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China’s Economic Interest in Africa.

China is present and active in almost all countries of Africa. In 2015 China invested about 35 billion Dollars in Africa and so has surpassed Europe or the US as Africa’s main trading partner. The China-Africa Summit of 2018 further demonstrated the growing importance of China in Africa. During the Summit President Xi Jinping offered to invest another 60 billion dollars in Africa during the next three years.

Meanwhile, the influence of the old colonial powers continues to wane. The indications are that  China is about to push the ex-colonial powers out of the African market but how Europe intends to save herself from the impending loss of its African marketplace is reserved for history.

The fact that China is making huge investments in Africa and has become the biggest trading partner have available records. However, less known or rather less talked about are the other strategies with which China is using to gain more influence over the African media, the military and even control strategic infrastructures in Africa.

The new Chinese Silk Road is meant to link not only China and Europe but also some 20 African countries. China is supposedly building an impressive infrastructure to connect those counties.  The latest example is the 4 billion railway link between Mombasa and Nairobi, which is planned to link eventually five other countries in the region. China now has her own police points called ‘South African-Chinese Community and Police Co-operation Centres’. It has rejected the appellation of ‘Police Stations’ for these centres. The development is still new; only time can tell what it will finally become.

While it seems that Africa will profit from an improved Chinese infrastructure, Chinese loans contribute to a debt crisis for many African countries and create a growing dependence of China. Some of the projects are economically not viable and when a country is unable to repay their debts, China tends to pay itself by taking over  their mineral resources, the public energy supply, or seaports and airports.  Zambia is on the verge losing its national airport from the Chinese creditors. Some countries like Sierra Leone have seen the danger of accepting such credits and have cancelled contracts to build a new national airport.

Obviously, the goal of an increasing military involvement of China in Africa is to secure its land and sea trade routes. In Djibouti, China has begun with the construction of a huge military base just next to the American base. It is meant to become a hub of the new silk road project. China is also becoming the most important arms supplier and provides military equipment to some 22 African countries. The formation programs for police and army officers strengthen China’s influence in the security sector.

In recent years China has also provided financial and military support to UN-Peacekeeping missions in DR Congo, Mali, Sudan and Southern Sudan. The latest attractive export to Africa could be China’s very efficient electronic surveillance systems which are able to identify people’s faces. Dictatorial regimes in Africa will willingly embrace it.

Meanwhile, a worrisome angle is the quality of the infrastructures that the Chinese build for the African Governments. In Nigeria, the much-applauded Abuja-Kaduna railway commissioned in 2016 has already got stories of breakdown of trains. The Chinese infrastructural development in Africa are designed to keep her in control of these infrastructures. What can be other explanations there? In all these, Africa’s lack of bargaining power has left her very vulnerable both to Europe and China. While relatively keeping her standard, Europe uses here traditional ties to force her wishes down the throat of Africa. However, China uses an unorthodox “as you want it strategy” which has left African nations with substandard infrastructures and debt burden.

Furthermore, in the past, China used to fly in temporarily Chinese workers to realize major projects, like the TANZAM railroad line from Lusaka to Dar-es-Salaam. Nowadays such workers tend to stay in the country and start enterprises or work as craftsmen and even as street hawkers. With their cheap Chinese imports, they enter into direct competition with small local traders, which can create tensions. But in the meantime, African businesspeople have learnt themselves to operate worldwide and import their own goods directly from China. There are no reliable statistics about the number of Chinese living in Africa but estimates vary from one to two million. On the other end, some 200,000 Africans are living in China; 80,000 of them are students.

Additionally, China has for many years invested large sums to buy shares in important media companies to influence communication policies, spread pro-Chinese propaganda and silence critical voices. Chinese-owned media companies, like the StarTimes Group, run TV-Program in 30 countries and are an efficient instrument to propagate China’s interests and Chinese culture. About 50 years ago, the walls of houses in remote African regions were covered with colourful pictures from the magazine “China Today”.

In recent years China has intensified efforts to project a positive image of the country, its political ideology, culture and language. Following the example of western countries, China runs 48 cultural centres in Africa and come second place after France that has 180 centres. These “Confucius Institutes”, which are often linked to national universities, offer cultural programs and language course in Mandarin, which attract a growing number of students.

The trend is, however, becoming a thing of concern because of obvious reasons. Chinese interest seems to be solely about economic gains. Europe exhibited such an interest in times past even though religion was used to blunt its sharp edges. Now we know better! China appears not to have any country economically powerful enough to check its onslaught. This monopoly leaves the historically weakened African countries in a very precarious situation. Hence, journalists and civil society in some countries are beginning to question more brazenly the long-term aims of China on the continent.

They criticise the exploitation and racial discrimination of African workers in Chinese-owned companies. Even though the raised voices are yet to get coordinated and to form a synergy, the concerns are real, and the fears have historical antecedents in the European exploit in the African continent. Perhaps, the new thing is the benevolent ‘win-win’ approach which China temptingly presents to the Africa leaders. The emerging indices show that the African countries must be weary of the baits that China throws.

Wolfgang Schonecke

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