China - Advance In Africa Arouses Western Distrust
In recent years, China has greatly expanded its influence in Africa. In addition to its trade activities, China is emerging as a new player in the field of development cooperation.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have set up shop in Africa, while more and more Africans are finding their way to Beijing. A mutually beneficial development, but one that is watched closely by a deeply distrustful Western world.

Fifteen Africans dressed in orange track suits and wearing caps to protect them from the freezing cold are warming up on a football pitch in a Beijing suburb. They are the players of Africa United, China's only African football team. "From Cairo to Capetown, nearly all African nations are represented here," says Ethiopian assistant coach Sam Ahadu with enthusiasm.

Mr Ahadu, who has been living in Beijing for ten years, has no problems finding players for his team. Ten years ago, Africans were a rare sight on Beijing streets but these days they travel to the Chinese capital in droves.

"I believe that the number of Africans visiting Beijing has doubled over the past two years. Growing numbers of businessmen and students are heading this way."

Mr Ahadu works for a company that manufactures chairs, mainly intended for the African market. Production costs in China are much lower in comparison with Africa. He sometimes feels guilty that he and his company are undercutting African furniture makers. "So I'm trying to interest Chinese people in African products."

Generating Goodwill

There is nothing new about the Sino-African love affair. China's interest in Africa started in the 1960s. Beijing wanted to become the leader of the Third World to serve as a counterbalance to the United States. China is still seeking African political support in order to strengthen its position in international organisations.

However, Beijing has mostly been interested in commercial ties. It's invested billions of euros in trade over the past few years. China has adequate oil supplies, but lacks raw materials. Moreover, Africa offers a solution for high unemployment in the Chinese interior. In the coming years, 40,000 Chinese contract workers will be building roads and railway lines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The head of the research department at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, Jonathan Holslag, says that an increasing number of Chinese development workers are active in Africa, where they hope to create goodwill. "An estimated 1500 Chinese development workers are active in hospitals, schools and agricultural projects."

Mr Holslag says the exact amount China spends on development aid is a well-kept secret. One estimate puts the amount spend on aid at 5.5 billion euros. In addition, tens of billions are spent on loans to African countries.

No Preconditions

The Zambian Ambassador to Beijing Lupando Mwape says: "China offers us loans under very favourable conditions." He makes the statement in the embassy's reception room, where portraits of the Zambian and Chinese presidents hang next to each other.

"At least the Chinese see what we need. They don't set too many conditions to their loans and they build the infrastructure we really need."

Tens of thousands of Chinese are already working in Zambia where they are constructing roads, a sport stadium and two schools. Ambassador Mwape estimates that around 100 Zambians arrive in Beijing every month in search of a better life.

The first African fair in China is being held in the hall of a large Beijing shopping centre. Groups of Chinese look with interest as they pass the stands with African masks, statues and jewellery. Zimbabwean Martha Mugani sits between the wooden giraffes and stone hippopotamuses. "They really like our art, particularly the animal sculptures."

And Ms Mugani is enthusiastic about Beijing. It is already her third visit to China. She hopes that in a few months she'll to be able to settle permanently in Beijing and open a shop.


Until recently there was little contact between the "average person" in China and Africa. Most overtures were on a diplomatic level. Mr Holslag says that this is not surprising since the elites are the ones who profit the most from closer ties.

However the average person in Africa would rather see the Chinese leave as quickly as possible because contract workers and fortune-hunters are taking many jobs. There is also a lot of criticism of working conditions in Chinese projects in Africa. For instance, miners in Zambia rebelled against poor security precautions.

Especially Westerners are watching the Chinese advance with some measure of distrust. China is ransacking Africa and it is not getting anything back is one of the often-heard complaints. Mr Holslag says:

"China is taking the criticism to heart because they understand quite well that if they don't adapt and they cause resentment their long-term interests will become endangered."

After the fierce protests Chinese mining companies in Zambia improved security. Mr Holslag comments that the Chinese are selective when it comes to their responsiveness to criticism.

"You see that they do more about criticism in democratic African countries than in dictatorial and corrupt countries which are ruled by dictators."


Ambassador Mwape can get extremely worked up over Western criticism of China.

"Sheer hypocrisy! Nobody says a thing about the massive presence of Chinese in the United States but now that they are turning up in Africa, the entire West is up in arms. During the days of Western slavery nobody stood up to compensate us for the ransacking of the continent!"

Assistant coach Sam Ahuda is watching Africa United play another team. He says:

"It's clear that both parties profit. China needs raw materials and Africa needs knowledge and infrastructure. The only one who is worried is the West."

Africa United wins the match 5-1, putting the Africans in first place. The players form a circle and shout: "Hakuna Matata!", a Swahili phrase, which means "no worries for the rest of your days…"