China’s new President Xi Jinping turned his trip to the Brics summit in Durban, Cape Town in March into an excursion with visits to a number of African countries the Chinese economic dragon is trading with and investing in. China endeared itself to leaders across Africa’s political and ideological spectrum when it said it was happy to do business with Africa for business’s sake and would attach no conditions on how African countries conducted themselves.
Beijing offered investment without demanding poverty alleviation, democratic reform or anti-corruption measures. There now appears to be a shift in African leaders’ attitude. For example, Botswana President Ian Khama and Nigerian Reserve Bank governor Lamido Sanusi are openly questioning whether the association has benefited Africa as much as it has China.
George Ayittey, Ghanaian economist and president of the Free Africa Foundation, a Washington-based research centre, says there’s a belief that since Africa got a raw deal from the colonial West, then China must be Africa’s best friend.
“But the evidence doesn’t show that,” he says. “The main criticism is that the Chinese are building infrastructure in exchange for Africa’s resources in deals that are structured to favour China.”
Nigeria’s Sanusi likens China’s wholesale purchase of Africa’s primary resources such as coal, oil and iron ore, and sale of manufactured items to colonial policies, and is troubled by Chinese investment in African infrastructure which largely ignores transferring skills to local communities. “Africa must recognise that China – like Britain, Russia, the US, Brazil and the rest – is in Africa not for African interests but its own,” observes Sanusi.
Khama told South Africa’s Business Day newspaper that some African presidents had expressed frustration when dealing with Chinese companies, adding that Botswana has also “had some bad experiences with Chinese companies”. China has every right to be disappointed with such expressions of ingratitude, having built and paid for the African Union’s $200m headquarters opened last year and pledged an additional $20bn in new loans.
But it is as pragmatic as ever in conceding “some growing pains”. Notes Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun: “There are more than 2m Chinese entrepreneurs. They have made a great contribution to local development, but a lack of mutual understanding has led to some problems.”