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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27 Comments

  • Moshe

    Hogwash! The Chinese are helping more Africans than the West ever did. They did it in the past when the West was happy to keep Africans in colonial chains; how did they benefit then? All this talk of tying aid to issues of good governance is just more of the same duplicity. African governments have been arguing forever that they don't need 'aid' but more trade. Most of this so called 'aid' from the West is wasted on fancy offices, homes and cars for Western expatriates living in Africa and never gets to help anyone. The Chinese are investing in real things: roads, railways, buildings etc. Yes, they are issues of skills transfer to the Africans but that should not detract from the huge benefits that China's activities in Africa are generating. The reason that most Africans find it a lot easier to deal with Chinese is that they have never once invaded the continent, enslaved Africans or imposed governments on any country by use of force. It's really an easy choice.     

  • Faraz Alam

    Well i think that 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.
    singing auditions

  • John Karanja

    The Chinese are engage in Technology transfer as well as trade and infrastructure development. Africans have to manage this process to ensure sustainability.

    We the world can do it no need for westerners to be afraid of this relationship just worry about your own problems.

  • Mads Nielsen

    Very refreshing indeed. About time that someone tried to make a change. America is only involved with risk free solutions.

    Be safe out there !
    Greetings from Mads the webdesigner

  • Robin Son

    I think you are right steve. American companies also never concentrated on investing in African countries. They mostly prefer asian countries. Robinson

  • steve venson

    I don't think America is interested in investing in Africa. There is no sign of any development to be made in Africa. Providing aid is not development.

    Stevenson

  • John Chellaiya

    I wonder how they call this as an invasion.. Invasion means that a country is completely controlled by another country. I don't think that happened here.

  • Jilly Cooper

    Having seen what China has been offering africa in the way of promotional voucher deals to save money, it would not be a surprise to discover that they are also utilising promo codes as-well as a special report for coupons.

  • osereimen omoike

    This article was just a great read. As a Nigerian-American I have always figured the reason why the continent of Africa is hard-pressed to succeed is mainly due to rampant Corruption. This article points out that in order to satisfy the appetite of the Chinese people for raw materials, they are essentially exploiting corruption for their own benifit. I read in several comments how the Chinese have built roads, hospitals, soccer stadiums, but didn't the westerners also do that? Essentially what Africa doesn't need are more objects of "success" but rather the Knowledge of how to convert the raw materials into finished goods. This however, is what the Chinese and every other colonialist power has done to Africa; exploit the raw materials and make the finished goods elsewhere where their value exponentially explodes. Does anyone think that China will stick around after all the raw materials have been plundered? The answer is sadly no. Note that once the western powers left Africa, none of the hospitals or roads survived. Corruption and violence breeds chaos which essentially destroys all that has been built. It has been said that slavery set the continent of Africa back several centuries. Essentially, the world, not just China, is now part new Slave Trade(instead of slaves, now raw materials) in which the continent of Africa will not reap the benifits and find it even more difficult to survive.

  • Krista Donaldson

    Kudos to the author for a GREAT article.

    My husband and I lived in East and Southern Africa from 1998 to 2003 and we noticed a lot of Chinese projects back then. This article resonated for us because when we moved from Nairobi to Cape Town in 2002, we drove down and it was hard not to notice many of the things mentioned in the article. There was a shocking amount of clear cutting of trees in the southern Tanzanian highlands (along with the railway cars loaded with timber interestingly stamped UNHCR). We passed a dam with Chinese signs, Chinese-built soccer stadiums, Chinese-built highways (which granted were an improvement over what previously existed) - and while in Blantyre saw a parade with the Taiwanese president and the Malawian president (I'm curious the status of that relationship now).

    Thanks to this article - these sights (sadly) make much more sense.

  • allen taylor

    China has traded with Africa for over a thousand years. They do not have a history of divide and conquer, guns for slaves, colonies or any other Darwinist agenda. They trade, their relationship is proven. And have done so without any major conflict. Why all of the red flags, now?

    I am an expat American (Black American) living in Ghana for the last two months. My firm has offices in Asia and in Africa; I have spent the majority of my life, living in both Asian and African influenced cultures. Daily, I see Chinese working on roads, owning small businesses and working and living side-by-side with Ghanaians. On the other hand I see westerners, mostly Caucasians, living in expat ghettos, shopping at Shoprite and in other stores the average Ghanaian could never dream to step into. I am not a hater: I too live in the expat ghetto and shop at Shoprite but I notice the mistrust Ghanaians have toward white people (they include me as being a white man, too- but I do have a few more points for my skin color- lol).

    The Ghanaians do not trust Americans/Westerners or the Chinese. But the Chinese have boots on-the ground, cheap import products and have employed everyday local people in their shops and restaurants. Westerners have not done enough on the local level beyond Government sponsored donor work…it’s not enough to counter the influence the Chinese have earned. Most Ghanaians survive hand to mouth.

    The local people want jobs. The Chinese are delivering stable yet low paying employment. Westerners do not. The Indians are here, too. The Japanese have doubled their donor aid to the region. Swiss are banking on shoring up the Banking industry. Everything is in play. It’s a modern day gold rush.

