A shipment of weapons from China destined for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is an obvious cause for the West to denounce Beijing’s involvement in Africa. But Western business and political leaders have already been watching China’s re-engagement with the continent with trepidation. China is setting up Confucius schools, laying out roads and railways and stitching together deals to buy its commodities — oil, platinum, gold and minerals.
China’s investment might offer Africa the first real chance to lift itself out of poverty. Between 1945 and 1978 the US poured the equivalent of all the aid given to Africa into just one country, South Korea. This is the kind of commitment Africa needs.
China’s involvement is not all positive as the support given to Mugabe’s regime shows. Its model of one dominant political party that quashes dissent is inspiring a number of African leaders just as the continent is seeing a proliferation of opposition parties and a mushrooming of civil movements. But African autocrats have also been helped by the US war on terror, allowing them to round up and imprison critics. The countries of most of Africa’s longest-serving leaders — Togo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cameroon, Mauritania, Guinea, Uganda and Swaziland — either have oil or are partners in US anti-terror campaigns.
So criticism of oil-rich regimes with dictatorial governments has been muted.
African governments must insist that trade pacts with China include clauses committing it to respect minimum labour rights, human rights and environmental standards. China needs the resources of the veld just as much as Africa needs its money. To continue its head-spinning 9% growth rate, China’s economy requires a deluge of commodities that can be found only in Africa in such quantities and so cheaply.
But, to make the partnership work for them, African nations will have to be more hard-nosed. China is buying strategic assets cheaply and with few obligations. Most countries export raw materials and import labour-intensive manufactured goods from China. The rise in exports typically generates few jobs, while imports take them away. Africa must ensure that partnership deals boost its shrinking manufacturing industry and quickly diversify its economies. It must not again squander its riches
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