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Dark side of Chinese investment in Africa
August 19, 2017, 11:51 am

Communist-turned-capitalist China is reportedly becoming the new face of imperialism and colonialism in Africa. 

China is allegedly following in the footsteps of former Western colonial rulers who plundered the natural wealth of many African countries and enslaved its people, under the guise of developing and enlightening the ‘dark continent’. The difference is that today’s neo-colonists do not use bullets, bayonets or brute force to impose their will on African governments; they use money, politics, trade and investment.

China with its insatiable demand for raw materials is one of the biggest investors in Africa and its largest trade partner since 2009. In the first half of 2017, total trade between China and Africa was a little over US$85 billion. While Chinese exports to the continent increased by three percent to total $47 billion, its imports, mainly raw materials, almost doubled by an estimated 46 percent to reach more than $38 billion in the first six months of this year.

A survey in 2013 by the Center for Global Development and the group AidData of 1,673 Chinese-backed projects across 51 African countries from 2000 to 2011, found that most of the projects were in the transport and energy generation sector. Many of these infrastructure projects were being implemented to directly or indirectly link Chinese resource extraction projects in the hinterland to seaports along the east and west coast of Africa.

Some of the largest resource extractive projects and mega infrastructure constructions in Africa are owned by large state owned enterprises (SoE) from China. With billions of dollars at their disposal and cheap Chinese labor, these firms are able to easily undercut local competitors and win contracts. Many of these SoEs have been alleged to engage in exploitative practices, including strip-mining that irreparably destroys whole areas and damages the ecosystem. These companies have also been indicted with violating local labor and environmental laws, as well as bringing in thousands of Chinese laborers thereby denying employment to locals.

However, for the most part, these companies have been able to get away with these violations because of the lack of accountability and transparency in many African states, as well as by the connivance of high-level corrupt government officials. Most governments in Africa prefer the no-strings attached Chinese investments, rather than the Western model, which often comes with accountability and good governance prerequisites.

The Africa Progress Panel, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has said that the Chinese-no-strings-attached model could risk introducing oversight of corruption and encourage poor governance.

But it is not no-strings-attached all the way by the Chinese, as many African countries are now finding out. Increasingly, China is using its economic clout on the continent to get African countries to toe its line on policies that China considers important. Whether it is getting African countries to disengage with the Republic of Taiwan, which China sees an integral part of its mainland; or withdraw African support for Uighur Muslims whom China has branded terrorists; or dissuade African countries from welcoming the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, whom China accuses of engaging in anti-China separatist activities.

Though it is an economic powerhouse, China apparently suffers from a deep sense of insecurity on the global stage. This sense of geopolitical insecurity was evident last week, when China warned Botswana against going ahead with a planned visit to that country next week by the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader, who is expected to address a human rights conference in Botswana’s capital Gaborone on 17–19 August, is also slated to meet the country’s President Ian Khama.

China is a major investor in the economy of Botswana, with Chinese SoEs having been awarded contracts to build roads, dams, power stations and airports in the country. In a daily media briefing last week, Chinese Foreign-Ministry spokesman Geng Suang said that China hoped Botswana would make the “correct” decision about the visit by the Dalai Lama. “We hope the relevant country can clearly recognize the essence of who the Dalai Lama is, earnestly respect China’s core concerns, and make the correct decision on this issue,” Geng said.

The Dalai Lama, who fled from Tibet into exile in India in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has long been at loggerheads with China, which brands him a dangerous separatist. The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, says he seeks greater rights, including religious freedom and genuine autonomy for Tibet.

Visits by the Dalai Lama to foreign countries infuriate China. It often retaliates by stopping high-level meetings or taking economic steps, like last year when it imposed new border fees following a visit by the Dalai Lama to Mongolia. South Africa has denied a visa to the Buddhist monk three times since 2009 in what opposition parties there, and South African icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu, say shows the extent of Beijing’s influence over Pretoria.

The fact that a fragile, 82-year old Tibetan monk can continue to unsettle China more than half a century after he was exiled from Tibet , certainly does not become of a nation that aspires to be a world power and global leader.


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