On Pate Island, off the coast of northern Kenya, there are light-skinned Africans with Chinese features, fragments of ancient Chinese porcelain and even a place named “New Shanga”.
All lend weight to a local story that shipwrecked sailors from the fleet of Zheng He, the 15th-century Chinese explorer, settled on the island many years before Columbus set foot in the United States.
Whether or not there are descendants of the great Chinese helmsman’s crew in Kenya, records show that huge ships reached the east African coast more than 500 years ago, swapping Chinese treasures for exotica such as ivory, ostriches and zebras.
Indeed, there is a long if tentative history of contact between China and Africa, cemented under Mao Zedong in the 1960s with anti-colonial solidarity and the construction of engineering works, notably the 1,860km Tanzam railway linking Zambia with the Tanzanian coast.
In the past 15 years, however, the level of engagement by Chinese state-owned enterprises, political leaders, diplomats and entrepreneurs has put centuries of previous contact in the shade.
The China-Africa relationship — partly spontaneous and partly the fruit of an orchestrated push from Beijing — is shifting the commercial and geopolitical axis of an entire continent that many Western governments had all but given up on.
While Europeans and Americans view Africa as a troubling source of instability, migration and terrorism — and, of course, precious minerals — China sees opportunity.
Africa has oil, copper, cobalt and iron ore. It has markets for Chinese manufacturers and construction companies. And, perhaps least understood, it is a promising vehicle for Chinese geopolitical influence.
“To have 54 African (nations as)friends is very important for China,” says Ms Jing Gu, director of the Centre for Rising Powers and Global Development in East Sussex, who contrasts Beijing’s mostly good ties with African governments with the tense relationship it has with neighbours from Tokyo to Hanoi.
Many, including some Africans, are suspicious of what they see as a neocolonial land grab, in which companies acting as proxies for the Chinese state extract minerals in return for infrastructure and finance that will saddle governments with large debts.
The behaviour of Chinese actors in Africa, in common with those from the West, has often fallen short of the exemplary. There have been legitimate complaints about Chinese companies employing few locals, mistreating those it has and paying scant regard to the environment.
Nevertheless, there is a begrudging recognition that China has mostly benefited Africa and that the country’s participants on the continent have learnt lessons.
Beijing’s engagement with Africa is more multi-layered than is often recognised. China, Ms Jing says, has used Africa almost as a testing ground for its growing international ambitions, whether through peacekeeping missions or construction of the roads, ports and railways intended to bind much of the developing world, via a new Silk Road, to the Middle Kingdom.
Mr Howard French, whose book China’s Second Continent charts the experience of about one million Chinese entrepreneurs who have settled in Africa, agrees. “Africa has been a field where China can try various things in a very low-risk environment,” he says.
“Africa has been a workshop of ideas that now have a much bigger scale and strategic significance.”
A few numbers illustrate the shift. In 2000, China-Africa trade was a mere US$10 billion (S$13.8 billion). By 2014, that had risen more than 20 times to US$220 billion, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, though it has fallen back because of lower commodity prices.
Over that period, China’s foreign direct investment stocks have risen from just 2 per cent of US levels to 55 per cent, with billions of dollars of new investments being made each year. China contributes about one-sixth of all lending to Africa, according to a study by the John L Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.
Certainly, China has been attracted by Africa’s abundant resources: Oil from Angola, Nigeria and Sudan; copper from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; and uranium from Namibia.
In recent months, Chinese companies appear to have made an effort to corner the market for cobalt, crucial for the production of electric car batteries, with multibillion-dollar purchases of stakes in mines in Congo, the world’s biggest producer.
From Libya and Zambia to Ghana and Mozambique, Chinese businesses have gained a reputation for unbridled extraction, whether of old-forest timber, oil, gold or illegal ivory.
Yet the emerging China-Africa relationship goes well beyond commodities.
One of the top destinations for Chinese investment in Africa is Ethiopia, a mostly resource-poor country of 100 million people that is pursuing Chinese-style state-led development.
Ethiopia has few resources of interest to China other than its strategic location and potentially large market, should its fast growth of the past 15 years prove sustainable.
Since 2000, Ethiopia has been the second-biggest recipient of Chinese loans to Africa, with financing for dams, roads, rail and manufacturing plants worth more than US$12.3 billion, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.
That is more than twice the amount loaned to oil-soaked Sudan and mineral-rich Congo. In fact, a far larger portion of US direct investment — 66 per cent versus 28 per cent for China — goes into mining.
