11 January 2013
June 20, 2006, was an important day for Angola. Amid the diplomatic pomp and handshakes of an official visit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao opened the Luanda General Hospital and had his picture taken peering into a microscope, while surrounded by officials in suits and medics in white smocks. The General Hospital, a sprawling eighty-thousand square meter complex, was constructed with Chinese funds and meant to symbolize the growing partnership between Beijing and Angola, a gesture replicated across the African continent in countless roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects funded by Chinese investments. Premier Wen stayed only 24 hours but the hospital remained—a physical reminder of Sino-African trust and cooperation.
Four years later the hospital was in imminent danger of collapse. Deep cracks ran through its walls; bricks crumbled under the structure’s weight. Personnel and 150 patients were evacuated, some forced to relocate into tents on the hospital grounds. Beijing dispatched an investigatory team, and their findings concluded that faulty Angolan surveys resulted in flawed Chinese designs. This diagnosis that has come to symbolize the greater Sino-African relationship: great ambitions built on uncertain ground.
China has a vested interest in developing Africa’s infrastructure through loans underwritten by the continent’s vast natural wealth. Beijing has seeded billions of dollars across the economically fertile continent: $6 billion to the Democratic Republic of Congo; $8.4 billion to Nigeria; $16 billion to Ghana (according to The Wall Street Journal); and last July Chinese President Hu Jintao promised an additional $20 billion for agriculture and infrastructure loans to the continent. Massive investments across the continent underscore the fact China sees its future economy closely tied to Africa.
This future looks bright as the IMF forecasts seven of the ten fastest growing economies by 2015 will be African. Now China is Africa’s largest single trading partner, and in 2011 bilateral trade crested at $166 billion, up a staggering 33 percent from the year before. Significantly, of this trade, $93 billion came from African exports of mostly natural resources and agricultural goods, while the remaining $73 billion consisted of manufactured goods imported from China. Rather than just an extraction site for China’s resource needs, Beijing sees Africa as a highly significant market for Chinese products.
On the surface China’s resource-for-infrastructure investments are presented in simple terms: in exchange for access to African resources, Beijing underwrites major infrastructure projects necessary for economic development. These resource deals are ostensibly built upon China’s principle of “equality and mutual benefit, cooperation and win-win, and common development” as outlined by the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation. While this ‘win-win’ economic cooperation has the very real capacity to significantly increase African development, massive Chinese investments have raised deep concerns over just how beneficial their policies will be for Africans. In signing deals that trade African resources for easy loans and much needed infrastructure, Beijing must be seen as a fair player in regional development and not, as some critics suggest, a neo-colonial power colluding with kleptocratic governments. China’s brand name is embraced by many as a business-based alternative to traditional Western aid, but in recent years China’s actions on African soil have questioned Beijing’s ‘win-win’ rhetoric and ultimate aims on the continent.
One of the many criticisms leveled at the Chinese resources-for-infrastructure deals is the shoddy quality of their infrastructure projects. Luanda’s General Hospital is no isolated event. The Economist has reported Chinese-built roads in Zambia washed away by rains. In Ghana the $5.7 million Koroidua bypass built by the China Water and Electric Company became immotorable just a year after it opened due to craters and gullies. At the University of Liberia’s Fendell Campus, a $30 million gift from China, the administration building showed signs of collapse after being open only two years.
Perhaps there is no greater symbol of Chinese construction challenges on the continent than the new African Union complex in Addis Ababa which opened this January. Built by local labor under Chinese managers, the African Union’s $200 million headquarters was hailed as China’s gift to Africa and a sign of progressive partnership. Only six months later Christian Science Monitor published photographs of the building’s leaking ceiling making the rounds on Facebook.
Other chief criticisms are allegations of labor abuses. Chinese mining investments in Africa are significant, and in 2010 Zambia earned $2.2 billion from bilateral copper exports—but not without controversy. Human Rights Watch reported Chinese managers of parastatal mining companies were making miners work 12 to 18 hour shifts up to 365 days a year in fume-filled tunnels without providing drinking water or safety equipment. Other alleged abuses included beating workers with hammers and shovels, and paying most workers less than $200 per month. In 2010 similar pay and working conditions at the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine provoked protests from Zambian miners; their Chinese managers responded by firing guns into the crowd and injuring twelve. Two managers were accused of attempted murder but these charges were later dropped. A year later another clash at the same mine left one Chinese manager dead and two others wounded.
