From J.R. Wu in the Wall Street Journal:
Economic activity in Africa has surged in recent years, with Beijing becoming an important investor, creditor and donor for many African nations. But with the rise of China's influence upon the continent, concerns persist that Beijing is preying on the continent's resources to feed the Chinese economy, contributing little significant improvement to African livelihoods.My question for Minister Fu: driven by whose market and for whose benefit? His defense of China's role on the continent was clearly a response to concerns about China's preference to not tie aid to conditionality.
Amid such criticism—and as China asserts that its presence in Africa is increasingly being shaped by nongovernment actors—Beijing has put in place some mechanisms to deal with issues surrounding its investment and trade on the resource-rich continent.
"China's presence in Africa is becoming more and more market driven, the actors operating there are diverse, there are many models, and the areas they are in are broad," said Fu Ziying, the vice commerce minister, in a recent interview. "The Chinese government is more and more aware that as the economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa evolves, there need to be some laws and protections in place."
What the story doesn't discuss in great detail, however, is the growing resentment among the populations of most of the African states in which China is investing, particularly with respect to employment issues. When China invests in an African infrastructure or development project, they typically bring their own citizens to provide labor. In countries that face upwards of 50% unemployment in the formal sector, this breeds resentment and anger.
African leaders might consider this resentment when making deals with the Chinese in the years to come. Accepting aid and investment only on Chinese terms could backfire on some African leaders come election time, especially in places where the perceived general benefit of infrastructure improvement or development activities is low.
There are also opportunities for change in the way China views its relationship with the continent. The Chinese government is very aware that its bilateral relationships with African states are two-way streets. As these relationships have evolved, Beijing has moved away from its initial "one-size-fits-all" approach to a more nuanced understanding of the differences between Africa's states. There is room to reimagine the nature of these agreements while still satisfying China's need to expand its markets in a way that also benefits African markets.
Instead of allowing China to source all of its materials and labor force from home, African leaders might work to find ways for the projects to benefit communities while they are in process as well as when they are over. Contracts could be negotiated to set a minimum number of local employees on a project (for example, half the employees building a road might have to be national employees, while the other half would be Chinese). Some management positions should be reserved for African leaders, thus building the capacity of local construction managers, health care professionals, and engineers. Materials could be sourced locally when possible and from China when not. The possibilities are endless.