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Thursday, 17 May 2012

China's New Colonialism in Africa

By Chola Mukanga

The word colonialism naturally awakens images of King Leopold and other tyrants in ages gone by that subjected defenceless Africans in the rampant thirst for wealth and power. This shouldn't surprise us because the human mind has the tendency to gravitate towards the worst triangulation of any issue, even though reason dictates that much of colonialism is subtle and propagated through indirect structures. 

Properly understood both theory and practice show that colonialism is the act of one nation or society extending its influence by controlling territories outside its national boundaries. The motivation is always self interest – to gain access to limited resources. Usually these include natural resources but there may be a desire to gain access to land which offers strategic economic or military advantage over competing rivals.
It is through this prism that China’s current activities are rightly viewed as a potent emerging colonising power. It certainly did not deliberately set out to colonise Africa, rather its colonisation efforts are an outworking of its rulers struggle to maintain the current growth trajectory at all costs, in order to pacify the expectant masses. The Politiburo’s quest for domestic stability has produce in Africa a situation where it is now the pre-eminent colonial power of the 21st century. From Zambia to Mongolia, poor country after another, China is investing in return for strategic benefits, usually copper or oil. Besides the thirst for local resources, China is exporting people and selling weapons, as well as shipping of prisoners[i]. Large tracts of lands are now in Chinese hands across the continent[ii]. These resources are important to keep its billion people under control.
Like colonial leaders of the past, the Chinese strategy for dominance has targeted its effort on a corrupt African leadership through dirty deals. Out of desperation and corruption, African leaders are selling their people into a new era of corruption and virtual colonialism as China seeks to buy up all the metals, minerals and oil she can lay her hands on: copper for electric and telephone cables, cobalt for mobile phones and jet engines - the basic raw materials of modern life. It is crude rapacity, but to Africans and many of their leaders it is better than the alternative, which is slow starvation.
In recent years China has expanded its influence in Angola with billions worth of credit agreements related to electricity, water, road and housing. In exchange, Angola keeps offering more barrels of oil. The exact amount of the Chinese credit is unknown, but experts put this at $10 billion, with more loans in the pipelines. In Zimbabwe, there have been closer economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing, often with wide and far-reaching effects. Not satisfied with using its influence to block democratic reform and improvements of human rights, China’s capital and funding arrangements for Zimbabwe have been responsible for keeping Mugabe in power. Chinese firms supported by their powerful State apparatus and employing low-cost but efficient labour consistently outbid contractors from other parts of the world. China has de facto control of telecommunications, textiles, construction and mining deals in Zimbabwe.
China’s growing ties with corrupt governments inevitably undermines ordinary Africans striving to build a better Africa. Zambia has experienced firsthand the human right abuses and flouting of countless labour laws by Chinese companies which were recently documented in a hard hitting report by Human Rights Watch. Recourse to the legal process is fraught with difficulties as political actors intervene to maintain a parallel form of justice. When the employees at Collum Coal Mine were shot by their Chinese supervisors the Banda led government quickly stepped in to agree that they should not be prosecuted. A crime against the state had become a private deal among individuals.
The apex of colonialism is military influence. It therefore comes as no surprise that China has been increasing its military influence in Africa. China's military-to-military activities in Africa, including defence attaché presence, naval ship visits, arms sales and other missions to support military cooperation having expanding to keep pace with China's growing national interests throughout the region. Indeed, as Chinese presence grows China will increasingly be challenged to respond to security threats to Chinese property and personnel in the region that may necessitate a re-evaluation of the role of China's military.  
In 2011 Zmabia’s Army Commander General Lopa sign bilateral deals with Beijing to strengthen military cooperation[iii]. Recently, the new administration bought eight K-8P jets for Zambia Air Force (ZAF) from China[iv]. ZAF Commander Eric Chimese said the jets would "enhance the military wing’s ability to monitor the stability of the country". Plans to purchase helicopters and other police and military gear from China have also been muted. Why poor nations like Zambia need to expand its military cooperation with Beijing’s beats the poor. What is clear is that Beijing's military foray into Zambia and other African countries continues unabated and the aim appears to challenge western military influence in Africa, even as many reject America’s Africom[v] advances after pressure from Beijing. None of this comes as a surprise because it’s well established that the relationship between economic help and military intervention is inseparable. It is illogical to expect nations that invest billions in other nations, not to back up that investment with some guarantee of security. China's growing integration in Zambia is bound to be accompanied by greater military intervention as it seeks to guarantee its "investment". This is the most worrying aspect of China's reach in Zambia, and ignore it our peril.
At the social level, China has been expanding its influence with significant cultural exchanges facilities through training programmes and expansion in development of Chinese communities across the continent. These social developments are facilitated with increased aviation links. More routes are inking African airports to mainline China than ever before. But not all social contact has been welcome. Recent evidence appear to show that as Chinese jails reach the full bream, thousands of Chinese convicts have allegedly been pressed into service on infrastructure projects undertaken by state-run Chinese companies in Asia and parts of Africa, reminiscent of exports of convicts to Australia at the height of British imperialism. Many have come across such Chinese convicts finishing their jail time as forced labourer on road projects in Africa. This export of unwanted peoples is not only blocking unskilled local labour to have job opportunities but it may lead to deep social problems in the future.