A sobering example of growing tension in Sino-African relations is documented in a U.S. State Department Human Rights Report involving the parastatal China Henan International Cooperation Group in Mozambique. After beginning work on a new water supply system complaints arose about labor and safety violations, but the greatest insult were Mozambican workers wearing badges reading ‘escravo’—the Portuguese word for ‘slave.
A more troubling aspect of China’s resources-for-infrastructure deals is its willingness to align with authoritarian leaders, including Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. In 2008 The New York Times reported dockworkers in South Africa refused to unload a Chinese cargo ship carrying three million rounds of ammunition, several thousand mortar rounds with mortar tubes, and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades bound for Zimbabwe. In response to international attention, China’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters, “China has always had a prudent and responsible attitude toward arm sales. One of the most important principles is not to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”
While Beijing claims non-interference, the actions in support of Mugabe’s regime suggest otherwise. Last year the China Development Bank announced they could invest up to $10 billion dollars in Zimbabwe’s mining and agricultural sectors. In 2012 President Mugabe opened a new $98 million military academy built by Chinese contractors; the project’s cost will be repaid in Zimbabwean diamonds. For years the Chinese have been mining partners in the controversial Marange diamond fields, where in 2008 Mugabe’s helicopter gunships killed some 200 diamond panners; many more were subjected to torture, rape, and dog attacks. Now, with perhaps $10 billion to invest and Chinese diamond mines currently operating in eastern Zimbabwe, Beijing’s policy of non-interference, a core component of their Peaceful Rise doctrine, seems to ring as hollow as their support for Mugabe is resonant.
China’s willingness to align itself with repressive African regimes through ‘no strings attached’ loans is by no means limited to Zimbabwe. In 2009, the China International Fund, a suspected parastatal enterprise, struck a $7 billion mining-and-infrastructure deal with bauxite-rich Guinea only days after the military junta attacked a pro-democracy rally, resulting in 157 deaths and the rapes of 100 women. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, China has allocated $6 billion in resources-for-infrastructure developments despite rampant government corruption and the national army’s repeated attacks on civilians, including forced labor, rape, and murder.
Perhaps nowhere has China’s resource-based investment in repressive regimes raised more international criticism than in Sudan. According to Al-Jazeera, Sudan has benefitted from $15 billion of Chinese investment and infrastructure projects including oil refineries, a 1,500 km pipeline, and the Merowe Dam, which AFP reports has displaced 15,000 families and incited deadly protests. From 2008 to 2009, China sold over $35 million worth of firearms, artillery, and armored vehicles to Khartoum despite the International Criminal Court charging President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity for the 200,000 lives claimed in the Darfur conflict. Though China has massive investments in Sudan’s petroleum infrastructure, when South Soudan claimed independence and took 80 percent of Sudan’s oil reserves, Beijing was quick to court Juba with easy ‘no strings attached’ loans, despite human rights organizations reporting widespread cases of rape and murder perpetrated by South Sudanese police and military.
Such massive investment across the African continent has not escaped international criticism. During a recent stop in Senegal, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a veiled warning to China’s regional ambitions, stating, “The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century.”
In response China’s official Xinhua news agency dismissed such criticism, claiming, “Whether Clinton was ignorant of the facts on the ground or chose to disregard them, her implication that China has been extracting Africa's wealth for itself is utterly wide of the truth.” Beyond the rhetoric of proponents and detractors, the long term impact of China’s massive investments is uncertain. Resources-for-infrastructure deals hold the potential to dramatically develop African economies and transform the livelihoods of millions across the continent. However, substandard infrastructure projects, abusive labor practices, and cozy relationships with repressive governments undermine the real development of many African nations.
Africa’s resources are immense, but for China to be a lasting and beneficial partner in regional development its actions must be above suspicions of neocolonialism. Last July South African President Jacob Zuma struck a sober tone at the China-Africa Forum, stating, “Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by a supply of raw materials, other products, and technology transfer. This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.” While China is quick to refute critics, the moral high ground of history is reached by slippery slopes. When offering easy infrastructure loans for Africa’s natural wealth, Beijing would be wise to remember the roads France paved through Vietnam, the Dutch-built ports of Indonesia, and the British railways forming the spine of India.
Nathan William Meyer is a global affairs writer and humanitarian photojournalist who has worked in over thirty countries reporting on government crackdowns, natural disasters, and human rights abuses.