China’s already significant trade and investment interests in the African continent are expected to surge in 2011, with total trade value likely to exceed the US$115 billion in Sino-African trade in 2010. China’s trade and investment dealings with a long list of African nations have seen a ten-fold increase over the last decade, with trade and investment driven by forty-five bilateral trade and investment deals, including a “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement that China’s president, Hu Jintao, signed last August with South African president Jacob Zuma.
In addition to its growing interests in South Africa, China is focused on expanding trade and investment with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Algeria, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya. Last April, China and Kenya signed ten bilateral trade agreements, including a deal for the construction of a five-hundred bed hospital, which will be Kenya’s first full-scale university hospital. Although Kenya lacks the natural resources that many Chinese investors have sought, Chinese investors view Kenya as a critical access market, particularly given the country’s proximity to southern Sudan. The hospital initiative in Kenya is part of a long-term Chinese initiative to provide billions of dollars in grants and loans to African governments in exchange for access to critical raw materials and large-scale infrastructure investment opportunities.
The Chinese government views its expanding trade and investment relationship with Africa as mutually beneficial, with China accessing the raw materials it needs while exporting low-cost products to a growing consumer population in Africa. Chinese emigration to the African continent has tracked this rapid growth in trade and investment, with close to one million Chinese citizens now living and working in Africa. However, despite exponential growth in trade, investment, and the move of hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals to Africa, the expanding Sino-African trade relationship has not been without controversy.
Some observers believe that Chinese investors have severely limited their ability to succeed on the ground in Africa by disregarding local cultural, labor and environmental interests. In Zambia, for instance, a Chinese manager of a Chinese-invested coal mine shot two Zambian employees in a wage dispute. The incident led to public outrage that Chinese investors are consistently willing to disregard humanitarian and labor rights in a full-speed push to maximize profits. Some African governments have had to respond to growing and widespread public concern that Chinese investors - particularly in the mining sector - are destroying national parks and other natural treasures, while depleting valuable natural resources and failing to ensure the safety of African miners and laborers.
The quality of Chinese infrastructure construction in Africa is also a growing concern. Some African officials have discovered that the roads, hospitals and other substantial facilities built by Chinese construction companies often are of poor quality, and deteriorate quickly, suggesting a direct connection between sub-standard construction and alleged bribery schemes involving local officials and inspectors. As one example, the Luanda General Hospital in Angola was closed after severe cracks developed in the building. In addition, a Chinese-built highway connecting two Angolan cities was closed after rains swept away large portions of the roadbed.
Foreign policy and international economists believe that China can maximize its investments in Africa by working harder on the public relations front, including a more dedicated effort to preserve natural resources, protect the rights and safety of workers and build cultural goodwill in local communities. Although large-scale mining and other natural resource deals can be executed directly with African governments and leaders, and with little regard for any negative public reaction that might stem from these projects, long-term Chinese success in the African market hinges on the ability of investors to operate successfully at the local level. In recent years, China has invested in more than nine-hundred small-scale goods and services projects in the farming, fishing, animal husbandry, light industry, radio communication, textile, water and power generation sectors. Long-term investment growth and success in these areas increasingly will depend on the ability of Chinese investors to enrich rather than exploit local resources and communities.