The new African queen: China

China props up dictators and blocks sanctions in Africa. Is there a good side?

Published March 22, 2006 9:45PM (EST)

You might think, in the midst of one of the biggest sustained worldwide booms in commodity prices in memory, that these days mining company executives would be a fat and happy crew. China's appetite for raw materials has sent prices of all kinds of precious metals sky-high. And in these peak-everything days, the prospect of a commodity collapse seems dim, barring a sudden detour into global recession.

But three weeks ago I read a report by a global consulting and research firm warning the "mining community" that it had better get its act together. Because if they don't watch out, declared the Frontier Strategy Group, Chinese companies were going to eat their lunch. Aggressively cutting deals from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and operating with the full support of their government's diplomatic apparatus, Chinese mining firms are on a worldwide blitzkrieg. Rich-nation mining companies had better take heed: "The mining industry is undergoing a major transformation as new competitors from the developing world, and particularly China, are actively seeking resources around the world." China, noted the report, was able in part to capitalize on the favorable legacy of years of aid and support for African nations in the 1960s and '70s, when China was busy attempting to establish solidarity with the developing world against its twin rivals, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The report was a clear attempt to drum up business for a forthcoming (and likely to cost a pretty penny) study by FSG titled "The Future of Mining to 2025: The Rise of China and Its Impact on the Global Mining Industry." So I tucked it away for future reference, waiting for an opportunity to connect it to something larger. That moment came today, courtesy of a link from the Billsdue China blog to a fascinating story about China and Africa in Granta magazine.

Bilateral trade between China and Africa hit $39 billion last year, up from $5 billion in 1999. That is serious growth. China, says writer Lindsey Hilsum, is Africa's most voracious capitalist, signing scores of oil and gas and mining deals, building countless infrastructure projects, and engaging in all kinds of other minor efforts, such as building government offices in Sierra Leone, or running vegetable farms in Zimbabwe.

As many recent articles about China and Africa have noted, from the perspective of human rights, there is a considerable dark side to China's involvement in Africa. China has blocked sanctions against the Sudan, is the main supporter of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and is willing to cut deals in scores of other countries without requiring any kind of namby-pamby Western "conditionality" -- like good governance, transparency, environmental impact reports, et cetera. The burgeoning trade figures are also somewhat misleading -- China imports raw materials from Africa and then sells back finished goods, in many cases competing directly with domestic African industries in crucial sectors like textiles. China, say a growing number of critics, is just the latest imperialist come to ravage an already bloodied continent.

But conditionality isn't always a good thing, say other observers. The IMF and the World Bank, in particular, have come under fire for precisely the kind of Washington Consensus "structural adjustments" those institutions require from developing nations. As Princeton Lyman, director of Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said to Congress last year: "In many ways the economic growth in Asia, and the subsequent growth in demand, is good for Africa. Mineral prices are reaching record highs, reversing a long decline for many of Africa's major exports over the past few decades. For Africa's oil producers, there has been a substantial windfall. Nigeria might not have been able to negotiate such a favorable debt relief program from the Paris Club as it has just done, eliminating some $18 billion in debt, if it had not been in a position, because of recent oil windfalls, to put $6 billion on the table to clear interest and past arrears as part of the deal. China is also investing in areas that Western aid agencies and private investors have long neglected: physical infrastructure, industry, and agriculture. These are areas that the West, recently fixed on social needs in education and health, had largely abandoned, and only now again has recognized as essential for Africa's growth. Finally, China offers African nations some competition to the West, emboldening some leaders to take a harder look at the conditionality of the IMF and other institutions, advice that may or may not be the best for their circumstances."

Hilsum, who has been reporting on Africa since the early 1980s, offers a similar, if slender, silver lining.

"Like most Western journalists and aid workers who have spent time in Africa, I frequently despair at the continent's problems, veering between blaming the aid donors, the African governments, and even at times the people. Western aid hasn't worked, so why was everyone demonstrating near Gleneagles so convinced that sending more would make things better? It cannot be good that African governments persist with human rights abuse, or perpetuate their rule against the desires of their peoples, but poverty remains Africa's greatest problem, and liberal concerns have not helped Africa's poor.

"The Chinese come to Africa as equals, with no colonial hangover, no complex relationship of resentment. China wants to buy; Africa has something to sell. If African governments could respond in a way which spread the new wealth -- a large if, of course -- then China might provide an opportunity for Africa which Europe and America have failed to deliver."

Let's go back to my earlier quote from the report warning the mining community of the China challenge: "new competitors from the developing world, and particularly China, are actively seeking resources around the world. "

In other words: The developing world is no longer the private playground of Western corporations. Thailand, alone in Asia, avoided physical colonization by the West by adroitly playing the French and British off against each other. It's a long shot, but if the rise of China gives African nations the leverage to get better deals from both mining companies and Western governments, that could herald a significant change in the continent's fortunes.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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