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Only China benefiting from ‘Year of Africa'
Florence Panoussian
Published: 01-NOV-06

Johannesburg - A growing push into the world's poorest continent has led Beijing to dub 2006 "China's Year of Africa", but pointed questions were now being asked about who really benefits from the relationship.

After trips to Africa by both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this year, China would itself play host in Beijing from November 3 to more than 40 African leaders at a two-day summit.

Desperate to find raw materials to power its rapidly growing economy, China has struck deals the length and breadth of Africa in the last year as well as doing business with states regarded as pariahs in the West.

"The China-Africa relationship is truly one of equality, friendship and mutual benefit based on the common interests," China's ambassador to South Africa, Liu Guijin, said in a speech last week.

"There have been quite a few 'firsts' this year in China's relations with Africa, so it can be reliably called 'China's Year of Africa'. To consolidate and expand its friendship and co-operation is a long-term strategy pursued by China."

The list of recent agreements include a deal for Beijing to buy phosphates from Morocco in the north while Angola in the south has become one of the main sources of crude imports to the oil-hungry nation.

Chinese companies were also involved in a host of construction projects such as the building of a €2.5bn (about $3.1bn) hydro-electric dam in Gabon as part of a project to access iron ore in a remote forest region, while a deal should be concluded this week to fund the rebuilding of the Port of Buchanan in Liberia.

But while governments appear happy to reel in the investment and take advantage of the attractive loans on offer from China, their opponents were questioning the long-term benefits.

The main opposition Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata made attacks on the conduct of Chinese businesses, which now have a foothold in industries ranging from mining to clothing, one of the main themes of his campaign in Zambia's recent general election.

"Instead of employing Zambian labourers they bring hundreds of Chinese," said Sata in an interview. "The Chinese should bring their technology, bring their expertise, but use Zambians."

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe was looking forward to the red carpet treatment from his new Chinese allies after being boycotted by the European Union and United States for allegedly rigging his re-election in 2002 as well as introducing a range of undemocratic reforms.

The Chinese influence was now such that the government in Beijing was funding a new department at Harare's state-run University of Zimbabwe that would offer Chinese language and culture courses, which was perhaps not all that different from what the British did a few decades earlier.

Zimbabwe announced in June that it had signed a $1.3bn deal with China to set up coal mines and three thermal power stations at Dande, west of Harare, to help end the growing number of power shortages.

But behind the headlines, critics have said the new relationship has thus far brought no material benefit and failed to reverse Zimbabwe's economic crisis.

"The benefit to Africa is very little. There is a degree of job creation (but) most of the aid has been tied to utilising Chinese inputs, Chinese experts, Chinese technology etc," said Zimbabwean economist Eric Bloch.

"There is no favourable trading balance. Africa has always had to buy from China without selling its own products to China. There is a trend of dumping Chinese seconds and rejects to Africa while the choice grade is sold to buyers in the West."

Ambassador Liu acknowledged there were complaints that China was using Africa as a dumping ground for cheap goods as well as exploiting its natural resources.

"They say that China is now milking the African continent of its mineral resources and flooding African markets with its cheap goods. This kind of complaint is not something new to China," he said.

"In the 1990s, Australia, New Zealand and some Southeast Asian countries had exactly the same anxieties. But within a decade, these "anxieties abated and vanished". Sapa-AFP

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