President Hu Jintao's African Safari: Chinese Economic Juggernaut in Full Throttle

By Phiri, Marko | National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

President Hu Jintao's African Safari: Chinese Economic Juggernaut in Full Throttle


Phiri, Marko, National Catholic Reporter


Chinese President Hu Jintao's 12-day, eight-country tour of Africa, which ends Feb. 10, has dramatically underscored China's unprecedented drive to become Africa's best friend and business partner. The trip has also exposed the region's anxiety over who really benefits from Chinese investment in the world's poorest continent.

From the Cape in the south to Cairo, Egypt on the northern tip of the continent known for its vast natural wealth but unparalleled poverty, the Chinese economic juggernaut has made inroads into markets where it was virtually unknown before the Cold War ended.

Last year, Chinese trade with Africa hit $55 billion, exceeding all trade between African countries and the European Union. Yet, much of China's trade is in markets that Western nations shun because of alleged human rights abuses and questionable economic policies.

Sudan, for example, has become one of China's major oil suppliers, more than 14 million barrels last year. Meanwhile, China has become Sudan's largest supplier of arms. Chinese-made tanks, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades outfit the Sudanese army while fighting in Sudan's Darfur region rages on, despite international condemnation.

Zimbabwe, as another example, has been in economic turmoil for years under the failed policies and increasingly autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe. Yet Chinese businesses are making dramatic inroads into the mining, construction and transportation sectors. Zimbabwe's ailing national airline, Air Zimbabwe, now purchases Chinese-made passenger aircraft exclusively.

After years of economic turmoil, growth in the central business district of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, and Harare, the capital city, has stagnated--except for shops and business that cater to visiting and expatriate Chinese businessmen.

The Zimbabwean government recently announced it is bringing in Chinese instructors to teach locals the Chinese language as part of the government's efforts to boost trade in what it calls its "Look East Policy."

The drive into Africa has been intensifying since the 1990s, but it was not until Hu Jintao reached the Communist Party's highest echelons and became president in 2003 that China's interest in Africa took off.

Last November, China played host to 48 African leaders in Beijing at the first China-Africa business summit, a partnership between Chinese business and government. This was seen as a major sign of China's commitment to form long-standing relationships in Africa.

South African president Thabo Mbeki told the Financial Times of London last May that China's interest in Africa was not a threat but an opportunity. …

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