Premier Li Keqiang has touched down in Africa on his official tour as China’s presence on the world’s second-biggest continent grows and tensions about its role there mount. Is China there for investment and development or exploitation?
At least Li’s role is clear: He’s there to improve China’s reputation in Africa. The premier said over the weekend that the tour will strengthen ties between China and Africa, playing up infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, electricity and air transport facilities.
But, the Chinese way of doing business is wearing out Africa’s welcome. Friction has heated up between Chinese management of various projects and local workers. An increasing number of Africans are complaining about substandard Chinese construction, and the lack of respect for workers and local laws.
Last year, the government of Zambia in southern Africa seized control of Chinese-owned coal mines due to poor compliance with safety and environment concerns. The move came after a report released by Human Rights Watch claimed the coal mine defied labor protections, demanding up to 18 hours of work a day and flouting health and safety rules.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be an only case. Oil workers at two China-invested projects in Chad and Niger went on strike in March in protest at unequal pay.
These are just part of the “growing pains” Li referred to in the relationships between Chinese firms and African employees and communities.
That’s why, before heading off on tour, Li urged Chinese companies to be accountable for the quality of their projects in Africa.
Then, arriving in Ethiopia, he also called on Chinese companies to shoulder responsibility for communities in Africa. The goal was to convey a message that China is not just relying on its economic power to get what it wants in Africa. Instead, China would like to maintain a healthy relationship with the continent and its people.
For all the conflicts there are some very successful cases. Chinese pharmaceutical company Holley-Cotec introduced a generic medicine called Cotecxin to Africa. The firm added Chinese herbal medicine to the drug which is effective in controlling and curing malaria, a common infectious disease on the continent. Cotecxin is now the top-selling drug in East Africa, with annual sales of US$10 million.
Africa’s telecom sector is also a big market for Chinese firms. For example, network service providers Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp (00763.HK) are working to install a 4G broadband network in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and a 3G network throughout the country.
China replaced the US in 2009 to become Africa’s biggest trading partner. Despite all the frictions between Chinese firms and local communities, China-Africa trade reached US$210 billion, with more than 2,500 Chinese companies operating on the continent last year, according to Xinhua.
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