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China in Africa: The Real Story

Eastern Promise (and Eastern Errors) in Little Africa

Deborah Brautigam

Kit Gillett at The Global Mail interviewed me for a January 25, 2013 feature story on Africans in China, "Eastern Promise in Little Africa." The article is extremely well-written. Kit took a lot of care, and created a fascinating piece of work, with a number of interviews and photos. It looks like a good, balanced human interest story. However, even a careful reporter like this can get things wrong in presenting the big picture that frames the story. 

credit: Jeffrey Lau           Guangzhou's Little Africa
Early in the article, Kit writes "In recent years China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects across Africa, often in exchange for subsidies on natural resources." Yes, many Chinese companies have been building infrastructure projects, some $35 billion per year, but these are rarely Chinese "investments" -- they're construction contracts. Only about 20 to 25 percent are financed by Chinese banks or the Chinese government. As for the idea that this is "often" done "in exchange for subsidies on natural resources", I have yet to see a case where a Chinese firm got a subsidy on natural resources in exchange for building infrastructure. (If anyone has seen such a case, please comment). When natural resource exports enter into a construction deal (and this is quite rare) they enter in as a way to secure the loan with an export stream. In the cases I have seen, the exports are priced by the market**. We can't call this an off-take arrangement, as often there is no relation between the export stream and the construction project. But it operates in a parallel manner.

Toward the end of the article, Kit makes another error, in saying that "China has made efforts to promote friendship. China directly invested USD45 billion in the region in the first six months of 2012 alone."

Anyone who tracks FDI figures knows this is way wrong. In all of 2012, according to official figures at MOFCOM, China's entire overseas investment to the world amounted to USD77 billion:
 In 2012, Chinese investors made direct investment overseas in 4,425 enterprises in 141 countries and regions. Direct investment overseas amounted to US$ 77.22 billion, up by 28.6% year-on-year. Of which equity investments and other investments were US$ 62.82 billion, accounting for 81.4%, and earnings reinvested were US$ 14.4 billion, accounting for 18.6%.
As I noted in a recent presentation at New York University, Chinese direct investment in Africa is generally only a small fraction of that in the rest of the world: on average, maybe 5 percent. The total stock of Chinese FDI in Africa amounts to about USD14.5 billion, by official figures (unofficially it is likely higher, but not enormously so). I don't know where Kit got the preposterous figure of USD45 billion for just six months of flows. Possibly it was in Foreign Policy Journal, where a similar figure was posted. But it's a reminder that even when doing great micro-level research, it's important to make equal effort to present the big picture correctly.

A hat-tip to Yanyin Zi.
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**Angola presents an exception, where from what I can tell, CIF, a Hong Kong-based broker enjoying a joint venture with Sonangol, Angola's state-owned oil company, seems to have gotten oil cheaply and sold it on at market rates to the Chinese -- but that's not "China" getting a subsidy)