By David Blair
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 31/08/2007
No one alive at the close of the 19th century could have missed the
“scramble for Africa”. A motley collection of robber barons, imperialist
ideologues, explorers, rogues and adventurers – the likes of Cecil Rhodes
and the appalling Leopold II, King of the Belgians – carved up the
in the name of five European powers.
Today, few appear to have noticed that a second “scramble for Africa”
is under way. This time, only one giant country is involved, but its
ambitions are every bit as momentous as those of Rhodes and company. With
every day that passes, China’s economic tentacles extend deeper into
While Europe sought direct political control, China is acquiring a vast
informal economic empire.
Reliable information on Beijing’s African adventure is hard to come
by. But we do know that trade between China and the world’s poorest
continent totalled about £30 billion last year – a sixfold increase since
China now buys about one third of its oil from Africa, mainly from
Angola, where an £800 million deal to develop a new field was signed last
May, and from Sudan, where Beijing built a 900-mile pipeline and invested
least £8 billion. China is spending another £1.2 billion on a new offshore
oilfield in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Beijing has acquired mines in Zambia, textile factories in
Lesotho, railways in Uganda, timber in the Central African Republic and
retail developments in almost every capital.
The reasoning behind China’s new focus on Africa is simple. If its
economic boom is to be sustained, Beijing must find more raw materials and
new markets for manufactured goods. Chinese oil consumption is forecast to
grow by at least 10 per cent every year for the foreseeable future. At
level of demand, its domestic reserves will vanish within 20 years.
Hence the quest for overseas oil. Yet Beijing’s options are limited.
America and the Western powers have already snapped up the world’s largest
oil reserves. Saudi Arabia and Iraq – with 45 per cent of the world’s oil
between them – are in effect closed to China.
So the less developed tracts of Africa are an obvious target. Sudan’s
six billion barrels of proven reserves – with more still to be
have become of vital strategic significance to China.
These facts are of deep concern to many Africans. Their governments
may welcome Chinese investment, but Africa’s independent voices do not
this enthusiasm. The consequences of China’s new role there have already
Thanks to Beijing’s interest in Sudan’s oil, President Omar
al-Bashir’s regime in Khartoum has received a windfall. Ten years ago,
Sudan’s oil revenues were negligible; last year, Chinese investment
that they totalled at least £3 billion.
Without this ready cash, Mr Bashir could never have sustained the war
in Darfur, where four years of fighting have claimed about 300,000 lives,
either from violence, starvation or disease. The military machine that has
laid waste to vast tracts of land, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee
their homes, was, in effect, bankrolled by Beijing. Moreover, China has
weapons directly to Sudan, notably Fantan ground attack aircraft.
Elsewhere, China provides a convenient alternative for African leaders
spurned by the West for their human rights abuses. Devoid of aid and
investment, President Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe would be entirely
isolated but for China’s backing. Beijing has given Mugabe civilian and
military aircraft, and its experts helped design a new mansion for the old
dictator, in the style of a Chinese pagoda.
Yesterday, the Chinese government assured Lord Malloch-Brown, the
Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa and Asia, that any future
for Zimbabwe would be purely humanitarian. Whether China will keep this
promise is another matter: Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has received Chinese money for
at least 30 years; Zanu-PF’s national headquarters in Harare – found,
enough, on Rotten Row – was built by China.
The harsh truth is that Beijing has become the ally of choice for
Africa’s worst rulers. While China likes to portray itself as a benign
in Africa, free of the historical baggage carried by the former colonial
powers, Beijing’s conduct is already resented.
During last year’s presidential election in Zambia, the leading
opposition candidate, Michael Sata, campaigned on an explicitly
ticket. Beijing’s investment was, Mr Sata argued, almost entirely
Yes, China had reopened some copper mines, but the workers were being
exploited and all health and safety regulations ignored. An industrial
accident at one Chinese-run mine claimed 46 lives in 2005. Later, workers
rioted over low wages and poor conditions. Meanwhile, local companies were
being driven out of business by cheap imports.
While Mr Sata lost the election overall, he won huge majorities in all
the areas of Zambia affected by Chinese investment. His defeat prompted a
day of anti-Chinese riots in the capital, Lusaka. Every Chinese-owned shop
in the city was barricaded to avoid being looted. Meanwhile, shops owned
whites or Asians carried on trading without incident.
Even inside Mugabe’s crumbling domain, it has not gone unnoticed that
all three MA-60 aircraft supplied by China to Air Zimbabwe have a
history of engine fires and emergency landings.
While Americans and Europeans have only just encountered shoddy
Chinese consumer goods, ordinary Zimbabweans talk of “zing zong”
by which they mean exports from China which have a tendency to break in
Like all empires, China’s economic domain in Africa is stirring deep
resentment. The wonder is that it has happened so quickly, and where the
scramble will end.
Sent in By Dean