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China in Africa: The Real Story

The Human Side of China's "Economic Invasion" of Africa

Deborah Brautigam

Engineer Liu Hui & Kenyan workers: Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures
If you overlook the title, "China's Economic Invasion of Africa," you'll enjoy a well-done and interesting story by Xan Rice in The Guardian's Sunday, February 6, 2011 issue. It contains great interviews of individual Chinese entrepreneurs and corporate managers who have come to do business or seek their fortunes in African countries.

Here's one quotation from a Chinese entrepreneur who, Rice writes, "is aware that western attitudes to China's push into Africa remain largely negative – something he struggles to understand."
"Western countries also buy oil, and have mines around the world. People don't talk about 'grabbing', or 'new colonialism' there. So why is it different for Chinese? We are not sending our armies to places and saying: 'Now sell us this!'" Xu says. "If you can't compete with us, you find an excuse. It's like two children fighting, and the losing one crying to his parent about funny tricks."
Some of those funny tricks might involve practices that have been outlawed in the West under laws like the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the OECD Convention on Corruption. These are not always observed by Western companies, but at least they serve as an important signal of a liberal normative consensus. China has no comparative law.

It was particularly interesting to me that the story begins with Zhang Hao, the son of a man who worked on one of China's foreign aid-financed development projects -- a fishing project on Lake Victoria that I wrote about in The Dragon's Gift. After spending time there himself as an aid worker, Hao's father encouraged him to explore business opportunities in Uganda.

A hat tip to Li Anshan's Centre for African Studies at Peking University.