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“The way it looks, one day there will be a big fight with them. One day there will be blood." -Jaffa Shaibu, a 32-year old Malawian merchant.
China and Africa—a nation and a continent. That is the popular context of this very dynamic relationship. To understand whether increased Chinese presence in African nations is a beautiful love affair, an abusive relationship, or maybe, a little bit of both we must go to the ground, to the very core, where real people live this international connection everyday.
World renowned economist, Dambisa Moyo doesn’t see any evidence that Africans feel exploited. On the contrary, Ms. Moyo believes that China is welcomed across the continent. According to the 2007 Pew Research Center Survey of 10-Subsaharan African countries, citizens viewed economic involvement by China as a good thing, as compared to the U.S. While studies and surveys are wonderful, it is important to know what the numbers don’t tell us.
For merchants in many African nations, the Chinese have access to cheap products and the ability to cut back at the margins, which is cutting deeply in to native African pockets. Studies do site inflated prices and already high values as a possible cause of lower profits for African merchants. In Soweto the price of chicken went down by half and cabbage went down by about 65% since the Chinese entered the market. In any nation that has a significant poor population, lower prices for food is generally seen as a very good thing. The problem is that powerful businessmen who are accustomed to lavish lifestyles, paid for through high prices. Since the Chinese have brought lower prices with them, these merchants might criticize Chinese merchants with the goal of pushing Chinese sellers out.
It is unclear whether this is an issue that is wide spread across the continent, or if it is specific to particular industries, locals, or nations. What is clear is that tensions are rising between Africans and Chinese.
Last November, four Chinese in rural South Africa were burnt alive in an arson attack in their home. In Zambia last month, miners in a dispute over pay crushed a Chinese supervisor to death with a coal truck. In Ghana, armed Chinese informal miners have clashed with gangs of local youths, triggering a government crackdown. In Angola a few weeks ago, 37 Chinese men were deported on suspicion of running a criminal gang that burnt its victims with gasoline before burying them alive, according to China's Xinhua state news agency.
And from Senegal in the west to Kenya in the east, traders are up in arms about what they see as unfair competition from private Chinese merchants surfing into Africa on the back of a wave of big investments.
These are scary times, and there is no indication the Chinese government plans to change any policies, without which African nations may become dangerous for Chinese investors. Sadly, it does not seem that the African nations benefitting from Chinese investments are eager to address these issues either.
To make maters worse there are some, like Dambisa Moyo, who believe that human rights, environmental right abuses, are unsubstantiated claims and that corruption requires a more serious investigation. What Moyo does believe is that the onus of passing and enforcing policies to protect resources, like much of Sudan currently covered in lakes of spilled crude, should be left to African countries.
While that does make sense, Moyo does not address who holds power in most of these negotiations. What she does say is that that many African nations abdicate their responsibilities at home in return for vast sums of money received for courting international donors. It would seem that even if African nations had the power to demand and enforce protections, which is not clear that they do, there is no incentive for African officials because the short-term benefit of kowtowing to foreign donors is a sure and greater investment.
There is no denying that alliances with China would be a move in the right direction for most developing African nations, especially since China’s ascent in power and economy demonstrates their domestic and international prowess. However, these alliances should not come at the expense of natives of African nations. At the end of the day they will be the ones holding the bad check, not the officials who have built their homes, and whose retirement checks not only exist, but also won’t bounce.
From the outside all we see are well-rehearsed political smiles and firm handshakes. On the inside, these agreements buy far more than investments and capital for both nations; people’s lives are forever changed; some for the better, but more often for the worse. Without firm and realistic policies put in places by both nations, Shaibu’s warning of things ending in blood might not be far from the truth.