“China’s image in Africa, once marred by suspicion, is changing,” noted The Economist on the eve of Xi Jinping’s first overseas trip as president, when he visited three African countries. “[A] growing number of Africans say the Chinese create jobs, transfer skills and spend money in local economies.”
Certainly, Western criticism is fading. But now Africans themselves are attacking China. Botswanan President Ian Khama, for example, said recently: “We have had some bad experiences with Chinese companies in this country.” In an interview with the Johannesburg-based newspaper Business Day, he complained about China’s practice of importing Chinese workers rather than using African labour. “We accept China’s goods. But they don’t have to export their population to sell us those goods.”
Nigerian central bank chief Lamido Sanusi has warned that Africa is “opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.” China, he wrote in the Financial Times last month, “is the second biggest economy in the world, an economic giant capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West. China is a major contributor to the deindustrialization of Africa and thus African underdevelopment.”
China’s image took another hit when the Zambian government took over control of a Chinese-run coal mine with a history of labour and safety problems. This was the same mine where, in 2010, Chinese managers shot and wounded 13 workers who had protested against poor working conditions. Then Zambian president Rupiah Banda defended the Chinese. His successor, Michael Sata, reassured Beijing that Chinese investment was welcome but said Chinese investors should adhere to Zambian labour laws. (On Friday, Mr. Sata is to begin a weeklong state visit to China.)
Over the years, China has adjusted its Africa policy in light of criticism. In 2006, after charges that Beijing was “grabbing” Africa’s natural wealth, China’s State Council issued “principles” to guide Chinese enterprises in Africa. These included abiding by local laws, bidding for contracts on the basis of transparency and equality, protecting the labour rights of local employees and protecting the environment.
Chinese officials readily acknowledge problems in their relationship with Africa. Zhong Jianhua, China’s special envoy to Africa, told the Beijing-based Caixin media group that Chinese companies lack experience and sophistication when compared with their Western counterparts. “If the Western way of operating in Africa can be compared to a large formation of regular army soldiers, then Chinese companies are still at the guerrilla stage.” And, he said, while Western companies start with technical considerations, local sentiments and feasibility studies, Chinese companies think bribing an African official is enough.
Beijing has refrained from urging African countries to emulate its form of government the way Western countries have been pushing democracy. But as China continues to dazzle the world with its economic success, other countries inevitably take an interest in the Chinese model. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who met Mr. Xi in Durban, said his country not only regards China as a partner but also as a role model for development.
To a large extent, China and Africa complement each other. China needs natural resources and Africa needs capital and infrastructure. Together, both can develop.
But Chinese – and Africans – need to remember Mr. Xi’s words during his visit to Tanzania: “In developing relations with Africa, all countries should respect Africa’s dignity and independence.”
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
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