Africa is desperate for Chinese investment, but only South Africa will get muchby Stephen Chan / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Everywhere in the streets of Africa you find shops run by Chinese, selling Chinese goods—usually clothes and shoes. The locals call them “Zhing Zhong” shops. The wares on sale are cheap even if, like the products of the international Japanese expansion of the 1950s and 1960s, they have gained a reputation for falling apart. The huge textile combines in China make the clothes and the shopkeepers sell them in Africa.
If, for often resentful Africans, this is an unwelcome intrusion into their high streets, the Chinese invasion has been welcomed and applauded by African leaders. Presidents from Zimbabwe to Sudan, from Nigeria to South Africa, are looking to the expansionist Chinese as an antidote, if not an alternative, to western capital.
The Chinese role in Africa is hardly news. But what is not often realised is that this is not the first Chinese penetration of Africa. From the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s, under the rubric of third world solidarity, the Chinese spent an average of $100m in each of many African countries. Huge transport links were constructed—the 550-mile Somalia border road, the TanZam railroad between Zambia and Dar es Salaam—and numerous liberation movements were supported and trained. Not that everything was ideologically motivated; the Chinese sold reactor-grade uranium to apartheid South Africa. It was a curious mixture of genuine solidarity and a determination to hold Soviet expansionism in check. In the proxy wars of the 1970s, every great power was supporting one faction against another in Africa’s sprawling conflicts. If the Soviets chose one side in Angola, the Chinese chose another. The same in Zimbabwe. Africa was part of a world competition. Only when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan in 1979 did the Chinese realise that they could not keep up. When the bear became properly bellicose, the dragon drew back its claws and departed Africa almost completely.
In the 21st century, the Chinese came back. Or, rather, people suddenly noticed they had come back. It had started silently in the 1990s, but as with a British high street, when suddenly one day you notice a mass of hamburger joints or sushi bars, in Africa it was the Zhing Zhong shops. The shopkeepers are not a key part of Chinese expansionism—though they are useful to the Chinese project. They are given incentives to set up their businesses in Africa, but are not centrally directed. And,…