    The only hope for the USA turning this situation around is the successful election of Obama. Believe me that is the only option that will cause enough momentum to open up the opportunity to get Africom on Africa soil…a state visit by a newly elected African American President. If I were Obama, one of the first official state visits would be to Africa and most probable Ghana.

  • Jon Gos

    I'm so sick of the West looking at Africa like a charity pit. Some companies have built billion dollar business off of providing endless AID to Africa. That's great, I know it's greatly appreciated but what Africa needs is to engage the world economy. More than that, that's what many African's want. To create wealth, not to live off the World Bank forever.

    China just so happens to be allowing for that to happen more so than America. The problem with holding ourselves to some sort of "holier than thou" agenda when it comes to China is that we tent to villainize things the Chinese do even when they make since.

    Africa (as a whole) is one of the last untapped emerging economies with an incredible amount of potential when you consider there are millions of people that make up a growing middle class....especially in places like Kenya and Uganda. Yes, some people there are caught up in never ending tribal conflict and civil war. But I'd say a greater part of the continent is becoming educated and looking for ways to prosper. The Chinese don't care about Africa anymore than the U.S. cares about the Middle East...it's pure capitalism. It's not their problem if people like Mugabe are corrupt. We can't keep excluding entire groups of people because of what their dissidents and corrupt governments do.

    I wrote about this here - http://appfrica.net/blog/archi...

    There's a huge amount of untapped talent in the Africa diaspora, and if China wants to invest where the U.S. won't, so be it.

    - Jon in Uganda

  • iew gnem

    Let's look at reality here: what's the point of "human rights" if everyone's dead? The restriction on trade with African countries under the excuse of "good governance" has caused hundreds of millions to die of poverty in the past 50 years, what China's argument is, lets make sure they are alive before worry about how much of the money ends up where.

    the US ultimately cares about its own national interest, but its rethoric of "human rights" has been going on so long people can't help but to rationalize the various economic sanctions on Africa as being good for them. Theres a fundemental problem with US, and indeed western approach to Africa, they can't get out of the mindset of exploitation, Africa is and will always be that poor pathetic kid on the block that we, the morally superior, have the right to push around and tell them what to and not to do.

    Reality is the only way to judge an idelogy, the western ideology in Africa has done NOTHING to improve African's lives for as long as anyone can remember, the same donnation advertisement on TV you see 10 years ago are still playing. The reality is the US does not care for Africa's development, and when it dosn't, there's no harm in starting a few rethoric and slashing sanctions left and right on coutries already in poverty.

    What China is doing is to tell them, you have natural resources we need, they are worth nothing without buyers, so we are going to build an industry in your country for you so you can sell them to us, we are going to build roads, bridges, infrasture for you, so you can use them to trade with us. Will it work? nobody knows since nobody tried this before, but seeing Africa is growing at the fastest pace in history, it looks promising. On the other hand, we are pretty sure what dosn't work: sticking to the rethoric of "human rights" and "good governance" at the cost of hundreds of millions of dead, that is what I call genocide.

  • Marcelo Da Silva

    Great article! No doubt the best article in the past 12 months about the Chinese influence in Africa. It is worth a review from all presidential candidates. As we move into the 21st century, we need to think about policies that can counter balance the Chinese influence and its consequencies. What is happening in Africa is just snapshot of the Chinese expansion worldwide. An expansion that unfortunately has been made possible by western countries consumption.

  • taris_ milton

    What is the problem? American never cared of investing in Africa. You went to Asia and did not want to put a dine in Africa. AID is not development, so as long as the chinese are building roads, really investing then they are welcome in Africa

  • Bob Hurd

    Africa's current condition is the result of neo-colonialism. Africa is being "sharecropped" for its non-renewable resources by the industrialized nations and aspiring industrialized nations (such as China).

    In the past, Europe and America (also Japan and South Korea) have used the IMF and the World Bank as their agents to extend loans to African countries which for the most part were headed by despot leaders who lined their own pockets and thus, they had little regard for human rights/civil rights and the economic wellbeing of its people.

    Metals and minerals originating from Africa such as platinum, palladium, coltan and a host of other exotic materials are classified by the U.S. as strategic minerals because they are vital to our national security. We must obtain these minerals irrespective of the cost and by any means necessary!

    Western countries include a human rights component in government-to-government agreements with African countries. The Communist Chinese are under no such obligation. That’s why they are rapidly expanding their influence throughout the African continent. The Western countries and the Chinese will continue to exploit Africa for its non-renewable resources through the use of tried and true neo-colonial methodologies including fomenting tribal differences and encouraging the formation and continuation of an elite upper class of Africans and autocratic African leaders. The beat goes on!

  • John Phiri

    Murray (the reader's) defense of David Livingstone is at odds with the facts. While true that Livingstone was opposed to the transatlantic slave trade, he and his associates helped usher in a different form of slavery in the imperial fiefdoms of the British and the Belgians. He is now looked back upon as culturally arrogant in his determined quest to open up Africa to his "3 C's: Christianity, Civilisation and Commerce.

  • Long Pan

    I was a Fast Company subscriber for a year and stopped doing that because of the poor quality of the articles. This one is no exception. There is no solid facts. Simply just a collection of highly biased, pointless points, which have no relation to his personal experience in Africa whatsoever. I don't even bother to comment on his amateur writing.
    Fast Company editors, if your goal is to provide trash, congratulations, you are getting there!