China leads twenty-first century Scramble for Africa

By ADITYA Ramachandran ’17, Staff Writer (@aramacha@fandm.edu)

At the close of the 19th century, there were few unaware of the “Scramble for Africa.” Effectively, a collection of imperialist robber-barons carved up the whole continent of Africa as the personal property of five European nations.

Another scramble is under way in contemporary Africa. This time, however, only one country is involved, but, arguably, its ambitions are just as magnanimous as those of the European hegemons of old.

Every day, the tendrils of the People’s Republic of China extend deeper into Africa’s natural resources. While the Old Continent sought direct political authority over African territories back in the day, China is attempting to acquire an African economic empire instead. In 2009, China became Africa’s single largest trading partner, surpassing the United States. And China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa has rocketed from below $100 million in 2003 to more than $12 billion in 2011. Beijing has acquired mines in Zambia,  railways in Uganda, and has established shopping centers and power outlets in almost every capital. Oddly, this sort of low-profile imperialism is exempt from the sort of criticism that is so frequently foisted on the United States and other Western states today.

From the Chinese perspective, investing in Africa is actually quite a sensible endeavor. To satisfy China’s population and prevent a crisis of legitimacy for the country’s rulers, the Communist Party of China (the CPC) needs to continue to lift people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs land and minerals. So, naturally, they focus on Africa’s less-developed swathes. Sudan’s six billion barrels of oil reserves have become vitally important in context of China’s strategic vision.

However, these facts cause concern in the minds of many Africans. Their governments may welcome Chinese FDI, but Africa’s citizens do not share in this enthusiasm. The consequences of China’s new role in Africa have already been catastrophic. Instances of corruption, labor abuse, and criminal cover-ups have tarnished interpersonal relations between Africa and China.

According to Lamido Sansui, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

Michael Sata, the president of Zambia, was elected on the back of his anti-Chinese campaign in 2011. An industrial accident at one Chinese-run mine claimed 46 lives in 2005. Later, workers rioted over low wages and poor conditions. Many Chinese supervisors have been accused of kicking their African subordinates and of petty racial prejudice, something that is hardly surprising, considering the perception most mainland Chinese citizens have of Africans (for more context read M. Dujon Johnson’s book Race and Racism in China).

For those of us who were looking forward to an Africa that would go on to shake off the vestiges of hundreds of years of colonial rule and stand up refreshed ready to take on the world, this is hardly a positive development. Indeed, it seems as though this Chinese presence will establish a new sort of hegemony in the Dark Continent, one that that will give the People’s Republic leverage against the West in its grand vision of attaining primacy in the world.

Indeed, like all empires that have ever existed throughout human history, China’s economic domain in Africa is stirring deep resentment. One has to wonder where this scramble will end, and how it will affect the world and China’s place in it.

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