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"The Chinese in Africa" by Chris Alden
Zed Books, London 2007
Nov 22nd 2007
From The Economist print edition
SINCE the late 1990s China has been hoovering up the world's oil and mineral deposits to sustain its rise to the top table of world manufacturing. The resource-hungry Asian country gets its raw materials from wherever it can, and asks few questions along the way. Nowhere has this been more true than in Africa; many noted the moment in 2006 when Angola surpassed Saudi Arabia as China's largest supplier of oil.
In this short and readable book, Chris Alden, a British academic who specialises in Asian-African relations, provides a clear overview of China's involvement with Africa, a relationship that is having a huge impact both on the country and the continent.
Some themes, such as China's acceptance of human-rights abuses by several African regimes that it supports, have been aired before. But Mr Alden has been lucky with his timing here; he has been able to record the beginnings of what could be a significant shift on this, and other issues, by China, particularly in regard to Sudan.
China has prided itself on a policy of non-interference in the countries that it does business with (unlike those nasty old Western imperialists). But in the last year it is clear that it has been forced to review this attitude; China has joined the Western chorus in pushing Sudan into accepting a big UN force in Darfur, whereas before it spent years shielding the government in Khartoum from Western pressure, especially at the Security Council.
As Mr Alden relates, by and large China has got used to an enthusiastic welcome from African countries that like its no-strings-attached investments. But it has been taken aback by the reaction against it in Zambia and South Africa, where local jobs have been devastated by an influx of Chinese imports. In Zambia there have also been protests about how China runs its mines.
All of this begs one of the great questions in international relations: how far will Chinese policy evolve as it gets further entwined in Africa? Will it participate more in UN peacekeeping operations? Will it give direct aid rather than soft loans? Will it start to take sides in African politics, as has happened in Zambia? Africa could be the anvil on which a new Chinese foreign policy begins to be forged.
Mr Alden is also good on some of the more obscure aspects of China's engagement with Africa. It is, for instance, not just big state-owned companies that are piling into Africa: small and medium-sized ones are there too. Much of the investment and trade is directed from the government in Beijing, as one would expect. But individual Chinese provinces have also been forging their own ties and doing their own deals with African countries or regions. Fujian and Zhejiang have been encouraging emigration to Africa as a source of remittances and of new jobs. Plainly, Chinese policy is in flux as it grapples with the political, social, religious and ethnic complexities of getting its raw materials out of Africa. It is a fascinating story, which will become more interesting and more important in the years to come.