Africa Update: China Eyes Africa's Resources

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Farai Chideya talks with NPR special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault about the new interest China has in key African nations. China's energy consumption is expected to double in the next decade, and is an aggressive competitor on the world oil market.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

As the president of China wraps up his visit to the Unites States, much attention has been put on Beijing's growing influence on the U.S. economy. The influence remains disconcerting to many Americans, but China's burgeoning power is generally seen as a good thing in Africa. For more, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with NPR's special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Ms. CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT (NPR Special Africa Correspondent): In the ‘60s and the ‘70s China was very much involved in Africa, driven a lot by ideological things, you know. It supplied doctors and other professionals, and weapons, to the newly independent countries and also to liberation movements still engaged in freedom from colonialism. But now, China is using Africa to actually fuel its economy, which is the fourth largest in the world.

Last year, trade with--between China and Africa was something like $35 billion. It was fueled by China's textile exports to the continent and other cheap goods that Africans can afford. I mean, you go to downtown Johannesburg and they've got what they call Little Asia. They've got everything from transistor radios to dresses to shoes to all kinds of things and they're underselling the local merchants. Also, there's China's need for African minerals and oil. China is diversifying from its main supplier of oil in the Middle East and finding other sources here in Africa.

CHIDEYA: You know, actually my father's from Zimbabwe and there's evidence that, you know, 1,000 years ago the Chinese traded with southern Africa, so maybe it goes back even further than that. But now, you really have China, which has an immense labor force and an immense need for raw materials, really kind of staking a claim to Africa's raw materials.

Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Well, let--China is all over the continent. I was just in Addas Ababa, Ethiopia, where I went into an Ethiopian restaurant/nightclub kind of thing and here were all these Ethiopians, you know, beautiful, dark-skinned people dancing these robust dances and singing wonderful Ethiopian songs, and there was a little knot of Chinese over in the corner. But just bout every Africa country you go into now, you find Chinese either supporting building--I was in Khartoum a few months ago, and they are building up the city of Khartoum, which has a lot to do with the oil that it is getting from Sudan. But it's not just oil. It's also minerals. I mean, China is the largest--world's largest user of copper and it's been doing mining in Zambia--it has--the biggest Chinese mining sector in the continent is in Zambia, I'm told. So, and you mentioned Zimbabwe, I mean, recently President Mugabe ordered that the university students in Zimbabwe begin to learn Chinese, much to their unhappy response. But still, that's how significantly this country is penetrating the continent.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about a possible downside to the Chinese scramble for Africa, particularly talking about the Sudan and any issues of diplomatic relations there.

Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Well, of course, that's one of the things that has the United States upset, I mean in addition to it being a big competitor on the continent now. But, you know, a lot of the countries that China is investing in now have some serious human rights problems. And unlike the west, China's aid is not conditional on good governance or good fiscal management, and since China has its own human rights issues, you know, it's not going to insist on respect for human rights in other countries in exchange for aid.

Now recently, the U.N. Ambassador John Bolton tried to get sanctions against the Khartoum government because the United States believes that Khartoum is perpetuating a genocide, or helping perpetuate a genocide, in the Darfur region of the country. And China and Russia, two of the five permanent members on the Security Council, said that they would veto that because the time just wasn't right. I mean, they had their reasons for it.

But, you know, this is the kind of thing that I think United States is worried about and a lot of other people are worried about; that countries like Zimbabwe, for example, which is under, you know, great criticism from all kinds of human rights--international human rights bodies for things that are going on there, is turning to not just China, but also to Iran, and turning its back on the west, which wants these conditions of good governance. So you've got a really interesting situation developing here and I think that's why some human rights people, in particular, are very concerned about China's second scramble in Africa.

CHIDEYA: NPR special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you.

Ms. HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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