China-Africa ties have proliferated in other areas. Beijing has 52 diplomatic missions in African capitals against Washington’s 49. Of the United Nations Security Council’s five members, China has the most peacekeepers on the continent, with deployments of more than 2,000 troops in Congo, Liberia, Mali, Sudan and South Sudan.
From Africa’s perspective, although China presents risk, it brings tangible benefits in finance and engineers. More importantly, it brings choice.
That is welcome for African governments that have, for decades, been locked in often unproductive relationships with foreign donors who have brought billions of dollars in aid, but also, in the 1980s and 1990s, brought what many view as the ruinously prescriptive Washington consensus of market-based development and reform.
“The narrative of donor and recipient has changed considerably with China,” says Ms Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist whose 2009 book Dead Aid questioned the aid-based ties of Africa to Europe and the US.
“African countries need trade and they need investment. To the extent that China, or anybody else — India, Turkey Russia or Brazil — bring new trading and investment opportunities to Africa, that’s good news.”
Mr Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, calls China’s newfound enthusiasm “the most important single development for Africa in this generation”.
Beijing, he says, can help transform the continent. “They know how to build big projects,” he says, referring to the dams, ports, airports, railways, telecommunications networks and roads that Chinese groups are building in even the most obscure corners of the continent.
“They know how to get them done.”
Throughout Africa, people on the streets and in power echo these sentiments.
Beijing’s official policy of non-interference makes it an attractive partner to African leaders in countries from Angola to Zimbabwe fed up with lectures from former colonial powers about human rights or democracy.
A 2016 Afrobarometer survey of 36 African countries found that 63 per cent of Africans found China’s influence “somewhat” or “very” positive. Asked which countries provided the best development model for Africa, 30 per cent said the US and 24 per cent China, placing them number one and two. Yet there is disquiet about the rise of Chinese influence.
“I think the Chinese know what they want. It is the Africans who don’t know what they want,” says Mr P L O Lumumba, director of the Kenya School of Law. “China wants to control. China wants to be a world power,” he says, adding that African governments are taking on so much Chinese debt that they will be in economic and political hock to Beijing.
Mr Godfrey Mwampembwa, a cartoonist better known as “Gado” whose political satire is syndicated all over Africa, says something similar. “It’s the same old story: Now you have the Chinese conquering Africa, but what is Africa getting out of it?” In one of his cartoons, Lilliputian African leaders shake the hand of a towering Chinese figure. The caption reads: “We are equal partners.”
In an interview with the Financial Times last month, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who has used Chinese billions and engineering know-how to mount a huge infrastructure push, expressed concern at the fact that Africa has moved into trade deficit with China.
Beijing he says, is “beginning to appreciate that, if their win-win strategy is going to work, it must mean that, just as Africa opens up to China, China must also open up to Africa”.
Mr French says Africans’ view of China “is still positive, but not as exuberant as it was”.
People welcome the infrastructure, he says. But they insist their governments should not be taken for a ride, either by overpaying, accepting shoddy work or allowing Chinese companies to use all their labour and materials.
Africans resent it, he says, when corrupt governments inflate the price of projects — as has been alleged with the US$4 billion Mombasa-Nairobi railway, inaugurated this month — to make space for kickbacks.
Still, he adds, Chinese companies have become more attuned to such issues than critics suggest.
A decade ago, they thought that dealing with the government was enough. Now, they realise they also need to engage civil society and international non-governmental organisations on issues from local skills to the environment.
Chinese companies like to be seen to be transferring skills.
Huawei, which earns 15 per cent of its global revenue in Africa, trains 12,000 students in telecoms a year at centres in Angola, Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa.
According to Johns Hopkins researchers, 80 per cent of workers on Chinese projects are African, even if many are in low-skilled jobs such as trench-digging.
“I give the Chinese a fair amount of credit,” says Mr French. “They have been mounting quite a steep learning curve from almost no knowledge to becoming very sophisticated players.”
Ms Jing of the Centre for Rising Powers says China wants the relationship to be seen as mutually beneficial.
“China is actively pursuing an African industrialisation strategy,” she adds. “It is hoping to transfer low-wage production to Africa in the next 10 years.”
The crucial thing for African governments, says Ms Jing, is to take control of their relationships, whether with the West or China.
That means setting priorities, ensuring skills are transferred and negotiating with foreign partners on their own terms. “It is up to the Africans. They need to be clear about who can play what role,” she says. “It is not for outsiders to decide.” FINANCIAL TIMES
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Pilling is the Africa editor of the Financial Times.