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China in Africa - good news or new colonialism

Jenny Bowie on an economic partnership

China's recent focus on investment and resource extraction in Africa has led to much debate and criticism from the West. Accusations of 'neo-colonialism' and exploitation dominate the media coverage. However, what does this greater Chinese presence in Africa actually mean for Africans? What is the real impact, positive and negative, of China's investment?

These questions need to be explored if the West is to avoid the criticism that it is simply annoyed that it is losing its dominance over Africa. Unlike the colonial relationship between Britain, France and others with its colonies in Africa, and the attitude of the West towards Africa in recent years, China's relationship with Africa is mutually beneficial. In exchange for resources, be it oil, diamonds or wood, China is building roads, bridges, schools and hospitals across the continent. And these are not one off small scale projects, but large scale reconstruction.

In post-war Angola, Chinese construction companies have rebuilt the capital Luanda, and have built a new city nearby called 'Nova Luanda' to house Angola's growing population. Also, along with large scale infrastructure projects, China has had an impact on education and health. China has built schools and hospitals across the continent as well as providing over 10,000 scholarships at African and Chinese universities for African students.

China also provides training for professionals and diplomats and has forged cooperation on research projects for academics. The provision of new schools, hospitals, rail networks and roads has a direct positive benefit on peoples' lives, and without these high levels of Chinese investment, national governments would not have the funds to pursue these projects.

A major criticism of these construction projects is that they fail to employ local people, relying on a shipped-in Chinese labour force. The average Chinese run construction project in Africa has a worker ratio of 70% Chinese and 30% local, and in most cases the Chinese workers will earn up to three times more than the local workers. Whilst it is obvious that it would be better if construction projects could help to alleviate large scale unemployment, the benefits of a hard working Chinese work force can be seen in the speed of construction projects.

As well as the direct impacts of construction, the greater Chinese presence in Africa is having some other, less obvious, impacts. Firstly, the introduction and growth of Chinese medicine in Africa, especially Tanzania, has led to a 're-birth' of traditional medicine and rejection of 'modern' medical techniques. Whilst the Chinese medicine clinics often provide more efficient service than state run services they are often un-regulated. This focus on traditional medicine has also encouraged people to use traditional healers, many of whom have a reputation of using human body parts and kidnapping children. A second less obvious impact of China in Africa is the damage cheap Chinese imports are having on industrial growth in Africa.

Chinese goods such as clothes, shoes, electrical products and bicycles are flooding the African market, at low prices, undercutting local industry. These goods are welcomed by many, allowing Africa's growing middle class to buy luxuries and lower classes to buy clothes and shoes they wouldn't normally be able to afford. However in South Africa alone, 12,000 jobs have been lost due to textile factories being unable to compete, and in Zambia workers took to the streets to protest against the impact of Chinese imports and investment - resulting in the opposition party leader promising to rid Zambia of the Chinese.

There are also some political implications of China's growing relationship with Africa. Western critics have feared that China's 'no interference' policy will result in a rise in authoritarian governments and a suppression of human rights. Looking at China's support of Mugabe in Zimbabwe through military funding, and Nigeria 's recent assassination attempt and 'life presidency', the threat does seem imminent. China poses an alternative successful system to the west, as a one party 'socialist' state, and whilst China does not put any direct political pressure on governments, their presence could have an impact, particularly in posing a threat to democracy.

There are flaws in a 'no interference' policy, as seen in Somalia where 70 workers were murdered in a Chinese oil factory by rebel group ONLF. Resistance to the presence in Africa may force China to recognise political instability, and therefore interfere in the politics of the countries it's investing in. Critics often compare Chinese investment in Africa with the western aid and development sector. However, China is clear that it is not donating aid or looking to bring about sustainable development.

China is investing in Africa so that it may secure its own future as the worlds resources decrease. China sees Africa as a business partner and this attitude and relationship is a welcome alternative to western imposition of neo-liberal values and economics which many argue have increased rather than aided poverty. There are many negative long term impacts of China 's relationship with Africa. But, in the short term, China is providing African states with many opportunities to develop their infrastructure and services. The level of investment China is offering is not being offered by the West (as its focuses on recovering from the recession) and therefore is the better opportunity for African states to further their development.