African continent is China's future goldmine

Tony Blair and Bono see Africa as a moral cause; China sees it as a business opportunity. But is Beijing's interest based on economic partnership - or ruthless exploitation? Rory Carroll reports from Zambia

The closure of Chambishi copper mine was a milestone in Africa's decay. Once a jewel in Zambia's economy, it succumbed to mismanagement and fickle foreign investors. Plenty of copper remained but there seemed no way to extract it at a profit. In 1988, the drilling stopped, the workers were sent home and the mine, desolate and silent, slowly reverted to the bush. Another testament to failure on what was dubbed the hopeless continent.

Fast forward to today. The site is humming. A new, pyramid-like shaft soars over the main pit. Machines clank and throb beneath the earth. A freshly painted blue chute, like an oversized playground slide, trundles grey rocky mounds of ore to a slag heap. Yellow bulldozers grind past groups of miners in hard hats and managers with clipboards.

The lost cause is back in business. Today, Chambishi, boasting new offices and trimmed lawns, employs 2,000 people and produces 50,000 tonnes of copper concentrates from 800,000 tonnes of ores each year. It is an industrial Lazarus that has boosted Zambia's economy and helped put African copper back on the map.

One does not need to look far for the saviour. On the lawn, alongside the Zambian flag, flaps a red flag with yellow stars. At the headquarters entrance a large billboard exhorts staff: "To rouse yourself for vigorous efforts to make the company prosperous." It is signed Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress of China.

The resurrection of Chambishi is just one small example of China's explosion into Africa. From the barest foothold a decade ago an army of diplomats, technicians and entrepreneurs has kicked the continent's door wide open, making Beijing a heavyweight investor and political player.

The phenomenon has barely registered in the west, but in Africa the evidence is everywhere: Chinese lumberjacks in the Central African Republic, Chinese textile merchants in Lesotho, Chinese tourists in Zimbabwe, Chinese road builders in Ethiopia, Chinese newspapers in South Africa, Chinese geologists in Sudan, Chinese channels on African satellite television.

In the past six years, trade between China and Africa has almost quadrupled, reaching £22.8bn last year, according to Beijing's official figures. The same period has seen the birth of more than 500 Chinese-funded companies and an influx of tens of thousands of mostly young Chinese newcomers. The country may have already overtaken Britain and is chasing France and the US in the race to become the continent's biggest commercial partner.

In January, Beijing produced its first policy paper on Africa - seven succinct pages that make explicit the ambition to move into a continent three times its own size stuffed with the natural resources that China's booming economy craves. In the same month the foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, toured African capitals with a simple message: we are coming.

Where Tony Blair, Bono and relief organisations see Africa as a moral cause, something to be saved, the Chinese see a business opportunity. They have come to make money, and as much as possible. Now there is potential for a great irony: that rapacious Chinese capitalists will benefit Africa more than western do-gooders. "We do not use the term 'save'. That's patronising. We are here to invest," says Zhou Yuxiao, the urbane and dapper minister counsellor at China's embassy in Pretoria, South Africa. "We want a strategic partnership with Africa which will be win-win for both sides."

What this expansion means for China, the west and Africa is a question with no easy answer. "China is either the next big thing, usually in the view of business and some governments. Or it is the red peril, the new coloniser," noted Lyal White, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, in Johannesburg's Mail & Guardian.

Critics say that the Chinese are carpetbaggers, no better - and often worse - than the western governments and companies that have historically siphoned natural resources without making any lasting improvement to host economies. In addition to flouting laws and regulations - on health and safety, environmental protection, tax, social security - the Chinese are accused of cosseting some of the continent's most venal, brutal regimes.

Chambishi's copper miners do not need to be told that reopening the mine has brought risks as well as opportunities. On a grassy roadside several hundred metres outside the mine's iron gate lies a semicircle of 46 tombstones: each a memorial to a miner killed last April in a huge explosion. The community's anger was raw enough to keep Chinese managers away from the funerals.

"China is the awakening giant. It doesn't care if some Zambians are whingeing about safety considerations," says Guy Scott, a former agriculture minister who is now an opposition politician. He questions the economic impact of the investment. "A copper boom is notionally going on, driven largely by the Chinese. But mining communities are still ghost towns. Where is the benefit?"

The question baffles Gao Shunqing, the stocky, gap-toothed deputy CEO of China Non-Ferrous Metal Industries Corporation, which owns the mine. When the executive arrived in 1998, equipment was rusted and the site was covered in foliage. "So many beautiful plants, it was like a park in China," he recalls. Now it offers a livelihood to 2,000 Zambians, most of whom would be otherwise jobless. When President Levy Mwanawasa officially reopened the mine in 2002, he praised the Chinese for treading where western investors had not dared. They have invested more than $150m and are building a leaching plant so that the mine can refine its own ores.

But a group of employees interviewed on their way to the copper pit to transport explosives are far from grateful. They describe the $45 monthly wage as exploitation. "The Chinese are not good people. They do not pay us well. We do this only because there is no other work," says Christof Mayono, 25. His colleagues nod. "The conditions are bad," says Frederick Chilando, 28.

Compatriots in the capital Lusaka echo the criticism. "They make me work seven days a week, pay me $30 a month and if I miss a day, deduct some of my wages," grumbles a groundsman at one recently opened Chinese office. Resentment is growing over the way some firms allegedly dodge tax and flout rules on immigration and health and safety, says Scott. "Our regulatory system is weak. No one really knows what's going on."

