Chinese imperialism in Africa

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On the weekend of 3-5 November Beijing hosted a China-Africa forum that top-level delegations from 48 (out of 53) African countries planned to attend. The way that the Chinese media sold the jamboree, along with loyal African cheerleaders, gave the impression that China is a great force for progress in Africa - such a contrast to the colonialists and imperialists of the US, Europe and Japan.

The Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister said (Xinhuanet 12/1/6) that his government wanted “to conduct mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation with African countries” and “will vigorously encourage Chinese enterprises to participate in improving infrastructure in African countries”, but insisted that “China’s economic aid for African countries is free of political conditions and is based on African countries’ priorities”.

Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda (Peoples Daily 27/10/6) declared “African leaders and their people will not be cheated by lies that China’s presence in Africa is neo-colonialism”.

When African trade union leaders visited China in October they said “China’s assistance to Africa is ‘sincere’ and ‘selfless’” and “has brought ‘concrete benefits’ to African countries and people” (People’s Daily Online 14/10/6.)

Chinese imperialism defends its interests

China is sensitive over accusations of ‘neo-colonialism’, especially if they’re made by imperialist rivals, because its attitude towards Africa is supposed to be different from theirs.

China, for example, boasts of the extent of its trade with and investment in Africa. “The two-way trade volume has rocketed from 4 billion dollars in 1995 to some 40 billion dollars in 2005. Chinese direct investment in Africa has amounted to 1.18 billion dollars, with more than 800 Chinese enterprises on the continent.” (Xinhua 9/9/6). So, what is this investment, and can it really be described in any way as ‘selfless’?

The official Chinese view is that “the rich deposit of resources in Africa matches China’s need for raw materials for sustained economic growth” (ibid 12/1/6). That is to say, it’s the demands of the Chinese economy that feed its ‘investment’ in Africa. Chinese industry needs a lot of raw materials such as copper, iron ore, cobalt, and platinum. It is the biggest user of copper in the world and has invested over $150 million in mining in Zambia, as well getting copper from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Oil is essential to all aspects of modern industry and China’s energy needs compel it to search everywhere. “Africa is home to 8% of the world’s oil reserves, which has prompted Beijing to spend billions of dollars to secure drilling rights in Nigeria, Sudan and Angola and to negotiate exploration contracts with Chad, Gabon, Mauritania, Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and the Republic of the Congo. The continent now accounts for 25% of China’s oil imports” (Asia Times Online 6/10/6).

China’s oil operations in Sudan are so extensive it takes 70% of the country’s oil exports. One of the reasons for the more than $10 billion dollars worth of investment in Sudan is the defence of Chinese oil interests. It has a military force in place in Sudan to guard 1506 kilometres of pipeline, a refinery and a port all built by Chinese labour. 10,000 Chinese workers were brought in to work on the project, it was widely rumoured that prisoners were used, many of whom “may have perished from disease in the inhospitable swamps and baked savannahs” (Human Rights Watch November 2003).

China also has an enormous need for timber and is taking great amounts of wood from forests in Mozambique, Liberia, Gabon, Cameroon, DRCongo and Equatorial Guinea – many of these being countries where the environmental impact of often illegal logging is ignored.

One interesting example of the Chinese approach is that it is not only attracted to Zimbabwe for supplies of gold, silver, and platinum, but has been “farming about 1,000 square kilometres of the land that has been seized from white farmers since 2000” (Asia Times Online 6/10/6.)

The claims about the benefits of trade are particularly dubious. Every national capital has to find a market for the products it manufactures; that’s ABC in commodity production. Europe and the US will only accept limited quantities of Chinese exports, so Africa is one of the few remaining markets for China to try and exploit. Chinese textiles, for example, undercut the African competition. It should go without saying that the $40 billion trade figure for 2005 (maybe $50bn in 2006) is heavily weighted toward Chinese sales.

Fuelling Africa’s wars

One trade that has been thriving for a long time is the arms trade. China is the most significant supplier of arms to Sudan, having delivered tanks, ammunition, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, howitzers, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns, and anti-tank and antipersonnel landmines. And the Sudanese government arms the Janjaweed militia in Darfur (see ‘Imperialist intervention is never humanitarian’ in WR 298). For decades China has been a major arms supplier throughout Africa, including to both sides in the Eritrea/Ethiopia border conflict of 1998-2000.

Human Rights Watch (November 2003) “concluded that while China’s motivation for this arms trade appeared to be primarily economic, China made available easy financing for some of these arms purchases”. The economic aspect of the arms trade is misunderstood here. National capitals defend their interests in many ways and the military aspects of imperialism are fundamental. Arms sales are often subsidised by a power if it corresponds to its imperialist interests. Not only that: China “will continue to help train African military personnel and support defence and army building of African countries” (‘China’s African Policy’ at www.chinaview.cn 12/1/6). In a continent of multiple conflicts China helps to fan the flames. It has several thousand troops in Liberia and DRCongo (among nearly 10,000 throughout the continent) and, apart from Sudan and Zimbabwe, has significant military links with Nigeria and Ethiopia. This helps explain why Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was reported by Xinhua (16/10/6) as saying “China is not looting Africa” and that “the influence of China is not a source of concern or danger”, despite arming Eritrea against his own country.

One commentator has pointed to different appreciations of Chinese activity in Africa. “Although China’s Africa policy has won the hearts and minds of the continent’s rulers, the people themselves appear to lag behind. They are waiting to see whether the Chinese model of engagement with the continent is going to be any different than those of the exploitative colonial powers of the past.
So far - with China using the continent as a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for its own manufactured goods - the formula seems much the same.”
(Asia Times Online 6/10/6)

Other commentators have shown how economic necessity has driven Chinese policy in the continent, as well as being able to take advantage of the lack of US influence in some parts, as in Sudan where US companies are banned from investment. A Deutsche Bank expert suggests “It’s a vacuum. Why not fill that with loans and development help in exchange for getting put higher on the pole when it comes to consuming African oil” (BusinessWeek 14/9/6). This makes Chinese intervention in Africa look like a particular policy, one from a number that could be chosen. In reality, as the article on imperialism in this issue clearly shows, imperialism is not a policy of this or that country but the situation that pushes every national capital to fight ruthlessly in defence of its interests.   Car 3/11/6