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Leadership

Special Report: China Storms Africa

With its resource-hungry push into the sub-Sahara, Beijing puts the planet to the test.

The No. 2 killer in Africa by parasite, after malaria, is an organism called Entamoeba histolytica — or "Eh" for short. It was discovered in 1873, the year it took the life of missionary-explorer David Livingstone, that great champion of British imperialism on what his countrymen called the Dark Continent. I know this because, when I returned home from reporting in the sub-Sahara, the same pathogen was drilling through the walls of my gut. It would colonize there for months, unbeknownst to me, absorbing my nutrients and spewing its toxins, as I grew weak and emaciated.

A skillful intruder, Eh can produce a population explosion in a very short time. While its plan of attack is complex and still not entirely understood, it seems to trick human defense mechanisms into thinking all is well in the homeland. (It achieves that by killing local immune cells, then hiding the evidence by eating the cells' corpses.) Unfortunately, the more virulent the strain, the more the parasite risks killing the host — sometimes by invading the brain — rendering everyone homeless. Nonetheless, the more I've learned about Eh, the more I admire its resourcefulness, its work ethic (talk about intestinal fortitude!), and its resolve to survive and propagate. It's a shame we couldn't just get along, that my ecosystem couldn't sustain us both.

I likely picked up my dose of Eh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an epicenter of virulent disease, from flies that transported it from infected human feces to food. "If you were a malnourished kid in a refugee camp in Congo," remarked my doctor, a tropical-disease expert who has labored in dozens of such camps, "you would probably die from this infection." As it happened, I had just made it to age 47, the statistical end of the line for the 770 million people who live in sub-Saharan Africa. By their standards, I was already an old man.

An unfathomably vast terrain comprising 49 nations, the sub-Sahara represents nearly one-fifth of the earth's landmass. Yet its total economy is tinier than Florida's. Here, 300 million people get by on less than $1 a day. Until they don't: It is the planet's biggest tomb, where compared to the 1960s, twice as many children under the age of 5 are now dying each day from disease; a bottomless badland where $500 billion of Western aid since World War II (more than four Marshall Plans) has barely made a dent in the poverty; a region whose market share of world trade is shrinking by the hour as it gets left behind, perhaps permanently, in the dust of globalization; a place so desperate for everything — cash, trade, investment, infrastructure — and so powerless to negotiate strategically, that it's pretty much up for sale to the highest bidder.

During my recovery, I had time to dwell on parasites, how they invade and deplete their hosts, much as successive colonial powers have done over the centuries in places such as Africa. Anyone who thinks that kind of ravenous acquisition of resources is a thing of the past should take a close look at the suction China is applying in the sub-Sahara. The region is now the scene of one of the most sweeping, bare-knuckled, and ingenious resource grabs the world has ever seen.

The sub-Sahara is now the scene of one of the most bare-knuckled resource grabs the world has ever seen.

While America is preoccupied with the war in Iraq (cost: half a trillion dollars and counting), and while think-tank economists continue to spit out papers debating whether vital resources are running out at all, China's leadership isn't taking any chances. In just a few years, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has become the most aggressive investor-nation in Africa. This commercial invasion is without question the most important development in the sub-Sahara since the end of the Cold War — an epic, almost primal propulsion that is redrawing the global economic map. One former U.S. assistant secretary of state has called it a "tsunami." Some are even calling the region "ChinAfrica."

There are already more Chinese living in Nigeria than there were Britons during the height of the empire. From state-owned and state-linked corporations to small entrepreneurs, the Chinese are cutting a swath across the continent. As many as 1 million Chinese citizens are circulating here. Each megaproject announced by China's government creates collateral economies and population monuments, like the ripples of a stone skimmed across a lake.

Beijing declared 2006 the "Year of Africa," and China's leaders have made one Bono-like tour after another. No other major power has shown the same interest or muscle, or the sheer ability to cozy up to African leaders. And unlike America's faltering effort in Iraq, the Chinese ain't spreading democracy, folks. They're there to get what they need to feed the machine. The phenomenon even has a name on the ground in the sub-Sahara: the Great Chinese Takeout.