Hope Mwanza, a secretary at the newly opened Association of Chinese Corporations in Zambia, admits she was wary of accepting the job because of the reputation of the Chinese. But now she is enthusiastic and has started learning Mandarin. "It is fine. They have a different way of doing things. They are very fast and always on time."

Her government is just as keen. On a recent trip to Beijing, the vice president, Lupando Mwape, lobbied for a direct air link with Lusaka and urged more Chinese firms to tap Zambia's potential in mining, agriculture and tourism. "This will help reduce the alarming unemployment levels," he says.

It is the same story across the region. African governments welcome the world's most populous nation as a model of modernisation and development as well as a source of enterprise. University students in Zimbabwe have been told to learn Mandarin. Kenya has allowed the state-run China Radio International to run an FM transmitter which broadcasts in Chinese, English and Kiswahili. The Central African Republic has granted the country's biggest timber export licence to a Hong Kong company. Burundi has embraced Chinese nickel miners. Uganda has asked a Chinese firm to rehabilitate a ceremonial complex in Entebbe for a Commonwealth summit next year.

South Africa has the largest Chinese population, estimated at 160,000; much of it is concentrated in the eastern Johannesburg suburb of Bruma, fast becoming the continent's first proper Chinatown. Served by several Chinese-language newspapers, it has jumbles of shops, dry cleaners, and restaurants with names such as Oriental City.

Jan Kot, a Chinese journalist based in Johannesburg, praises the community's energy but laments its insularity. "They know how to get to the casinos, but that's it. Ask about the apartheid museum and they have no idea what you're talking about." Racism is widespread among the immigrant community, he says. "You hear horrible expressions [about black people]."

Critics cite two concerns about the latest special relationship. Chinese imports - worth $14bn in 2004, up more than a third from 2003 - are swamping local markets and driving many African manufacturers out of business. South Africa has lost 100,000 jobs in textiles in the past decade partly because it cannot compete with cheaper Chinese imports. A trade union rally in Johannesburg turned into a fiasco when the crowd realised the event's red T-shirts were made in China. They were peeled off and dumped.

The other worry is that efforts to bolster human rights and democracy across the continent are being eroded by the Chinese involvement. "We do not interfere in other countries' internal affairs and they do not interfere in ours. That has been a principle of our foreign policy for 50 years," says Yuxiao, the diplomat in Pretoria.

But critics say that, in effect, is far from true. When the International Monetary Fund held up a loan to Angola over misused oil revenue, China stepped in with a $2bn loan. After western firms pulled out of Sudan over its human rights abuses and terrorist links, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation helped build a 1,500km oil pipeline as well as bridges, roads and factories. The United Nations security council threatened sanctions against Sudan over massacres in Darfur, only to be vetoed by Beijing. When America balked at supplying Nigeria's trigger-happy military, China offered dozens of patrol boats. "They are impossible. They just don't care what we or anyone else says," complains a member of one Dutch human rights advocacy group.

The single greatest Chinese interest in Africa is oil. China 's economy is thirsty; by 2030 it will need to import 60% of its oil. China already swallows most of Sudan's production, is on its way to becoming Angola's biggest client and is playing catch-up in Nigeria, paying $2.3bn for a 45% share of an offshore block. Next month, Beijing will host an African petroleum and energy forum.

Does this add up to a threat to western interests? "I think that China has just as great a right to engage in Africa as any other country," the US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, said last year. "Why should we see ourselves in competition with any country in Africa? There is enough good to be done." But a report sponsored by America's Council on Foreign Relations was less sanguine, accusing China of shielding rogue states and turning a blind eye to misrule. "The Chinese government's practices in Africa can be expected to undermine US goals," it concluded.

Yuxiao, China's number two in Pretoria, rejects that as absurd. American and European companies still dominate, he says, reeling off a litany of statistics showing China to be a relative dwarf. "It is a pyschological reaction when you are frightened - you tend to exaggerate the danger."

During the cold war, China's engagement in Africa was epitomised by the thousands of labourers who built the 1,896km-long Tazara railway, a gift from Mao Zedong that linked Tanzania's port of Dar es Salaam with Zambia's copperbelt region. Today, the locomotives are rusted, the carriages creaky, but the line still works, carrying fertiliser and electrical goods into the heart of Africa, and maize, copper and other minerals out. Managers at Chambishi mine are considering switching from trucks to the railway - connecting, if it happens, two eras of Chinese investment.

Growing up in Zhejiang province, Lin Fang heard her grandfather's tales of carpenters sailing away to work on the railroad, returning home six years later with bicycles, watches and black-and-white portable televisions. Fang's generation has it easier. Two years ago, the 30-year-old mother-of-one followed her banker husband to Lusaka, where she works with the Association of Chinese Corporations in Zambia. "I had no idea what to expect. My first impression was that it's poor. Very small buildings. But the air is much cleaner and the Zambians are very kind to us. They call us white people."

A fellow expatriate, Roger Lee, 55, says that in the past decade Lusaka's Chinese population has grown from 3,000 to more than 30,000. Mostly employed in shops, restaurants and other small businesses, the community keeps its head down, he says. "We are not troublemakers. We are profit-oriented."

The Chinese, it is clear, are here to stay; the question is whether they will be good for the continent. Despite the trade imbalance, the low wages and the accusations of shady business practices, the door remains wide open. Unlike other foreign investors, this one brings no colonial baggage, wags no finger at undemocratic host governments and does not aspire to make poverty history. China has come to advance its own commercial and strategic interest on the basis of unsentimental, hard-headed logic.


Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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