Wednesday, October 10, 2007
China & Africa
KABWE, Zambia — The courtyard in front of the Zambia China Mulungushi Textiles factory is so quiet, even at midday, that the fluttering of the ragged Chinese and Zambian flags is the only sound hanging in the air.
The factory used to roar. From the day it opened more than 20 years ago, the vast compound had shuddered to the whir of rollers and the clatter of mechanical weaving machines spooling out millions of yards of brightly colored African cloth.
Today, only the cotton gin still runs, with the company’s Chinese managers buying raw cotton for export to China’s humming textile industry. Nobody can say when or even if the factory here will reopen.
“We are back where we started,” said Wilfred Collins Wonani, who leads the Chamber of Commerce here, sighing at the loss of one of the city’s biggest employers. “Sending raw materials out, bringing cheap manufactured goods in. This isn’t progress. It is colonialism.”
Chinese officials and their African allies like to call their growing relationship a win-win proposition, a rising tide that lifts all boats in China’s ever-widening sea of influence.
This year, China pledged $20 billion to finance trade and infrastructure across the continent over the next three years. In Zambia alone, China plans to invest $800 million in the next few years.
From South Africa’s manganese mines to Niger’s uranium pits, from Sudan’s oil fields to Congo’s cobalt mines, China’s hunger for resources has been a shot in the arm, increasing revenues and helping push some of the world’s poorest countries further up the ladder of development.
But China is also exporting huge volumes of finished, manufactured goods — T-shirts, flashlights, radios and socks, just to name a few — to those same countries, hampering Africa’s ability to make its own products and develop healthy, diverse economies.
“Most of our countries have been independent for 35 to 50 years,” said Moeletsi Mbeki, a South African entrepreneur and a political analyst. “Yet they have failed to develop manufacturing for a variety of reasons, and for the Chinese that’s a huge opportunity. We are a very important market for China.”
On the one hand, Chinese imports give Africans access to goods and amenities that developed countries take for granted but that most people here could not have dreamed of affording just a few years ago — cellular telephones, televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, computers. And cheaper prices on more basic items, like clothing, light bulbs and shoes, mean people have more money in their pockets.
“There is no doubt China has been good for Zambia,” said Felix Mutati, Zambia’s minister of finance. “Why should we have a bad attitude toward the Chinese when they are doing all the right things? They are bringing investment, world-class technology, jobs, value addition. What more can you ask for?”
But across Africa, and especially in the relatively robust economies of southern Africa, there are clear winners and losers. Textile mills and other factories here in Zambia have suffered and even closed as cheap Chinese goods flood the world market, eliminating jobs in a country that sorely needs them.
The Chinese investment in copper mining here has left a trail of heartbreak and recrimination after one of the worst industrial accidents in Zambian history, a blast at a Chinese-owned explosives factory in Chambishi in 2005 that killed 46 people, most of them in their 20s.
“Who is winning? The Chinese are, for sure,” said Michael Sata, a Zambian opposition politician who campaigned in last year’s presidential election on an anti-China platform. He lost, but with a surprisingly strong showing, and his party, the Patriotic Front, won many seats in local and parliamentary elections in Lusaka, the capital, and the Zambian industrial heartland, where China has made its biggest investments.
“Their interest is exploiting us, just like everyone who came before,” he said. “They have simply come to take the place of the West as the new colonizers of Africa.”
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