China Latest Superpower To Mine African Treasures

A big reason the American delegation is on a trade mission in Zambia is China. The world's other economic superpower has fanned out across the African continent in the past decade, building roads, drilling wells and mining minerals. In the long history of foreign influence in Africa, China is the newest and most visible presence. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR East Africa correspondent Frank Langfitt about China's growing investments in Africa.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

A big reason the U.S. delegation is on a trade mission in Zambia is China. The worlds other economic superpower has fanned out across the African continent in the past decade, building roads, drilling wells and mining minerals. In the long history of foreign influence in Africa, China is the newest and most visible presence.

Frank Langfitt, NPRs East Africa correspondent, joins us from Nairobi.

So are the Chinese interested in Africa for pretty much the same reasons Europe and America have been?

FRANK LANGFITT: In many ways. Of course, now it's really especially about natural resources and has been for quite a number of years. Oil in Nigeria, copper down there in Zambia, even more oil in Sudan. And what theyre looking for is because their economy is growing so fast, they need more steel for the skyscrapers in Shanghai, oil for all the gas tanks of all those cars that keep coming on the roads in Beijing. But the Chinese are also looking for new markets here in Africa for their industrial engine.

Here's another power project that was kind of interesting that was just mentioned in Beijing. They want to build a lot of solar panel projects in 40 African nations, and that creates more demand for their own manufacturing. Right here in Kenya, a new truck plant is coming. They're laying fiber optic cable. And a lot of the fastest-growing economies right now are actually in Africa.

SIMON: And as you travel across Africa, how visible is the Chinese presence?

LANGFITT: Very. I'll give you an example. When I first flew into Kampala, the Ugandan capital, I got on a Chinese-made bus at the airport and immediately passed signs for Chinese restaurant, Chinese hotel. I was just in Nigeria and you could hear Mandarin in the airport. And, of course, 10 years ago all this kind of involvement would be unthinkable.

SIMON: And how are Africans responding to seeing growing Chinese presence?

LANGFITT: Well, it really depends on which country. You know, you hear this and it's a little bit of a cliche to say, oh, they're the new colonizers. But other people look at them and say they're a boon to some of these less developed countries.

Kenya, I think the feelings are more positive than in some places. They're building a lot of roads in a country that really needs them. The airport is decrepit and they're fixing that up. They're rebuilding a stadium. They're also looking to build a deepwater port to also help get oil out of South Sudan. But generally here in Kenya, I think it's more positive than some places.

Now Zambia is a lot more tension, especially about labor issues. Back last fall, there were a couple of Chinese managers who actually shot 13 mine workers during a protest and Zambians have been very critical about working conditions in Chinese companies there. And it's become even a political issue. The opposition presidential candidate has run in the past on an anti-China platform.

SIMON: What kind of interaction is there between Chinese, of some people -laborers, some people company representatives, perhaps even some tourists - and Africans on a personal level?

LANGFITT: Not as much as you might expect. I mean, one, is there is a big language barrier. Also, a lot of Chinese companies actually import labor here. They live in camps so they have little contact with Africans. They eat their meals there. They get most of the things that they buy there. And there are also big social differences. The Chinese, as you know, you've been a fair bit in China, you go to Beijing and Shanghai, they're very friendly in their own culture.

SIMON: Yeah.

LANGFITT: But when they go overseas they're sometimes shyer, keep more to themselves. Of course, many Africans are really warm and outgoing to strangers.

But there was a Gallup poll last year that was kind of interesting. Forty percent of applicants said that there were too many Chinese here on the continent. And only 16 percent said that there were too many Americans.

SIMON: And does Chinas expansion into Africa in any way threaten, curtail, affect U.S. and Western interests there?

LANGFITT: Well, the U.S. is still the most important presence in many of these countries, because it still is by far the largest economy in the world. But its really clear Chinas gaining a lot of ground. And some African politicians really like the way the Chinese operate. The companies work really fast, often do a better job than the African firms and the Chinese government doesn't ask questions about human rights or politics.

Youve got to remember, the Chinese have supported Omar al-Bashir, hes the indicted war criminal and president of Sudan. They also here in Kenya been supportive of the Kenyan government - some of the politicians not wanting to be held accountable for election violence a few years ago. So when you look at many African leaders, some of them really prefer this kind of no strings attached model. They find it pretty attractive.

SIMON: NPR East Africa correspondent Frank Langfitt, speaking from Nairobi.

Thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Youre very welcome, Scott.

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