- The Chinese workers who have been busy
for months laying paving stones in front of the white marble senate building
in Libreville, Gabon, have finished. But another job awaits them across
the road, with the construction of a media centre commissioned by President
- Thousands of kilometres to the northwest,
in Nigeria, their compatriots are equally busy. Last month Chinese representatives
paid more than $2bn for a substantial share of one of Nigeria's offshore
oilfields. In Mauritania the Chinese are prospecting for oil and gas. In
Sudan they are operating a petrochemical plant. In Zimbabwe they have taken
a controlling interest in a mobile phone operator. They are building roads
in Rwanda and Kenya, rehabilitating farms in Tanzania, modernising Angola's
railways, investing in forestry in Equatorial Guinea and Mozambique.
- China is moving into Africa, advancing
its pawns methodically and without too much concern for ethical issues.
"It is prepared to grant loans guaranteed by a country's coming oil
production, a practice the International Monetary Fund [IMF] deplores because
it jeopardises the future," says a French official. Nor does it pay
much attention to politics or geography, investing in all economic sectors,
from oil to telecommunications, forestry to public works.
- China's activities are upsetting westerners,
who tend to assume that they have exclusive rights over the continent's
54 nation states. Last summer the US Congress held a special hearing on
growing Chinese influence in Africa. The French trade ministry asked all
its economic development outlets to file a report on market penetration
by China. In 2002-03 trade between China and Africa increased by 50%, rising
by a further 60% the next year.
- A few years ago the US and Britain were
leading foreign suppliers in central and western Africa, bettered only
by France. In 2003 China overtook the Americans and British. France is
still the top exporter, but there is no certainty it will hold on to its
lead. "China has simply exploded into Africa," says Walter Kansteiner,
a former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
- The Chinese are pragmatic. The Central
African Republic, for instance, is penniless after years of civil war.
International donors, such as the IMF or the World Bank, are understandably
hesitant. But not Beijing. Nor is its input restricted to finance. Its
firms are prospecting for oil and designing a cement works; the countries
have signed two cooperation agreements, covering agriculture and defence.
- Sometimes the newcomers take advantage
of a crisis to supplant their rivals. In 2002, when Zimbabwe's President
Robert Mugabe introduced controversial agricultural reform, the West imposed
sanctions. About 100 Chinese businessmen soon turned up in Harare. Four
years later their work is bearing fruit, with interests in mining, transport,
electricity production and transmission and mobile phones. There are now
direct flights to Beijing.
- Events in Ethiopia followed a similar
pattern. At the end of the 1990s the war with Eritrea scared off the British
and Americans. After a huge influx of subsidies, loans and volunteers,
Beijing has become a key player in the local economy, working in pharmaceuticals,
oil and roads. Its embassy in Addis Ababa is one of the finest in all Africa.
- The top priority for China, as it collects
prospecting permits from Mauritania to Gabon, is to secure access to African
crude oil. Its appetite for African hydrocarbons, which account for 30%
of its overseas energy bill, is certain to upset the US. In an attempt
to reduce its dependence on the Middle East, Washington too has selected
the Gulf of Guinea - Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea - as a strategic
zone for oil supplies.
- Chinese firms are also competing with
their western counterparts in fields as varied as pharmaceuticals and telecommunications.
In Mozambique the national phone company recently decided in favour of
a Chinese company. The capital, Maputo, has an eloquent example of the
decline in western influence: a new supermarket selling exclusively Chinese