Tue, Aug 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

All of a sudden, China is everywhere in Africa

China, like the Arabs and Europeans before it, is seeking its fortune in Africa, but Beijing seems to be offering locals something different


The Boulevard du Centenaire was once the preferred address of a certain class of this city's Paris-educated elite -- the career civil servants, university administrators and other upper-level functionaries of the vast state bureaucracy.

These days the street, one of the loveliest in this seaside capital, is more likely to be home to Chinese merchants who sell shoes, electronics, plastic jewelry and toys from storefronts built into Centenaire's grand old villas.

China, it seems, is suddenly everywhere in Africa, not just in oil-rich states. Trade between Africa and China has almost quadrupled since 2001, and last year reached almost US$40 billion.

China is hardly the first nation to seek its fortune in Africa. First the Arabs, then the Europeans built their empires on African riches and sweat, followed by the Cold Warriors, fighting their proxy ideological battles in Africa's marketplaces for influence and profit.

Through all the iterations of the world's engagement with Africa, most of its nations have remained stuck in an economic trap in which they primarily supply valuable raw materials to the developed world, while serving as a marketplace for cheap manufactured goods.

But China seems to be offering Africa something new, a straightforward business relationship between equals based on mutual interest and noninterference in the internal affairs of its allies. Or as the economist Jeffrey Sachs phrased it at a conference in Beijing this week, "China gives fewer lectures and more practical help."

But is China's interest in Africa truly different from that of the earlier powers? Or is Beijing, as some are beginning to say, peddling the same exploitive formula in an attractive dressing of Third World solidarity?

Certainly, China sees itself as offering something superior to the standard Western prescription.

"Now African countries have more choices," said Lu Shaye (盧沙野), China's ambassador to Senegal. "They have the panaceas of the World Bank and the IMF, and at the same time the experience of China. They can compare and choose the best."

China's recent history presents seductive possibilities for sub-Saharan Africa as well. In the past two decades, China has pulled hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty and transformed itself from an agrarian backwater into the world's fastest-growing economy.

Its presence is certainly greatest in the resource-rich countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan (where its role has been criticized as contributing to the crisis in Darfur).

But China's growing presence is also manifest in less obvious spots. In Sierra Leone, Chinese companies have built and renovated hotels and restaurants. In Mozambique, Chinese companies are investing in soybean processing and prawn production. At the African Union meeting in Banjul, Gambia, last month, the Chinese delegation dwarfed the ones sent by France, Britain and the US.

Here in Senegal, a country whose economy was long dominated by peanut farming, Chinese construction companies are working on roads, bridges, waterworks and other projects. Small-scale Chinese enterprises have sprung up, importing inexpensive manufactured goods, running restaurants and Chinese medical clinics.

But the economic history of African nations is a cautionary tale of exploitation and failed schemes to transform the continent's rich endowment of resources into wealth for its people -- even in the decades after the depredations of the colonial and imperialist eras.

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