x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Will China's love affair with Africa end in tears?

China has overtaken France as Africa's second-largest trading partner and is hot on the heels of the number one, the US.

Symbiotic relationship: a Chinese engineer oversees work on a construction site in Khartoum.
Symbiotic relationship: a Chinese engineer oversees work on a construction site in Khartoum.

Nearly 20 years ago on a press trip to Africa, I stumbled across a pickup truck full of Chinese men in blue boiler suits. Instructing our driver to follow them, we bounced along a dusty, red laterite road in the gloom until they turned into a camp on the outskirts of Gaborone, full of hundreds of other Chinese workers. They had been hired to build a new road from Gaborone to Maun, the capital of the Okavango.

It struck me as curious that Botswana should need to import labourers, particularly from so far afield. At the very least they might come from neighbouring South Africa or Zimbabwe, countries with relatively skilled workforces always in need of a job. I didn't realise that the Chinese had been coming to Africa for centuries. The most impressive arrival was when Admiral Zheng He pitched up off the coast of Kenya in 1421 with a fleet of 300 ships and 25,000 sailors. His mission was to pick up some African leaders and take them to China to celebrate the New Year.

It is not recorded how successful this venture was, for soon after this the Confucians seized power in Beijing and contact with the outside world was shunned. It was revived in the 1950s, when the Chinese decided to compete with the Soviet Union and the western powers for trade and arms sales to the African continent. They were not terribly successful, but the political fallout from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 saw the Chinese redouble their efforts.

Not only did African delegates control more than a third of the UN votes, but their elites were also keen to court Chinese power. A further fillip came in 1995, when then Chinese president Jiang Zemin instructed the business community to "Go Abroad! Become world players!" African leaders, bored of being lectured by the Washington consensus on the importance of democracy, privatisation, liberalisation of the economy and other measures, were delighted to find that the Chinese didn't care a fig for such things. They wanted raw materials to feed China's factories; what the Africans decided to do with the loot was their business.

This Chinese and African love affair was consummated in Beijing in November 2006. Apart from five small countries with links to Taiwan - and thus considered enemies - the leaders of the entire continent travelled to China's capital. The Chinese president Hu Jintao lined up the assembled leaders and told them: "Today, China-Africa friendship is deeply rooted in the hearts of our two peoples." Africa's leaders grinned during the photo shoots and fought to repay the compliments.

"The 21st century is the century for China to lead the world," said Olusegun Obasanjo, then Nigeria's president. "And when you are leading the world, we want to be close behind you. When you are going to the moon, we don't want to be left behind." Much of this is recounted in a brilliant new book called China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing's Expansion in Africa, by Serge Michel and Michel Beuret. Serge Michel was until recently Le Monde's man in West Africa; Michel Beuret is foreign editor of L'Hebdo, a Swiss magazine.

The pair set out to trace China's steps in Africa. They discovered not just workers, like my men in Botswana, but Chinese farmers in Sudan growing Chinese food for Chinese executives, road builders in Algeria and oil workers in Angola. The links are beginning to look more like economic hegemony than a trading partnership. "There are Chinese to drill the oil and then pump it into the Chinese pipeline guarded by Chinese strongmen on its way to a port built by the Chinese, where it is loaded on to Chinese tankers headed for China; Chinese labourers to build the roads and bridges and the gigantic dam that has displaced tens of thousands of smallholders; Chinese to grow Chinese food so that other Chinese need eat only Chinese vegetables with their imported Chinese staples; Chinese to arm a government committing crimes against humanity; and Chinese to protect that government and stick up for it in the UN Security Council," they write.

It is tempting to draw the conclusion that the Africans are being as comprehensively plundered as they were by the unscrupulous European powers two centuries earlier. "We must simultaneously be cautious, smart and quick to act if we are to procure the spoils of that magnificent cake, Africa," wrote King Leopold of Belgium in 1877. The Chinese have certainly been smart and very swift. Bilateral trade between the two blocs multiplied 50-fold from 1980 to 2005, quintupling between 2000 and 2006 from US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) to $55bn, and forecast to hit $100bn by next year.

China has overtaken France as Africa's second-largest trading partner and is hot on the heels of the number one, the US. How will it all end? Nobody knows. Africans might end up with a first-class Chinese-built infrastructure, driving their Chinese cars on Chinese-built roads and watering their crops with water from Chinese-built dams. Or it may all end in tears. A rumour swept Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo, recently that 2,000 Chinese prostitutes were set to enter the city. Husbands used the news to threaten their wives, cut their allowances and tell them that the Chinese were both more affectionate and better value. Not surprisingly, the African women rebelled.

If similar resistance is copied throughout the rest of the continent, the beautiful friendship may come to a sudden and bloody end. rwright@thenational.ae