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Inveterate traveller Suzuko Tomoda was surprised to be greeted with a cheery ‘Ni hao!' in Africa. Not just in South Africa, but in Kenya and Tanzania, people called out to her in Chinese. Never before, she told me, has she been seen as anything but Japanese. Move over Japan, once the ‘honourary whites' in South Africa; the Chinese are now the face of rich Asians in the continent. A public demonstration of China's rising power in Africa will be visible this week, when Premier Wen Jiabao arrives in Egypt for the second Africa-China summit. The gathering will show how far the Middle Kingdom has travelled since the first Chinese contact with Africa six centuries ago.

Aided by Indian navigators from Calicut, the Ming dynasty's Admiral Zheng He led a Chinese fleet to East Africa. Those early contacts brought China rhinoceros horn, ivory and a giraffe (though the giraffe was actually gifted to the Chinese Emperor by the Sultan of Bengal).

After such Chinese voyages stopped, Arab traders continued to carry African produce and slaves to China. Now, the continent has emerged as an important partner in China's rise to global power, supplying it with oil, timber, copper, bauxite ore, and other precious metals to fuel its gigantic export machine. While some 90 major Chinese companies have invested in mines, construction and manufacturing, 750,000 Chinese workers and businessmen have moved in search of opportunities.

China's emergence in Africa has caused some heartburn in the western world and attracted criticism from human rights groups. China has been accused of taking advantage of the isolation of countries like Sudan (facing sanctions for its genocide in Darfur) and Guinea (whose military junta recently massacred civilians) to sign lucrative business deals. Human rights groups accuse China of violating embargos to sell weapons to Sudan and of coddling Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe.

Some African opposition politicians and western media charge Beijing of advancing its interests through bribery and corruption.

While some charges may be true, there is no doubt that China's engagement with Africa has brought benefits to the continent, long the object of brutal exploitation and misrule by European colonial powers and West-backed rulers. As Serge Michel and Michel Beuret (authors of a sensationally titled but sober book La Chinafrique: Beijing at the conquest of black continent) note, Africa needs roads, electricity and basic infrastructure and everybody is welcome to help, "yellow, red or white, selfish or altruist". The fact is that the West has been long on lectures on democracy and human rights but short on actual help to the continent.

Despite its rhetoric about brotherhood with the African people, China has been business-like in offering aid or investing in profitable ventures. From stadiums and government buildings to roads and power grids, Chinese involvement has brought real progress to Africa. In the process, China has created jobs for hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, whose employers have profited handsomely. Many African countries, which lack skilled labour, don't mind that Chinese workers have been laying their asphalted roads or building houses or teaching farming techniques to grow bigger harvests. Others, however, insist that 50 to 70 per cent of the workforce has to be locally hired. Recently, I met Kenyans who complained that, despite the official ban on foreigners engaging in retail, many Chinese have set up variety stores selling cheap Chinese goods.

Such incidents of unhappiness have not dimmed China's lustre. Next to Asia, Africa is China's second-biggest destination of foreign direct investment: in the first half of this year alone, inbound FDI rose 81 per cent to $552 million. China is Africa's third-largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching $106.8 billion in 2008 — a 45 per cent rise over the previous year. At the Africa-China summit, China is likely to win kudos by announcing increased grants, credit and business cooperation.

What the meeting will not state is the political bonus that China draws from its African ventures. While South Africa recently denied a visa to the Dalai Lama, African countries have been loyal supporters of China at many international fora — the floor of the UN, Shanghai Expo, the Olympic Games and human rights commissions.

Admiral Zheng could never have imagined that his exploratory voyage would eventually bring such a rich harvest of soft benefits to the Middle Kingdom. 

The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.
boundtogether dot bw at gmail dot com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-11-2009)

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