With the export of people comes direct land grabs. The DRC has been involved in proposals that relate to proving large tracts of land to China to grow large amounts of palm for oil production. The details of such deals are never discussed but have come at a time when arable land around the world is in short supply due to climate change and other factors, and Africa's land supply attracts growing attention from wealthier resource-hungry nations. This of course is was part of ever expanding Chinese deals including a range of energy and infrastructure package, following the cancellation of debt worth $8 billion by multilateral institutions including the World Bank. Alongside the deal was a $9bn agreement that pledges millions of tonnes of copper and cobalt to China in exchange for roads, railways and other infrastructure, dubbed the Congo’s Marshall Plan. The deal was naturally accompanied by large tax breaks for Chinese companies and the ceding to Chinese companies mining rights to over 10 million tonnes of copper reserves and around 600,000 tonnes of cobalt estimated at $87 billion[vi].
Sceptics are quick to suggest that such things are nothing to worry about. Africa has plenty of land and resources. But unfortunately Beijing’s actions go beyond these considerations. For one thing, Chinese influence involves new forms of African dependency. Indebtedness is turning the African into a slave of the lender.
The increasing piling of Chinese debt for countries which have experienced debt relief in the past is demonstrated again in Zambia. Under the Banda presidency Zambia acquired $1bn in credit for projects in hydro power and road infrastructure. Other deals include credit for building stadiums ($US100m); buying rail wagons; and, funding new regional electricity inter-connections from Zambia (US$225m). This trend of increasing indebtedness has continued under the present administration, with new deals being announced everyday[vii].   In all these deals, when the payback comes, it is our children to think of how to pay back daddy's careless borrowing habits. If the money was properly channelled Zambia could create not a paltry 4,000 low quality jobs but 50,000 jobs through properly focused infrastructure development. All of these deals are secured with no parliamentary oversight and overseen by corrupt civil servants.
Colonialism is of course also intellectual. At the heart of the Chinese story in Africa is not only an escalation African subjudication but also the spread of ideas. One such idea is the perpetuation of a slavery ethos. Africa's current leadership continues to enslave their people, repeating the same mistakes of their pre-colonial forefathers. The buyers may have changed but the sellers remain the same - a small band of power hungry elites. The commodities were ivory but now its copper, manganese, diamonds, etc. One thing never changes - people are still being sold. Africans are not being physically shipped, but certainly many have all their dignity stripped through poverty and other abuses.
Another idea being promulgated by China is market authoritarianism which it is now exporting to Africa. China is changing how we think about the nature of development China’s emergence on the international stage poses a serious threat of ideas about how prosperity is attained and the society we want to live in. The Chinese model promises rapid growth, stability and a pursuit of better life for poor countries. Absent from this model are the things ordinary Africans desire such as free speech, freedom of worship, open government and royal political opposition. The Chinese model is proving attractive to African corrupt leaders as they flock to Beijing to learn how they can stay in power in exchange for economic growth. They are literally learning how to exchange growth for a rod of iron.
The “no” camp would of course contend that China is not unique its thirst for dominance indeed, some recent empirical work appear to show that when compared to aid from OECD and other emerging donors Chinese aid does not appear to be motivated by any rogue intentions. That is to say there appears no evidence that China's aid is biased towards autocratic or corrupt regimes as claimed by its critics. But that argument is premature because motivation must be assessed alongside the outcomes of its political actions. That China may not be selective does not diminish its likely impact - which is significant control of resources and colonisation. The other point is that procedures matter. As noted Chinese resource acquisitions are mainly done through back room deals, something that cannot be assessed through econometric analysis.
Others believe that the Chinese are misunderstood and do not deserve their negative reputation as their operations are no better or worse than Western companies. For example when Chinese managers in Zambia are more willing to pitch in with manual work when necessary, due to the socialist mindset, they are misread by politicians who believe Chinese workers are taking Zambian jobs. But the rampant disregard for laws and mass protests in Chinese led industries shows that this argument is not sustainable because the source of concern is shared by the general population, not a selected “anti-Chinese mob” as usually alleged.
As Africans we have a serious challenge on our hands. How are we to respond to this new colonialism? The African response must start with recognition of our current limitations in the Chinese partnership. China is here to stay and the deals it has put in place are irreversible. No future leader no matter how opposed he may be to China’s practices will be able to reverse the current arrangements. Zambia has seen this policy of accommodation in the last six months. With every investment China raises the cost to Zambia of reneging on her in the future. It pushes Zambia into becoming increasingly reliant on China.
The only ray of hope lies in an urgent recognition that at the core China is a rational economic agent seeking to maximise its own gains from this unequal of colonial relationships. That requires African governments to recognise the opportunities. China’s growing thirst puts Africa in a strong bargaining position. China is experiencing huge deficits of raw materials across a range of sectors. Its markets are anxious for imported minerals to bridge the gap.  Africa is estimated to hold more than 10% of global oil reserves and one-third of reserves of cobalt and base metals. South Africa alone possesses 40% of the world’s gold, which has been skyrocketing in value since the onset of the global financial crisis. Africa’s agricultural potential has barely been touched. Africa must start to see itself as a potential global driver not merely a comfortable passenger on the Beijing Express
To take advantage of its position, Africa must avoid the “divide and rule” that led it into the arms of previous colonial masters. It needs to improve coordination among states in dealing with Beijing. Moving away from striking individual deals and negotiate stronger as a bloc. It is the only way to avoid a full fledged Chinese colonialism of Africa.

