Africa’s best hope

China is not a stealthy imperialist trying to colonise the continent

Written by New York Times | Published: July 2, 2012 3:15 am

China is not a stealthy imperialist trying to colonise the continent
Dambisa Moyo

In June 2011,Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech in Zambia warning of a “new colonialism” threatening the African continent. “We saw that during colonial times,it is easy to come in,take out natural resources,pay off leaders and leave,” she said,in a thinly veiled swipe at China.

In 2009,China became Africa’s single largest trading partner,surpassing the US. And China’s foreign direct investment in Africa has skyrocketed from under $100 million in 2003 to more than $12 billion in 2011.

Since China began seriously investing in Africa in 2005,it has been cast as a stealthy imperialist with a voracious appetite for commodities and no qualms about exploiting Africans to get them. It is no wonder that the American government is lashing out at its new competitor — while China has made huge investments in Africa,the US has watched its influence fade. Despite all the scaremongering,China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure.

Moreover,the evidence does not support a claim that Africans themselves feel exploited. On the contrary,China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Centre survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed,China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s. And the charge that Chinese companies prefer to ship Chinese employees (and even prisoners) to work in Africa rather than hire local African workers flies in the face of employment data. In countries like my own,Zambia,the ratio of African to Chinese workers has exceeded 13:1 recently.

Of course,China should not have a free pass to run roughshod over workers’ rights or the environment. Human rights violations,environmental abuses and corruption deserve serious and objective investigation. But to finger-point and paint China’s approach in Africa as uniformly hostile to workers is largely unsubstantiated. If anything,the bulk of responsibility for abuses lies with African leaders themselves. The 2011 Human Rights Watch Report,which described a series of alleged labour and human rights abuses in Chinese-owned Zambian copper mines,missed a fundamental point: the onus of policing social policy and protecting the environment is on local governments,and it is local policymakers who should ultimately be held accountable and responsible if and when egregious failures occur.

China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades,many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability.

Thankfully,the decrease in the flow of Western aid since the 2008 financial crisis offers a chance to remedy this structural failure so that,like others in the world,Africans can finally hold their governments accountable.

Moyo,an economist,is the author of ‘Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World’

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