“The truth is, with the rise of China, we do not have to take any deal Europe throws at us that comes packaged with permanent poverty, incompetent volunteers and the occasional Nato bomb.” – Kenyan author and journalist, Binyavanga Wainaina.
Wainaina’s statement refers to the growing relationship of trade and investment between the emerging superpower, and the world’s second largest continent. The author’s comments also express a faith in the idea that Chinese investment is the answer to Africa’s development. We know that trade and investment are some of the key requirements for overcoming poverty, and some will welcome this as an improvement from years of foreign aid hand-outs. However, is Wainaina’s sense of security with the Chinese truly justified?
Last month, Niall Ferguson released a documentary series exploring China’s ascendency to economic superpower. The series also asked what China’s growing global presence could mean for the rest of the world (Episode 3). In today’s blog, using Niall’s documentary, we ask whether China’s expansion into Africa will help or hinder development across the continent.
Ferguson shows how 40 years ago, China had a smaller economy than Britain’s - now it is on course to overtake the USA as the largest economy in the world. To sustain this unparalleled growth rate, China’s economy needs to continue growing at a rate of 7% a year.
Ferguson’s documentary starts by focussing on Zambia’s experience of Chinese expansion. Copper mining in Zambia is big business for the Chinese, as they need this key resource to supply factories in production. One of the factories in Luanshya, (the Copperbelt province) generates between 2000 - 3000 tonnes of copper a year. Almost all copper produced in this factory is said to be shipped back for use in China. As we’ve blogged about before, China has played a significant role in developing petroleum industries in oil rich parts of Africa - to serve energy demands back home.
So what about the Zambians? What do they get in return? We are shown what, at first, appears to be a mutually beneficial relationship between the Chinese and the Zambians. China receives highly sought after resources such as oil, copper, and other minerals and the Zambians receive employment and infrastructure. China commonly funds construction of infrastructure such as roads, railways, airports and dams – mainly to facilitate the transportation of extracted resources across the vast continent. The Chinese have also been known to present gifts to the countries they are working within. In the series Ferguson visits a new hospital and a colossal football stadium in development. But what do these gifts actually represent? Are they really just a sign of friendship and partnership between the two nations? Or are they a way to win over those concerned their nation is being surreptitiously robbed of its resources? Although the construction of vital infrastructure serves a positive purpose for many impoverished communities, it can also be argued that it acts as an extension of foreign aid. It could serve to create another tie of dependence – “Africa relies on China for development”. This is frustrating at a time when the continent should be looking towards African led development.
These developments do result in some employment for Zambians, but Ferguson looks at the terms of employment under the Chinese. He visits a brand new hospital in Tanzania. Here we are introduced to the Chinese manager of the project, who describes that he has only had 3 days off in the 10 months he has been living in the country. When asked about the quality of Chinese labour vs African labour, the manager clearly favours the Chinese, ridiculing the comparative laziness of the African workers. Furthermore, there appears to be a significant influx of Chinese workers, despite there being many locals who are willing and able to work. So the promise of employment for local communities is not always realized.
In 2012, workers in one Chinese owned Zambian mine rioted over pay and working conditions. In one scene we meet the local Trade Union leader, and we get to hear the grievances of the miners she is representing. All voiced similar concerns regarding pay and treatment by the mine owners. So does working under the Chinese in Africa mean working for longer hours and little pay?
China’s presence in Africa appears to be a long term one. Although the benefit of Foreign Direct Investment in lifting people out of poverty is clear, we should not embrace blindly the idea that China or any major investor is the cure for poverty. Ferguson’s documentary shows the need to strengthen African industries; to shake off dependency and create long lasting change and development that comes from within the continent.