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China and Africa

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on September 13, 2018 03:54

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China’s policies towards Africa are becoming clearer. While some line up for easy loans, others warn that ‘Chinese take-aways’ do not come cheap.

We had had a long day. Three hundred kilometers to the border of Mali, and another four hundred after the border crossing. Mali officials were friendly, but warned: ‘You must cross the bridge by a quarter to three. Otherwise the road is good.’

The road was good and we arrived at the river crossing with minutes to spare. But too late: The low water bridge was being demolished, and the new Chinese-built one would only be ready in months. So we had to take a three day 900 kilometer detour to Bamako on atrocious roads.

Not impressed
Night in a bush camp

We encountered Chinese roads again. Massive construction promised to transform the notorious Mamfe road into a freeway, and the previously impassable Crystal mountains in the Congo could be crossed on a beautiful turnpike. We had our doubts as to the quality of the construction in the face of African tropical downpours, and lack of maintenance, but better communication make for development.

After? New road through the Crystal Mountains, Congo

Presidents and Ministers who attended the recent Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing waxed lyrical about cheap loans for bullet trains, investment in tourism and trade networks, shared growth and political will. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $60 billion in aid and loans for Africa with no expectation for anything in return, and no political conditions.

The bulk of investments are expected to go into mining and infrastructure development. Automobile construction and other manufacturing is expected to be developed in Africa, as China moves towards higher-value products.

Warnings that the Chinese initiative would become a new colonialism were discounted: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa applauded the common vision of the future, and a ‘forward looking partnership.’

President Xi emphasised agricultural development and committed to sending 500 senior agricultural experts to seek food security by 2030. He also mentioned a single air transport market and direct flights, as well as 50 000 scholarships and 50 000 training opportunities.

China would not invest in ‘vanity projects’ but would respect Africa’s own will to eliminate development bottlenecks, he said, pointing to an Ivory Coast power plant, a Rwandan airport and a Kenyan railway built with Chinese technical know-how and loans.

Cynics abound, pointing to debt traps, but economists emphasize the investments in the African ‘youth bulge’ to creating a future pool of African workers that would support the Chinese economy as China had supported the Japanese and European economies, with resources, cheap unskilled labor and a growing market.
Concerns remain. Chinese development projects are notoriously of poor quality, and often make little use of local workers, importing most of them from China, and leaving them in place after the end of the project.