Unlike the remembrance of the former colonial forces in Africa, China’s current geopolitical adventures into the continent “Africans’ view of China “is still positive, but not as exuberant as it was”. says Howard French, author of China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa to Today Online.
Mr Howard French, whose book China’s Second Continent charts the experience of about one million Chinese entrepreneurs who have settled in Africa, agrees. “Africa has been a field where China can try various things in a very low-risk environment,” he says.
“Africa has been a workshop of ideas that now have a much bigger scale and strategic significance.”
A few numbers illustrate the shift. In 2000, China-Africa trade was a mere US$10 billion (S$13.8 billion). By 2014, that had risen more than 20 times to US$220 billion, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, though it has fallen back because of lower commodity prices…
Mr French says Africans’ view of China “is still positive, but not as exuberant as it was”.
People welcome the infrastructure, he says. But they insist their governments should not be taken for a ride, either by overpaying, accepting shoddy work or allowing Chinese companies to use all their labour and materials.
Africans resent it, he says, when corrupt governments inflate the price of projects — as has been alleged with the US$4 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway, inaugurated this month — to make space for kickbacks.
Still, he adds, Chinese companies have become more attuned to such issues than critics suggest.
A decade ago, they thought that dealing with the government was enough. Now, they realise they also need to engage civil society and international non-governmental organisations on issues from local skills to the environment.
Chinese companies like to be seen to be transferring skills.
Huawei, which earns 15 per cent of its global revenue in Africa, trains 12,000 students in telecoms a year at centres in Angola, Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
According to Johns Hopkins researchers, 80 per cent of workers on Chinese projects are African, even if many are in low-skilled jobs such as trench-digging.
“I give the Chinese a fair amount of credit,” says Mr French. “They have been mounting quite a steep learning curve from almost no knowledge to becoming very sophisticated players.”
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