Why China needs Africa more
Written by Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak Monday, 15 August 2011 11:37
In the first part of this series, The Daily Maverick asked whether Africa really needs the interventions and investments of the People’s Republic. Our conclusion was that only time would tell. Now we look at why China needs Africa, and the answer seems to be no more complicated than “land and oil” (and a few other precious commodities). As of now, the relationship is far from even.
Ever heard of a “Baoding village”? If you haven’t you’re not alone, because there are anthropologists at universities in Australia and the Netherlands who are convinced they don’t exist. A Baoding village, in short, is supposed to be a settlement of Chinese farmers in Africa, and is the very essence of the term “colony” – the etymology of which can be found in the Latin noun “colonus,” a reference to a certain type of Roman peasant farmer. Unlike the farmers in the so-called African Baoding Villages, the Roman coloni could never leave the large estates on which they worked, and although they weren’t slaves could be hunted and flogged by their landlords, but you get the picture: the problem is in the implication.
In 1996, so the story goes, an engineering company in Beijing needed 80 workers to help them build a dam along the Zambezi River in Zambia. The Baoding area of Hebei province seemed a natural place to look, for the chief reasons that it was poverty-stricken and not very far south of the national capital. The workers were recruited from the Baoding town of Dingzhou, and when they arrived in Africa they saw that it was good – a warm climate, lush flowing rivers, vast and fertile and apparently uncultivated open space. After two years, when the workers’ contracts were up, they decided there was no percentage in returning home. Instead, they prevailed on their friends and relatives to help them buy land.
Deborah Brautigam, a US specialist in China-Africa relations, picks up the thread in her 2009 book The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa: “Baoding native Liu Jianjun was appointed the head of the Hebei province Bureau of Foreign Trade Promotion in 1999, and he heard about the Dingzhou farmers. By then, or so Liu Jianjun contends, the farmers had formed a small Zambian colony of some 380 people. Hebei was suffering from the impact of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, and Liu decided to promote African migration as one solution.”
Over the ensuing years, the flamboyant Liu became the world’s pre-eminent supporter of Chinese agricultural resettlement in Africa. According to Brautigam, this wearer of African tunics and tribal hats reported that the original Baoding village sent around $9 million in remittances back to China in 2002. Liu, wrote Brautigam, “presented wildly optimistic accounts of his successes,” and his estimates of the number of villages and their inhabitants varied – as high as 28 villages in 17 African countries, said Liu, anywhere between 400 and 2000 Chinese per settlement.
But in 2008, when Brautigam travelled to Zambia in search of the original village, she couldn’t find it. The Chinese ambassador in the country told her he “didn’t know anything about these Baoding farmers,” and the Zambian director of agriculture called it a “fairy tale”. It all seemed like an elaborate hoax, until one day in November 2008 when Liu signed a deal with the Ugandan government for 500 square kilometres of land near the shores of Lake Victoria. The agreement on the land – to be used generally as a multifunctional Free Trade Zone and specifically for farming – was presided over by a high-level delegation representing Ugandan President Museveni, and by the son of the former secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party.
If the Baoding villages were supposed to be mysterious, then the fabled “Chongqing experiment” has been more so – and yet even here Brautigam reflects the likelihood of its existence in something as overt as a public speech. The central character in this so-called rumour is one Li Ruogu, the president of China Eximbank. Wrote Brautigam: “In September 2007, Li Ruogu spoke to an audience at a meeting on the planned rapid urbanisation of the steeply picturesque city of Chongqing along the Yangtze River. Millions of farmers would be displaced, he warned, but his bank was ready to offer full support, including ‘capital investment, project development and product-selling channels,’ to Chongqing’s displaced farmers, to help them go to Africa.”
At over 32 million people, Chongqing is China’s most populated municipality. It is stated in a number of unconfirmed reports that the “experiment” which takes the city’s name aims to eventually settle 12 million people in Africa. While this figure may sound outlandish, and while the above quote of Brautigam’s is far from conclusive proof of the experiment’s status as official policy, the fact that more than two-thirds of Chongqing’s residents are farmers – a total of 23.3 million, 8.4 million of whom have become migrant workers, and 3.9 million of whom now live and work in the urban areas – means that the mayor has a problem. Statistics suggest that new construction in Chongqing adds 137,000 square metres of floor space daily, which just about satisfies residential, factory and commercial demand. Why wouldn’t the People’s Government of Chongqing view Africa as an alternative venue for its squeezed-out farmers?
