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20 Aug, 2014

The Rush for Africa’s Resources: A Chinese Perspective

By Chen Weihua

(China Daily) 2014-08-15 – I laughed it off when news came last week that US President Barack Obama had made pointed remarks about China’s activities in Africa and played up the United States’ role on the continent.

Obama said “we don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources, we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential”. But he also admitted that the US trade with the continent is only equal to its trade with Brazil and “we still do the vast majority of our trade with just three countries – South Africa, Nigeria and Angola. It’s still heavily weighted towards the energy sector”.

I laughed off Obama’s words because as a Washington correspondent, I know just how good US politicians are in distracting attention from the real issues. And if you’ve traveled in Ethiopia as I did in the past more than a week, China’s positive presence in Africa, fueled by China’s optimism of the continent’s future, is more than obvious.

Walking on the streets in Addis Ababa, people greeted me with “China” or “nihao”, which is hello in Chinese.

At a major traffic intersection near the Africa Hall, a huge Ethiopian Airlines billboard promotes its daily direct flight from Addis Ababa to “the modern heart of China” Shanghai.

In bustling Meskel Square, another giant billboard, this time advertizing Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant, states its mission is “paving the way to the future” and “growing together and sharing the future”. Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese telecom company, have been endorsed by the Ethiopian government to build a mobile telecommunications network in the country.

Passing Meskel Square is Ethiopia’s first light railway, which is being constructed by a Chinese company. Chinese companies are also building railways from Addis Ababa to a port in the Republic of Djibouti, where 70 percent of the port trade come from landlocked Ethiopia. A lack of such infrastructure has been a major obstacle for Ethiopia to attract foreign direct investment and develop its economy.

There are many more examples of beneficial Chinese projects in the country. Chinese automakers, such as Lifan, are assembling cars in Ethiopia and it has plans to localize its car parts production, moves that are encouraged by Ethiopia’s Five-Year Growth and Transformation Plan. Right now, most of the cars running on streets are used cars, including many dumped by industrialized nations.

While Western countries often accuse China of simply extracting resources from Africa, none of the Chinese companies I saw in Ethiopia this time are there for resources. Instead, they are pursuing win-win cooperation in the nation’s modernization drive.

Unlike many Western nations who see Africa as a continent seeking handouts, Chinese, from their own experience over the last four decades, firmly believe that teaching people how to fish is far better than giving them fish.

And contrary to the Western criticism that Chinese companies don’t hire local workers, the vast majority of employees in Chinese-invested companies in Ethiopia are locals. And some are assuming various leadership roles. Chinese firms are making great efforts to train the local workforce because skilled labor is often in short supply.

While the US held its first summit with African leaders last week, China’s optimism about Africa has been reflected by its early establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation back in 2000 and also China’s rise to be Africa’s top trade partner.

Even during last week’s US-Africa Leaders Summit, there was plenty of criticism about how the US has ignored Africa and lags behind not only China, but also Brazil, India and Europe in engaging Africa in development.

African nations call for more engagement by the rest of the world, and there is plenty of room for everyone, including the US and China. But the kind of ugly politics as reflected in Obama’s pointed remarks should not be part of this.

The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA. E-mail: chenweihua@chinadailyusa.com