Johannesburg - For more than a decade
African governments have rolled out the red carpet for Chinese
investors, trading oil, coal, iron ore and other resources for
badly needed ports, roads and railways.
But policymakers and executives, worried the flood of cheap
Chinese imports is sapping Africa's own manufacturing potential,
say the continent must drive harder bargains with China.
The time has come, some say, to jettison the view of Beijing
as Africa's benevolent partner, bound by a common resistance to
the meddling West.
"The sad reality is that they are not comrades. Their
companies are there to make profits like everyone else,"
Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti told the Reuters Africa
Investment Summit this week.
"The African textile industry has basically collapsed
because of cheap Chinese imports ... Africa needs China but
let's create an equitable relationship."
China's trade with Africa has surged from about $10bn
in 2000 to $166bn in 2011, with much of that an exchange
of African minerals for Chinese manufactured goods.
Nigerian Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi warned last
month it was time for Africans to wake up to the realities of
their relationship with China.
"It is a significant contributor to Africa's
deindustrialisation and underdevelopment," he said in an opinion
piece in the Financial Times that ruffled feathers in Beijing.
In South Africa manufacturing accounts for just 15% of
GDP. It is even lower elsewhere, under 11% in Kenya and
10% in Nigeria.
Africa to blame?
Part of the fault may lie with African policymakers, for not
demanding enough from their Chinese counterparts at the
"If you allow the Chinese to come and rape you and take
whatever they do because you're just looking at the money they
bring, and if you're looking on a short-term basis, the country
will suffer, there's no two ways about it," said Sipho Nkosi,
CEO of South African mining company Exxaro Resources [JSE:EXX].
Africa must demand that China transfer skills and technology
to the continent instead of allowing it to simply export raw
materials, he said.
For some African politicians, part of China's attraction
lies in its unwillingness to criticise local governments over
human rights or corruption, unlike the West.
"You can't blame the donor only. You need to blame the
receiving government as well," said Elias Masilela, the chief
executive of South Africa's government pension fund.
African governments also needed to do more to put in place
the infrastructure - including power and transport - that can
support a domestic manufacturing industry, speakers said.
Sensitive to the criticism, China has been careful to frame
its role in Africa as one that is mutually beneficial.
"Africa had a long colonial history and should know the
nature of colonialism," foreign ministry spokesperson Hua
Chunying said last month in response to Sanusi's comments.
"Comparing China-Africa cooperation to the old colonial
Western powers lacks any sense of logic."
Loan-backed charm offensive
Beijing has also responded with a charm offensive to ease
concerns about its role on the world's poorest continent,
including lobbying for South Africa's addition to the group of
developing countries now called Brics.
President Xi Jinping last month visited Africa on his first
trip abroad as president.
While Xi outlined his Africa policy as a partnership among
equals, China clearly holds the cash: it is offering $20bn
of loans to the continent between 2013 and 2015.
China's strength in low-cost, large-volume manufacturing has
also helped some local industries, most notably telecoms, where
handsets and equipment from the likes of Huawei and
ZTE have made mobile phones affordable for millions
"It probably has been more beneficial if one looks at it
from our industry," said Sifiso Dabengwa, chief executive of
South African telecommunications company MTN Group [JSE:MTN],
told the Summit.
"They have driven prices down quite significantly."