As China's Xi Jinping visits, Africa asks: What are we getting out of this?

Chinese trade with African countries was nearly $200 billion in 2012. But after years of embracing China, some Africans say that China is taking more than it gives back. 

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping (r.) inspects the honor guard during a working visit to South Africa, in Pretoria, Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is touring parts of Africa this week, celebrating ever-closer economic ties that have made Beijing the continent’s biggest trading partner. But the bloom is off their initial romance, as each side finds previously unseen flaws in its partner.

“The honeymoon is over,” says Deborah Brautigam, an expert on China and Africa at Johns Hopkins University. “Now they are working on their relationship. It is not purely harmonious by any means.”

Indeed, China and Africa may be going through something of a “seven-year itch,” say some observers. It has been that long since 48 African leaders gathered at an unprecedented summit in Beijing to embrace China, and now some influential African voices are grumbling about whether their continent has benefited sufficiently from that embrace. 

The figures are startling: Chinese trade with African countries has leapt fourfold in six years to reach nearly $200 billion in 2012. There are now between 1 million and 2 million Chinese businesspeople in Africa, according to the government here (which does not keep accurate count). Chinese investments in Africa are worth more than $20 billion.

“Generally speaking, China has fulfilled the expectations it had seven years ago for its relations with Africa,” says Niu Xinchun, a researcher at the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government-linked think tank in Beijing. 

But in recent weeks, two prominent Africans have wondered aloud about their own expectations. “We have had some bad experiences with Chinese companies in this country,” Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, said in a recent interview with the Johannesburg-based Business Day newspaper.

In the future, “we are going to be looking very carefully at any company that originates from China in providing construction services of any nature,” he added, saying other African leaders shared his views. 

'Essence of colonialism'

Mr. Khama blames the electricity cuts in his country on a Chinese firm’s slow work to build a power plant. The governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, has a broader worry.

“China takes our primary goods,” such as oil and minerals, to fuel its economic boom “and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism,” Mr. Sanusi wrote in a recent opinion article published in the Financial Times. “Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.” 

Even some Chinese scholars are nervous that the behavior of Chinese companies in Africa – often accused of poor environmental and labor relations standards – will sour China’s relationships.

“China’s main challenge is to demonstrate that it is not repeating the old practices of the European powers,” warns Pang Zhongying, an Africa specialist at Renmin University in Beijing. “China has to match its deeds to its words … or Sino-African relations may have no future.” 

Oil and coal accounted for 50 percent of Chinese imports from Africa last year. Minerals and other raw materials made up the bulk of the balance. In return, China exported mainly electronics, machinery, spare parts, and consumer goods. 

Though the pattern of China’s trade with Africa does indeed replicate colonial patterns, says Professor Brautigam, “China is just reacting like everyone else to what they find in Africa – raw material exporters,” because African countries themselves have failed to industrialize. 

Moving factories from China to Africa

In fact, she argues, China is helping its African partners to industrialize both by building infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications, and power stations that cut the cost of doing business, and by investing in manufacturing.

An increasing number of Chinese firms are moving their factories from China, where labor costs are rising, to Africa, where they are close to raw materials and able to export goods such as shoes or clothing to Europe and the United States under the favorable trade deals that African countries enjoy.

In the meantime, however, the hundreds of thousands of Chinese traders who have flooded into Africa to sell cheap consumer goods are causing resentment up and down the continent, says Chris Alden, who monitors Sino-African relations at the London School of Economics.

In many countries they have forced local shopkeepers out of business. “The way opposition politicians often use the China card to score political points suggests that African communities feel at best ambivalent about the Chinese presence,” Dr. Alden says.

How to reduce friction?

The Chinese firms who sign giant contracts to dig mines, build ports, or lay highways – often state-owned enterprises – could help reduce frictions, says Alden, by “ensuring that there is sufficient local content and that local labor will be hired and trained, so that Africans benefit more” from the projects.

China, too, has found “areas of discomfort” in its relations with Africa, says Mr. Niu, notably “unsatisfactory investment environments due to political insecurity.” 

Nowhere have Chinese firms suffered more from such insecurity than in Libya, where more than 40,000 Chinese workers were building houses, roads, and other infrastructure projects under deals, worth $18 billion, signed with Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s government. The men were all evacuated when the civil war broke out, and the projects remain abandoned.

That experience, suggests Brautigam, points to another area in which China will have to raise its game in Africa – political risk assessment. 

“They did not see that coming,” she says of the Libyan civil war. “They will have to develop more diplomatic capacity to give better advice to their companies.” 

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