Chola Mukanga is an economist and founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent economic perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people

Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2013

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  1. Cho, Even before I read the essay, I concurr with the notion that there is such a thing as: "Chinese Colonialism in Africa". The too trusting Africans will one day wake up and find that they are traped by the Chinese. Chinese are very sophisticated in their approach and meet no challenge whatsoever from Africans.

    Because of corruption and carrots coming from the Chinese, Africans give up easily. Most of them think that they are getting free money from the Chinese, when as a matter of fact every Yen that is spent in Africa, is for Chinese' self interest. Chinese never give anything for free.

    When the time is ripe: China being the strongest economy in the world accompanied by military stregnth - plus being in control of nearly ALL the countries' economies they're pouring money into; then their true colors will come out. Remember that Chinese don't have much respect for human rights or any other right or freedom for that matter. At that time, Chinese will start issuing commands and nobody will have power to stop them. The unfortunate thing is that, Africans will have nowhere else to run to. The West and UN will be toothless by then.

    So, it is wise to consider and ponder about such concepts or topics as "Chinese Colonialism" Only a fool wouldn't think that is not important. More ideas after reading the essay. I rarely make comments these days. Cheers!

  2. but why do you expect things from the Chinese to be free? and why are expecting to run to other people when you are in trouble? the trouble with African is we like a free lunch! well there is no such things learn to negotiate and accept terms that benefit both parties! weather you like it of not China is rising and you are better of doing business with them than not...and the west you are running used Africa before they started all this lets help...them business.

  3. sorry too fast ....I meant But why do you expect things from the Chinese to be free? and why are you expecting to run to other people when you are in trouble because of your choices? the trouble with Africans is that we like a free lunch! well there is no such thing! learn to negotiate and accept terms that benefit both parties! China is rising with or without you and you are better off doing business with them than not...besides the West you are running towards also used Africa before they started all this lets help...them business. It time to stand up and take responsibility! are the Chinese coming to Africa and forcing their way on you at gun point? no! they come with a contract! which our politicians sign! the problem is not the Chinese why should the look out for us? the problem is our leaders! whose job is to do things in the nations interest but yet again our continent is being sold for peanuts! and this is not the first time our leaders have sold us for mirrors!

  4. Nyemba you are so right!


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