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Should Africa be wary of China?—decidedly yes.

By August 18, 2021Editorial

Ancient tree being felled in an African tropical forest. © Shutterstock.

There can be no doubt that China has resource-rich Africa in sharp focus as an integral part of its Belt and Road Initiative (B.R.I.), the super power’s global development strategy to invest massively in nearly 70 countries and international organizations. From colossal construction projects and communications giants like Huawei down to suburban retail stores selling cheap household goods, it is impossible not to notice China’s presence in virtually every city, town, and village across the continent. Is this to be welcomed or feared?

China passed the U.S. as Africa’s biggest trading partner way back in 2009 and is now the world’s largest source of foreign direct investment into Africa. The annual value of bilateral trade has been increasing for close to two decades and in 2019 rose to $192 billion. Collectively, Europe’s role remains massive in Africa, representing some 28 percent of all trade. Still, imports and exports happen mainly at an individual member state level rather than with pan-European solidarity.

So, “how scary is China?” is the question posed by Cobus van Staden a senior researcher focusing on Africa-China relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “In Washington, the consensus seems to land somewhere between ‘very’, and ‘the devil itself,'” he says. But sentiment in Washington and perhaps Europe, too, does not necessarily reflect the view in Africa, and even here, there is an apparent dichotomy in the way governments and ordinary African citizens perceive China’s role. Is China a genuine if not exactly benevolent partner in Africa’s future, or is it a rapacious colonial power simply intent on stripping Africa’s assets, both financial and natural? Almost all African countries have had their brush with colonialism spanning several centuries, and one would imagine a reluctance to go down that path again. Worryingly, however, it is a journey that is perhaps becoming increasingly likely.

In the colonially-biased history books of my childhood, the opening of Africa’s East Coast to international trade goes hand in hand with the courageous exploits of the Portuguese maritime explorer, Vasco da Gama. With his tiny fleet of four vessels, he coast-hopped his way through the Mozambique channel as far north as Malindi in Kenya. Then, with the help of a Gujarati pilot, he crossed the Arabian Sea to land at Kozhikode (then known as Calicut) on the southwest coast of India in May 1488.

On his voyage home, Da Gama’s crossing into the teeth of the monsoon took three hard months before he landed with his scurvy-reduced crew back in Malindi via the Somalian port of Mogadishu. Da Gama finally reached Lisbon in September 1499, two years after his adventure began. His trip wasn’t particularly successful, and he had no treaties to wave at his king, Manuel I, but it did put down a marker as the end of Venetian domination of Europe’s trade with the East. And it was an even bigger marker signaling the start of European domination and exploitation of Africa and its people, the tendrils of which reach into the present.

However, the coastline of Africa had been no stranger to international trade. Herodotus tells of the Phoenician circumnavigation of Africa circa 600 B.C.E. While, for centuries before the Portuguese, Arab traders had been riding the monsoons to and from the continent. Arab and Persian trade had started in the 9th century, and by the time Da Gama arrived on the scene, these merchant empires were at their peak influence. At this time, no fewer than 37 city-states sprang up along the Swahili Coast, including Mogadishu, Malindi, Kilwa, Mombasa, and Zanzibar. The trade out of sub-Saharan Africa was broad and brisk in everything from gold, salt, ivory, tropical bird plumes, and slaves.

But if my history books paid scant attention to this episode of mercantile history, they made no mention at all of an event that predated Da Gama by almost 80 years. In 1405, arguably the greatest explorer of all time, the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out from his homeland with a massive fleet of nearly 300 vessels, including 62 treasure ships and a crew of more than 27,800. All-in-all, he made six voyages (and later a seventh), but it was during the fifth and sixth, from 1417 to 1419, that his expeditionary fleet reached the eastern coast of Africa, landing first in Somalia and then moving down the coast into present-day Kenya. One can only imagine what a sight it must have been to witness Zheng He’s fleet as it hove into view along Africa’s eastern coast. Even the sturdiest of trading dhows would have been dwarfed by his ships, the largest of which were 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. By comparison, Da Gama’s São Gabriel was a mere 84 feet long and 28 feet wide.

So, who knows what the political map of the world might have looked like but for the inward-looking new Chinese emperor who, on Zheng He’s death, banned all further exploration and had his fleet and most of his documents destroyed. Nevertheless, until recent times, no other naval assembly could have matched the brilliant commander’s armada. And although no trading empires resulted, China’s culture and might had been indelibly imprinted on much of the globe.

If Zheng He’s higher purpose was to boast of China’s prestige and power, the country’s return to Africa half a millennium later in the 1960s and 70s was driven by a different cause—to support new African independence and to present the Marxist-Leninist anchored “thought of Mao Zedong.” One of the best-known early projects was the 1,155 mile-long rail link between Zambia and Tanzania, and by 1978 China was giving more aid to Africa than the United States.

That the completion of China’s investment in Africa today is much changed is obvious. Now China is the world’s manufacturing center with a middle-class building towards a billion citizens, and depleting resources within the country have forced an outward-looking policy of investment and trade that includes Africa in no small measure. But what of the relationship between China and the African nations as beneficiaries of China’s easy money that is happy to deal with dodgy dictatorships and corruption with not many questions asked. So, is the skepticism with which the West tends to view China’s economic adventures justified?

