A question came up on Quora the other day: “To those who have a bit of a concern for Africa: Do any of you find the sudden infliltration of Chinese interests in African natural resources unsettling?”
I move around a lot in the Horn, East and Central Africa. I encounter Chinese everywhere I go – in capital cities, on the highways and in small towns. You cannot miss them and their influence. All over the region the Chinese are building roads, power stations & dams; putting up factories (furniture for instance); and involved in mining (minerals and oil).
I do not find it disconcerting in the very least. Two reasons:
1. The Chinese are dealing with legitimate governments and no outsider has any right to tell any government what they should or should not do.
2. The Chinese are keeping all their promises and invariably extend help before taking their returns. This has been the strategy all throughout. If the Chinese say a road will be built from X to Y in Z months, you can bet your last dollar that it will be.
Plus, China is one of the few nations that is actually looking at Africa as a raw material source and a market. They are investing in Africa; not merely supplying Aid. (look at this graph, slightly dated but tells a story)
This is a markedly different approach from the developed countries of the West. The Belgians, Portuguese, French and the British have tendency to look at Africa through the eyes of former colonialists and therefore see only poverty. The Americans either ignore or see it as a terror spot, now that the Cold War with the Soviet Union is over. The Chinese at least look at Africa and grant it more dignity.
I am not saying that all is great with the engagement. Nor do I want to sound like an apologist for Chinese engagement. I am not.
There is huge imbalance in the power relations. The trade deficit is very significant. The Chinese are mainly concerned with the ends and not the means, and they will run roughshod over any environmental concerns or human rights issues. To be fair they do that in their own country too. A number of people find this aspect disconcerting but frankly, it is no different from the treatment given to Africa by the democratic, human rights safe-guarding nations of the developed West in the Cold War times.
Do I find Chinese presence unsettling? No.
Last word : the infiltration has not been sudden. The Chinese have been involved in Africa for a long long time. They completed a Tanzania to Zambia railway (1800 odd kms) in the mid 1970s.
This was originally posted on Forbes. Views expressed here are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect Oxfam policy.