The general manager of the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mining Industries in Sinazeze, the hottest, most remote corner of Zambia, is all of 24. Six months ago, he was busing tables at a Lusaka Chinese restaurant owned by his friend’s mom. Six months before that, he was in university in China. On the side, Alfred Huang is starting an electronics business importing second-hand laptops, DVD players and cellphones to the desperately underserved African market. His moustache is little more than peach fuzz, and his perfect English rolls out so softly it’s hard to make out what he’s saying, but here, the Sichuan native commands respect. He’s a king in the making, with his feet in two markets, and interests stretching from minerals to electronics. Already, he’s told all his friends to come to Africa, the Promised Land for China’s young and nimbly entrepreneurial.
Huang first landed in Zambia in the thick of the global recession, a dark time for the copper-bottomed economy. At the peak of the downturn, the mineral’s price dropped by more than two-thirds. Panicked Western investors fled or dramatically scaled back operations. One in five Zambian miners lost their jobs as the economy ground to a halt. Copper accounts for some 70 per cent of government revenues, and dwindling foreign exchange reserves sunk the local currency.
China’s cash-rich firms, however, insulated from the downturn, saw opportunity in the growing hole investors were leaving behind—and not just in Zambia. Sino-African trade rose by 30 per cent last year, and should hit $100 billion this year. Thanks partly to new investment and a bounce in commodity prices, Africa’s economies are rocketing out of recession, projected to grow an average five per cent in 2010, behind only China and India, which are leading the global recovery.
This is not, by any stretch, Chinese altruism at work. Africa is now the source for fully one-third of the world’s commodities, says Martyn Davies, director of the China-Africa Network at the University of Pretoria.
To continue clocking its giddy growth rate, China, which accounts for 40 per cent of the increase in demand for oil over the last four years, needs Africa’s petrol, its timber for new construction, copper for telephone and electric cables, and cobalt for cellphones and computers. In return, it is throwing up new ports, railways, hospitals, airports and thousands of kilometres of new highway, everywhere from Sudan to tiny Lesotho. At last count, all but four African countries had established trade relations with Beijing.
That rapid growth in Chinese business interests in Africa is helping fuel out-migration from China. But it’s not the only factor encouraging young Chinese to move abroad. One in three college graduates can’t find work, Huang says, and the average pay of those who do is now approaching that of rural migrant workers. With population pressures, some Chinese are being quietly urged to move abroad, with state-controlled banks offering capital, sweetheart lines of credit and project assistance to ease the push. In Africa, the Chinese diaspora recently tipped a million. Some African capitals now run direct, daily flights to Beijing.
China’s “no-strings” investments, friendships with African pariahs like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and its disregard for environmental, labour and safety standards, have elicited howls of moral outrage in the West. Yet Western governments, too, have shown a willingness to turn a blind eye to despotism and corruption when their interests are being served, and Africans bristle at the portrayal of Africa as weak and powerless to defend itself against the Chinese onslaught. Many experts insist there is more to this than a simple morality tale, with Africa playing the role of victim.
Clearly, there is an upside to it all: badly needed new infrastructure, foreign reserves, new jobs and technologies destined for a continent dubbed “hopeless” by the Economist a decade ago. To Davies, the Chinese boom is a “phenomenal success story.” Harvard’s Robert Rotberg, who edited the new book China into Africa, calls it Africa’s “last, best chance” to enter the global game. “No country,” says economist Dambisa Moyo, “has had a bigger impact on the political, economic and social fabric of Africa.”
And so a new set of questions is being heard above the din: could China, which has, over the past few decades, moved hundreds of millions of its own citizens out of poverty, be a better agent for change than the West? Can clear-eyed self-interest, and commercially justified investment, succeed where Bono and decades of aid programs have failed? Some of the answers lie in Zambia, home to some of China’s most ambitious African designs.
Two years ago, as its competitors were laying off workers, delaying projects or closing up shop, China Nonferrous Metals (CNM), a mining venture several hours north of Collum’s headquarters in Sinazongwe, doubled capacity in its copper ventures in the Copperbelt province, Zambia’s mining hub. Last year, it cut the ribbon on a bright blue, US$220-million copper smelter in Chambishi, the heart of the region. But in spite of the buzz, the Chinese have not been embraced as saviours. Chinese firms, by most accounts, pay the lowest wages, and have the worst safety record in the Copperbelt.
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