The unavoidable detail is, China has around 20 percent of the world’s population and only seven percent of its arable land. "In Africa, they have plenty of land and too few farmers,” the irrepressible Liu told a reporter from the UK’s Independent newspaper in December 2008. “Places such as Ivory Coast are short of 400,000 tonnes of food a year, and the local people cannot farm enough to feed the population. Local farming skills are not developed."
Of course it’s the second part of Liu’s statement that appears most typical of the official line on Sino-African relations – the view that it’s all quid pro quo, that each side benefits in equal measure. But, as The Daily Maverick asked in the first part of this series (see link below), does Africa need China as much as China needs Africa? Maybe a clue can be found in the following observation, made by a Chinese scientist to a reporter from Le Figaro in 2007: “We have six hundred rivers in China, four hundred of which have been killed by pollution. We will have to send at least 300 million people to Africa before we begin to see the end of our problems.”
So far, the upper estimate on the number of Chinese that have settled in Africa is around 750,000 – significantly off the 300 million that the unnamed scientist suggested as an ideal figure to the French reporter. Every indication, though, is that the Chinese are going to arrive on the continent in ever-greater numbers in the years ahead. As Serge Michel and Michel Beuret noted in their 2009 book China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa: “Chinese leaders, especially President Hu Jintao (who is sometimes referred to as ‘the African’) see emigration as a good way to lower demographic pressure, economic overheating, and pollution in mainland China.”
Clearly, China needs Africa’s land more than Africa needs China’s. But what about natural resources? Could China address its energy and growth concerns as effectively without the easily attainable riches of the African continent? Here too the answer seems obvious. Acknowledging coal, timber, fish, bauxite, copper, gold, iron ore and a myriad other resources that Chinese companies mine, harvest and import – all of which are subjects of extensive investigations in their own right – it’s Africa’s oil that seems most symbolic of the evolving status quo.
Oil is the commodity on which China relies the heaviest; in less than a decade, the country has gone from Asia’s leading exporter to the world’s second-largest consumer (behind the US) and third-largest importer (behind the US and Japan). And in July this year, it was widely reported that China had become the world’s largest “overall” energy consumer, a milestone that meant developing nations had taken over from developed nations as the engines of global growth.
For its part, Africa has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, behind the Middle East and North America. But it is also the region that is identifying new reserves faster than any other, with Angola registering Africa’s fastest growth rate in oil production over the last decade. In 2008, Angola accounted for over 50 percent of China’s oil imports from Africa. It’s no surprise, then, that the Sino-African co-operation model – which is strictly business (China makes a point of not getting involved in African political affairs), and which is based on the trade of infrastructure for resources – is known as the “Angola mode”.
Chris Alden and Ana Cristina Alves of the South African Institute of International Affairs pointed out in a recent research paper (link below) that the “Angola mode” essentially functions as China’s guarantee on loans made to African countries with a bad credit record. “The result is that this sort of financial arrangement, packaging infrastructure development with resources, has become common practice for China on the continent,” the two researchers noted. “Underpinning this comprehensive package… is a Chinese approach to risk management in Africa: the use of familiar Chinese firms and labour to fulfill the terms of Chinese-financed infrastructure packages minimises exposure to risk and negative factors in the African environment that put off other investors, such as local corruption and labour costs.”
But there is a caveat, which Alden and Alves stated plainly: “Mitigating ‘risk’ through this approach emphasises elite ties and in so doing effectively entangles Chinese interests with those of the regimes in power. This has the danger of drawing China into local politics and undermining its non-interference approach. To sustain its interests in the continent, China will, sooner or later, have to face Africa’s social environment, beginning perhaps with the negative consequences that Chinese migration may hold.”
Whether the Chinese are coming for land or resources, to farm Africa’s “open spaces” or to build its new roads and power stations, it’s a given that not everything is going to remain on the People’s Republic’s terms forever. At some point, when the number of immigrants reaches the millions, or the tens of millions, China may have to settle the bill for the meal it’s enjoying now – Africa has a long history of reacting angrily to those who take too much. Still, if the new immigrants choose to integrate or to approach Africa from a position of respect, it’s fascinating to think what the continent might be like in a generation or two.