Science - June 1, 2006

Chinese ‘conquer’ Africa

Chinese companies are conquering the African continent, on the look out for oil and other raw materials, but also in search of a market for the growing Chinese economy. Added to that, the Chinese do not ask awkward questions about human rights, democracy or pollution. Is this leading Africa out of the frying pan into the fire, or will the beleaguered continent benefit from the new Chinese investments?

Dr Kees Burger, development economist:
‘I think the Chinese investments are a good thing. Chinese businesses tend not to ask questions about how democratic a regime is. But China is not alone in this. Many trading companies, including Western consultants, don’t do this either, so why act surprised about China? The criticisms don’t really convince me.

‘The real question is whether Chinese investment China will increase corruption, or whether it will merely perpetuate the present situation. If the money just greases the same hands, the system will not necessarily become more inefficient. If far more people become corrupt, then it will become more inefficient.

‘Western governments may complain about corruption but Western companies generally do not, and they do business everywhere, except perhaps in Zimbabwe. The Chinese investments are oriented towards the exploitation of natural resources, as were those of the colonial powers in previous centuries. These do not contribute to the local economy, but they do not damage it either. There is a net flow of money into a country. Of course it would be better if that was invested in the whole economy, instead of in one road from the coast to a mining area. And of course these activities do not take the environment into account. But that is true of every company that invests in Africa.

‘The problem therefore is not China, but the corrupt governments in Africa. They are the ones who allow all these activities. The interest that China is showing in Africa, will enable the African government leaders to play Western and Chinese investors off against each other. But it’s an illusion to think that you can change a corrupt government by imposing conditions on giving assistance. World Bank research has shown that imposing conditions on aid does not improve governance in a country. A regime must be able to pursue good policies first, and only then can aid help. Put the other way round, you can’t make a bad government better through aid. The population of Africa is hostage to its government leaders; that is the problem, not the Chinese investments.’

Joris Tielens