The Borgen Project, an N.G.O. which believes that leaders in the U.S. should be doing more to address global poverty, notes that the value of Chinese investment in Africa since 2005 has passed $2 trillion. And this with a strong focus on infrastructure and resource extraction, including increased access to transportation, healthcare, education, and telecommunication services for ordinary Africans. It seems like a reasonable quid pro quo—China gets to ship resources back home, and the recipient nations benefit through job creation and economic diversification, in other words, poverty alleviation. Furthermore, a rising middle class in Africa means a growing demand for “smart city” development, energy, consumption, education, entertainment, finance, and health. Little wonder then that the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit sees opportunity—already more than 10,000 Chinese businesses operate in Africa, almost all of them privately owned.

On balance, it is unsurprising that many African nations see China as a powerful and valuable ally, while undoubtedly, a friendly African bloc in the U.N. is helpful to China. But there is a brutal side to Chinese investment. Corruption is endemic in Africa, often among those in the highest office and throughout the socio-political fabric of nations. And this means Africa is open to rampant exploitation of its resources, with little regard for Nature or the ordinary people of Africa.

Just one of many examples is the influx of cheap Chinese goods that have decimated domestic industries such as the textile market in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, and Ghana, where only four out of 30 textile companies remain operational.

As the Borgen Project observes: “Chinese investment projects often lack sustainability regulations and native Chinese laborers frequently dominate them… Chinese lending practices have also received criticism for creating trade imbalances and debt for countries unable to pay them back in time.” Probably most worrying of all is that it is hard to read Chinese intentions and that “as their economic influence grows, so does their ability to influence Africa’s diplomatic and political landscape.”

China’s willingness to turn a blind eye to landscape and biodiversity destruction is most alarming for those of us with a particular concern for Africa’s environmental well-being. For example, while China is by no means the only offender when it comes to stripping Africa’s tropical forests of old-growth hardwoods, it has a lot to answer for. The country has banned logging at home, but Chinese enthusiasm for rosewood knows no bounds. Now that the forests in China’s Asian neighbors have been depleted, increasingly since 2010, loggers have been busy in Africa from Madagascar across the width of the tropics to the continent’s western shores. Between 2009 and 2014 alone, there was a fifteenfold increase in rosewood trade, with bribery and corruption at its core.

African nations are losing some $17 billion a year to illegal logging, with up to 75 percent of the timber going to China. The knock-on effect for the wildlife of Africa’s forests is immense. Not only is biodiversity directly compromised through habitat loss, but the road networks open the forest to further devastation by providing easy access to bushmeat hunters. Moreover, they open Africa’s rapidly dwindling forest elephant population to abuse of the worst kind. Poaching for their ivory. As a species, forest elephants have declined by some 86 percent over the past three decades and are now critically endangered.

China’s mineral needs are even more insatiable, and it can no longer meet its demands for copper, zinc, and a range of other minerals. As a result, China now imports $100 billion worth of base minerals every year—some 25 percent of global supplies. And again, China is turning to Africa to make up the shortfall in these commodities as well as cobalt, manganese, and chromium.

Quite what it means for a world struggling to reduce its environmental footprint is anyone’s guess. Still, the fact that China’s middle class is expected to balloon from 400 million to 800 million by 2030, possibly to 1.2 billion, can mean only one thing for consumerism. Already China’s middle class spends $22 billion a day. In such a scenario, accessing the raw materials to feed demand is an absolute necessity for China’s internal stability. And by obvious extension, if Africa can supply that demand, the short-term economic benefits to African nations have to be considerable, notwithstanding the damage to the continent’s natural heritage. So far, the statistics seem to bear this out. With annual trade touching $200 billion a year and China’s financial direct investment (FDI) in Africa totaling $110 billion in 2019.

As Cobus van Staden keenly points out: “things become a lot more complicated once you cross the Equator. Africa simply faces different realities, notably that the average African is 19.5 years old. Having a very young population is both a huge development opportunity and a significant threat if that development doesn’t keep up with citizens’ needs. This has prompted African policymakers to resist pressure from the US to stop working with China.”

But while short-termism and opportunism may sit well with African governments, it doesn’t always do so with people who have to live alongside and even make way for BRI developments. In Zimbabwe, local communities successfully challenged China’s mining giant, Afrochine, for irresponsible mining activities inside Mavuradona Game Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was unanimously agreed the Chinese company should immediately fold operations. Lamu in Kenya is another World Heritage Site, and here Kenyan judges halted plans to construct the country’s first-ever coal-powered plant when The National Environmental Tribunal ruled that authorities had failed to do a thorough environmental assessment.

In South Africa, a similar challenge is underway where NGOs, academics, and concerned citizens have teamed up to publish an open letter to the South African government voicing their misgivings about a proposed special economic zone (SEZ) in the country’s northeastern corner. The signatories say the Musina Makhado SEZ (MMSEZ) carries “grave environmental and social risks, and has lacked public participation and transparency.”

These landmark challenges can potentially make for more considered partnerships with China, but it will take more than the protest of civil society to drive a permanent change in the relationship. More than anything, African governments need to stand firm with NGOs in the longer-term interests of people and Nature. But, I fear that expedience and self-serving greed will win the day in an environment of weak laws and equally weak enforcement, coupled with corruption and incompetence. China will not be slow to take advantage of such shortcomings, so yes, Africans and African wildlife need to be wary, very wary indeed.