China and the World

Out of Chafrica

China will woo Africa in coming decade

It started with these, 600 years ago

With the body of a musk deer, the tail of an ox, the forehead of a wolf, the hoofs of a horse and a fleshy horn like a unicorn, the Qilin occupies a special place in Chinese mythology.

In the sixth century BC this mythical beast is supposed to have presented Yan Zhengzai with a piece of jade telling her she would have a son who would be a king without a throne. Yan went on to give birth to Confucius, China’s preeminent philosopher and social theorist.

Hence when Ming Emperor Zhu Di wanted to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, he also enlisted the Qilin myth. He paraded a giraffe in front of his court, and proclaimed it a Qilin – implying that the animal’s arrival was evidence of heaven’s approval for his decision.

The giraffe had been brought to China from East Africa, courtesy of Admiral Zheng He’s voyage there in 1405. More than 600 years later, China is engaging with Africa once more.

But this time around, the interest extends beyond the importing of giraffes. In Nigeria, for instance, the Chinese are looking to bid for large blocks of oil. A Nigerian presidential adviser recently told reporters that the Chinese could spend $50 billion to secure reserves. The Chinese are keen to buy other minerals too. Guinea has welcomed a $7 billion investment in its bauxite mining industry (see WiC35). In last week’s Who’s Hu column we mentioned that billionaire Lu Xiangyang is negotiating to buy a cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

You probably haven’t heard of a company called Touchroad. But around 50% of revenues at this privately owned operator come from Africa in areas like textiles and foodstuffs. Touchroad has been in Africa for 10 years, investing $100 million and now has interests in 20 African countries. It told the Wall Street Journal its most recent venture is to construct an industrial park in Gabarone in Botswana.

To foster goodwill in the continent, China has pledged to make $10 billion in low cost loans to African nations, and is exploring debt forgiveness too. In an interview with the Financial Times the World Bank’s boss Robert Zoellick has said he is in discussion with Beijing to create new industrial zones, where low cost factories would be built.

The idea – sometimes called a Chinese Marshall Plan for Africa – would be to help the continent develop an industrial base. Rwandan President Paul Kagame recently gave an interview to German newspaper Handelsblatt in which he said: “The Chinese bring Africa what it needs: investment and money for governments and companies. China invests in infrastructure, and builds streets.”

But some in the West look on uneasily as Chinese firms build the ports, roads, dams and other infrastructural catalysts required for development. One accusation is of a new colonialism. But David Pilling of the FT thinks such talk is overdone: “China is no philanthropist, but its rise may represent Africa’s best hope of escaping poverty.” And as he also points out, much of the criticism of China’s influence can ring hollow. The West’s track record in Africa is far from exemplary: “European contact with Africa can be best summed up as decades of naked rapaciousness followed by a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to make amends.”

In fact, Piling thinks Chinese pragmatism may produce better results. Its own experience of economic growth predicated on infrastructural investment could help too.

So we better get used to reading more headlines like this one from the Wall Street Journal on December 14: “In Botswana, China is everywhere”.


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