s essentially an academic work whose arguments for change are directed towards governments rather than social movements. For all that, anyone interested in economic developments in Africa – and China – will find much useful material here.
Website special – this article was not included in the printed edition.
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