In describing China's exploits, it's tempting to evoke the image of a benign, postcolonial West being outfoxed by a ruthless and unscrupulous neo-communist power. Don't bother. The American track record in modern Africa has been deplorable — a half-century of backing strongmen, turning a blind eye, and taking what we can get with little or no regard for the health or welfare of the locals. So no, this is not an update about the Yellow Peril, although no shortage of U.S. officials see China's safari as precisely that. Instead, this is a story about an economic model of exploitation that is at once formidably efficient and tragically flawed, about a planet that's being consumed by those who live on its surface. Today's global economy has an insatiable need for raw materials. That's as true for China's rise as it is true for the maintenance of America's economy. With China exporting some 40% of its GDP, Americans need to understand that behind that Made in China tag at Wal-Mart is a mutually reinforcing death spiral. We are beginning to overwhelm our host.

★ ★ ★ ★

A recent report by oil giant Royal Dutch Shell makes for sobering reading. In its worst-case scenario, Shell predicts that the coming decade will see the world's governments engaged in an increasingly desperate and ruthless "scramble" to secure energy supplies and natural resources, one that could trigger a new wave of global conflict and massive environmental destruction. Shell's alternative scenario has governments banding together to create "blueprints" for the future that embrace sustainability. "This will require hard work, and time is short," warns Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer, sounding more like a heckler from Greenpeace than the head of one of the world's six oil supermajors. In other words, humans are at a juncture: blueprint or scramble?

For now at least, the answer on the ground is clear. It's scramble time. In reporting this article, I visited four African countries central to China's overall strategy: Mozambique (a key source of timber for China), Zambia (copper), Congo (a wide range of minerals), and Equatorial Guinea (oil). What I found is that while flat-footed Western governments largely watch from the sidelines, cash-flush Chinese firms — many with state-directed financing — are cutting deals at a dizzying pace, securing supplies of oil, copper, timber, natural gas, zinc, cobalt, iron, you name it.

At the most macro level, China's offensive is at once enthralling and unnerving, like watching a well-oiled war machine. Closer to the ground, China's presence in Africa can seem a chaotic and reckless free-for-all — a primordial, biological struggle in which every organism fends for itself. At times it is glorious, appearing to brim with possibility, perhaps the sub-Sahara's last chance to catch up with the world; at others, it appears little more than a revamped, upgraded replay of colonialism. At its best, China's quest is generating business that the West is too timid to undertake. But the secrecy and elitism that already define the government of China, and many of those in Africa, are poised to usher in a toxic intercontinental corruption we can hardly yet imagine.

As the 2008 Olympics in Beijing approach, China wants to present itself to the world as a strong, fast-rising economic power that has lifted 300 million people out of poverty with unimaginable speed. That is all certainly true. But China is also the world's No. 1 source of counterfeit products — and Africa is now the No. 1 transit point for fake goods entering the United States and Europe. Chinese companies are the second-most likely (after India) to use payola abroad, according to Transparency International's Bribe Payers Index. Similarly, a World Bank survey of 68 countries last year found that the sub-Sahara leads in the "percentage of firms expected to give gifts" to secure government contracts (43%). That meeting of the minds has made for hyperefficient deal making in Africa.

"It has been said that if you spend a week in China, you can write a book," notes Clem Sunter, South Africa's leading futurologist and scenario planner, and the Oxford-educated author of 13 books. "Spend a year, an article; spend five years, nothing." So too with the sub-Sahara. One thing is clear, though: Whether or not the world's key resources are running out, China is behaving as if they are. "I think everybody's scared," observes Lucy Corkin, the well-traveled projects director for the Centre for Chinese Studies at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, the only African think tank devoted entirely to China-Africa research. "People are not worried about saving the environment; they are worried about getting some before it all runs out. That's the mentality: 'China is just going to consume everything — let's get it now!' "

That's a blood-curdling development, one that reinforces the largely forgotten work of Thomas Malthus some two centuries ago. "The power of population," he wrote, "is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." Meeting the needs of today's booming population entails not only feeding people — and shortages of basic foodstuffs are now making news worldwide — but also keeping them healthy. The sub-Sahara, the region emitting the fewest greenhouse gases, now has the most deaths attributable to climate change, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists have concluded that temperature fluctuations may in turn fuel the spread of infectious diseases, including my new friend Eh.

"Those most vulnerable to the health risks of climate change are also least responsible for causing the problem," says the University of Wisconsin's Jonathan Patz, one of the leading experts on the human health effects of environmental change. "We are disseminating death and disease around the world from our energy-consumptive lifestyle. How's that for a global ethical challenge?"

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A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.