China builds its African empire while the ‘anti-colonialist’ Left looks the other way

By Damian Thompson World Last updated: November 25th, 2011

From Saturday’s Daily Telegraph

Imagine what would happen if America barged its way into a developing country, buttered up its homicidal dictator and agreed a back-of-the-envelope deal in which he signed over his nation’s mineral wealth in return for roads, railways and sports stadiums. Everyone would benefit, no?

No. The problem is that the infrastructure turns out to be worth a hell of a lot less than the minerals. Fortunately, Washington has had the foresight to top up the dictator’s Swiss bank account. Problem solved! As for the mining operation, the Americans really don’t want to be bothered by minimum wages or trade unions. They’re banned. And no complaints from the workforce, please, because no one wants a repeat of that “misunderstanding” in which an American mine supervisor opened fire on stroppy employees.

If the United States embarked on this sort of colonial experiment, it would produce a furious “Occupy Grosvenor Square” camp outside the US embassy and a withering play by Sir David Hare at the National. But since these things are actually being done not by America but by the People’s Republic of China across the entire African continent, the “anti-colonialist” Left just yawns.

Ordinary Africans care, of course. The subject of China will loom large in Monday’s election in Congo, though since President Joseph Kabila has arranged to be re-elected, it won’t affect the result. It was Kabila who approved a $6 billion copper-for-infrastructure barter deal with China. Unfortunately, the sale of state mines has left Congo with a $5.5 billion black hole in its budget. Meanwhile, The Economist
reports: “The sale of mining licences at below-market value to firms associated with friends of the president has raised eyebrows.”

I can’t say it raised my eyebrows. How else do you think China does business in Africa? It suffered a setback in Zambia last year when President Michael Sata was elected on an anti-Chinese ticket. But Sata hasn’t fulfilled his promise to regulate Zambia’s Chinese-run copper mines, branded “dangerously unsafe” by Human Rights Watch. And this week none other than ex-president Dr Kenneth Kaunda was in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People to discuss “deepening substantial co-operation”.

There’s a school of thought which says that China’s modus operandi, however brutal, at least gets things built. In contrast, Western aid is tipped into dictators’ pockets without anything to show for it. But the benefits of Beijing’s “investment” are elusive, because the Chinese don’t usually employ Africans to perform anything but menial tasks. Chinese construction engineers build motorways and hospitals without passing on the skills to maintain them. The result: everything falls into disrepair within a decade, by which time the copper is safely out of the ground.

From a moral point of view, China’s policy towards Africa is despicable. But it’s ingenious, too. Beijing has worked out that, by virtue of being a non-Western power, it can pose as a “developing country” while creating its sub-Saharan satrapies. The anti-racism lobby in the United Nations makes sure that the finger of guilt is pointed firmly at the former colonial powers, who are always happy to put on a display of breast-beating by, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Meanwhile, something close to slavery is being quietly reintroduced to the dark continent (which is how China thinks of it).

For 50 years, it’s been unclear in which direction Africans were heading. Now the question is almost irrelevant: the decision has been made for them.