Wen Jiabao returned from Africa this week after a tour of seven nations. At every step of the way he announced deals, promised money, forgave debt and generally enlarged China’s already considerable stamp on the continent.
An at every step of the way, every time he announced a new deal, whenever a new grant was given or a loan offered, the press jumped up and down with an accusatory finger at the ready and talk of big bad China keeping down, poor and ravaged African countries.
Forget for a minute, if you will, two things. One, western countries like, in no particular order, England, France, the Netherlands, the United States, Italy and a few choice others have syphoned everything from people to oil from the continent in the last few centuries and, short of the abolition of the slave trade, the practice has not changed much. Two, the biggest oppressors of African people are often other African people and corrupt local officials are happy to keep their constituents down and their bank accounts up.
But back to the Chinese in Africa. Without a doubt, Chinese are savvy financial dealers. They have all the cards. Most economies in Africa need money, they need knowledge, they need infrastructure, they need just about everything. And China has just about everything. What it lacks is the resources Africa has but can’t get at.
The trade does not seem too unfair.
Except that China, unlike those other Western countries, apparently does not have the right to deal from a position of strength without raising alarm bells around the world. It’s OK for – again in no particular order – Germany, the US, England, France or Italy to do it but not China.
Never mind that, despite all the big deals in natural resources Chinese are just about the only ones – except for Lebanese who have been there for generations – opening small and medium sized business across Africa. (Granted, they often treat employees badly and pay very low wages but in some cases they are the only wages to be had.)
Take Sierra Leone, a country with 70% unemployment and almost no foreign investment. Sierra Leone has some of the nicest beaches in the world. The capital is bordered by Lumley Beach, a long stretch of white sand surrounding a reasonably calm bay that opens into the Atlantic. About halfway down Lumley Beach there is a small development called Chinatown. It includes a small supermarket, three or four stores that sell a variety of Chinese goods (from running shoes to fake DVDs) and two restaurants – one of which makes a mean hot and sour soup.
Chinatown opened earlier this year. The only new retail facility to go up in years. Just about everything used to build it and sold in Chinatown is imported from China but the place is there to stay and, at last check, it was the only one.
Yes, the Chinese may want natural resources from Africa. Who doesn’t? But they are also investing, even if only a little bit, in economies where nobody else is.