The Magazine

Africa's New Hegemon

From Cape to Cairo via Beijing.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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"The Western approach of imposing its values and political system on other countries is not acceptable to China," Wang Hongyi of the China Institute of International Studies told the New York Times last year. While the United States and Western lending organizations like the World Bank and IMF tend to make democratization and respect for private property and human rights a factor in their international dealings, China demands no such assurances from its partners. In 2005, an adviser to the Chinese government was blunt in explaining his country's oil trading policies to the Washington Post: "No matter if it's rogue's oil or a friend's oil, we don't care. Human rights? We don't care. We care about oil. Whether Iran would have nuclear weapons or not is not our business. America cares, but Iran is not our neighbor. Anyone who helps China with energy is a friend." Should Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez ever decide to cut off all oil sales to the United States (a potentially devastating occurrence, considering that Venezuela is America's fourth largest supplier), his Chinese buyers, he has proudly noted, will help him afford the move.

While the United States sits on its hands, there are positive signs that Africans are beginning to realize the consequences of sucking so hard at the Chinese teat. In Zambia, once a Cold War ally, mine workers have protested the hazardous working environment and low pay at the Chinese-owned Chambishi copper mine. Two years ago, 51 workers died at the mine, leading to increased skepticism among Zambians regarding their country's ties to the Asian behemoth. A report released by the British human rights group Christian Aid found that the idea persists in the Zambian popular imagination that "Chinese bosses were uniquely brutal and exploitative, and that the Zambian state's relationship to them was too close."

Chinese influence in Zambia played a major role in that country's September presidential election, when the opposition party made the government's close ties to China a campaign issue, nearly unseating the president. "They are out to colonize Africa economically," the opposition party's general secretary told the Daily Telegraph. Late last year, the first Chinese-owned casino opened in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, and the Chinese are currently building a five-star hotel in Livingstone, another major city.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are flooding Africa with cheap goods and cheap labor, to the detriment of African economic development. Cohen says that the Chinese often staff their mines with unpaid prison labor brought from China. Small businessmen across the continent regularly complain about the difficulty they have competing with Chinese who open shops in town centers stocked with cheap Chinese goods. These practices contrast with those of American businesses, which usually send junior executives, not unskilled laborers or shopowners, to Africa to train local people in competitive enterprise and management.

Cohen says that in Kano, a major city in Nigeria's north, a Chinese-owned textile factory has forced all of the city's other textile companies to close, and that the factory's raw materials are purchased in China, not Africa. "They tend to be like old fashioned imperialists," Cohen says. For their part, African leaders "get snookered into thinking they're in solidarity with the third world" by tying their fates so closely to the Chinese. To that extent, China's charm offensive in Africa appears to be working.

James Kirchick is assistant to the editor-in-chief of the New Republic. He reported last year from southern Africa for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.