Congo and China Forge Economic Partnership China and Congo are enjoying an era of economic cooperation, swapping cut-rate financing for infrastructure projects with oil and timber. But critics charge is the exchange is unequal.
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Congo and China Forge Economic Partnership

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Congo and China Forge Economic Partnership

Congo and China Forge Economic Partnership

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

For more than two centuries, foreign countries have been chasing after Africa's natural resources. Today, it's China that is most eagerly pursuing the continent's oil, minerals and timber. Critics say China is behaving like the imperialist powers of the past. But many African leaders are welcoming Chinese trade and investment. A good example is the Republican of Congo, also called Congo-Brazzaville.

NPR's Tom Gjelten was there recently and has this report on China's new role in the country.

TOM GJELTEN: Just outside Congo's capital, Brazzaville - alongside a dusty road and down the street from an open-air market - a sleek, new building has gone up. The front is all glass panels and concrete pillars. It's the new headquarters of Brazzaville's radio and television network. Congo's minister of information, Alain Akouala, will have his office here.

Mr. ALAIN AKOUALA (Minister of Communications, Republic of Congo): It's finished now. We're just waiting for the equipment coming from France.

GJELTEN: The radio and TV headquarters was actually built by a Chinese company. The Chinese are also building the new foreign ministry here, plus a massive hydroelectric dam, about 130 miles north of Brazzaville. Minister Akouala says China makes Congo good offers.

Mr. AKOUALA: Chinese, they price low compared with French companies, et cetera.

GJELTEN: Actually, it's not just the low prices. China also provides cut-rate financing for its construction projects. Eighty-five percent of the money for the new dam in Congo comes from China at way below market rates.

China is Congo's new development partner, to some extent, replacing the World Bank and other Western donors and with a new emphasis. The World Bank mostly supports education and health programs and conditions its aid on Congo showing more transparency in its government.

China, on the other hand, provides its aid without conditions. And it goes for buildings, dams, soccer stadiums, hospitals and roads.

Serge Mombouli, a longtime adviser to Congo's president, says the West pushes for intangible achievements, like better government, while China supports tangible things.

Mr. SERGE MOMBOULI (Congolese Ambassador to the United States): Tangible development means you can see, you can touch. We need both. We cannot be talking just about democracy, transparency, good governance. At the end of the day, the population does not have anything to eat, does not have water to drink, no electricity at night, no industry to provide work. So we need both. People do not eat democracy.

GJELTEN: But is China really helping the Republic of Congo with all these low-cost building projects? They come as part of a package deal. In return, China gets first crack at Congo's natural resources like oil. China now gets half the country's annual production, plus, timber, Congo's other big export. Each day, trucks bearing huge logs from Congo's virgin forests roll south toward the ports. The timber is all going to China.

(Soundbite of trucks)

GJELTEN: To the alarm of environmentalists, China has locked up long-term timber concessions from Congo without bothering to secure safeguards against deforestation.

Peter Navarro, a business professor at the University of California, Irvine, points out that China is developing largely through its heavy manufacturing sector and it's looking to Africa for the natural resources it needs.

Professor PETER NAVARRO (Business, University of California, Irvine): As the Chinese economy expands in that direction, as they move into building automobiles and aircraft, they're going to need incredible amounts of these raw materials, whether it's timber or copper or precious metals, or whatever. And there's only certain places you can go. I mean, Africa represents to them their source, the fuel for their economic engine.

GJELTEN: Trade between Africa and China last year surpassed $55 billion according to Chinese government figures. That's up 40 percent over the previous year. China's relentless exploitation of Africa's natural resources is reminiscent to the colonization of the continent by European powers in the 19th century.

Mr. Navarro, author of "The Coming China Wars," says that by bartering roads, power plants and presidential palaces for oil and timber concessions, China supports corrupt regimes and deprives future generations in Africa of the opportunity of develop wisely.

Prof. NAVARRO: China goes in, builds the infrastructure, uses that country's infrastructure to extract their resources, takes those resources back to China, builds finished goods and then ships them back into that country to sell. And it's a close imperialistic loop. And the bottom line is, it's poverty rather than prosperity in countries that have just incredible natural wealth.

GJELTEN: China, however, makes its deals with sovereign and independent African states, a point made by Liu Guijin, the top Africa specialist in China's diplomatic corps. In a recent interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, Liu rejected the notion that China's activities in Africa today are anything like what European imperialists did there.

Mr. LIU GUIJIN (Chinese Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa): Our way of doing things in Africa is not like the old colonialists. They send troops. They occupy the minerals. They grab them without paying anything or paying very small. But for China, we are coming here to buy your minerals. We are coming here to have joint ventures to explore their minerals. We are doing that just through friendly and equal consultations.

GJELTEN: In the 1960s, under Chairman Mao Zedong, China lavished aid on the newly independent African governments out of political solidarity. This time, China is in Africa for economic reasons. But Serge Mombouli, now the Congolese ambassador to the United States, sees no reason the Chinese should apologize for what they're doing in Africa today.

Mr. MOMBOULI: They are business people. They are not charity organization. They are coming for business. And any contract that the Chinese sign with African country, those are contracts that are negotiated.

GJELTEN: In Congo, the big Chinese project is the construction of the new dam. It will take a lot of concrete, and the aggregate to make the concrete is coming from a quarry just outside Brazzaville. Big chunks of rock are blasted out of the earth then ground up into little pieces.

GJELTEN: The quarry is run by CMEC, the China Machinery and Equipment Corporation. About a dozen Chinese technicians direct the operation, assisted by about 70 Congolese laborers. The Chinese foreman at the quarry, who declines to give his name, says Congo is an awfully hot place to work. He and the other Chinese workers all wear big straw hats, but he's not complaining.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese spoken)

GJELTEN: We're used to adjusting to new environments, the foreman says. He and his Chinese colleagues have also done quarry work in Malaysia. Besides, he says, the Congolese are our brothers, our friends. We enjoy working with them.

The Congolese laborers here, however, have a somewhat different story. Several workers follow us around as we visit the quarry, urging us to report how little they're paid - 35 cents an hour for backbreaking, dangerous work. China's operations in Congo are not open to scrutiny. The latest economic cooperation agreement between the two countries is just two pages long, and it's written in general terms. Brice Mackosso, an anti-corruption activist in Congo, wants to know how exactly China is paying for its oil and timber, and how the Congolese leaders are making use of the China trade.

Mr. BRICE MACKOSSO (Anti-Corruption Activist): (Through translator) In this situation, it doesn't really benefit us. For it really to be cooperation, it has to benefit the people of Congo and not just the people of China.

GJELTEN: Last year, Congo was almost dropped from an important debt-relief program because World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz didn't think it was doing enough to fight corruption. It appeared that Congo might be ready to work exclusively with China and turn its back on Western aid. But Information Minister Alain Akouala, speaking now in his native French, says Congo has no such intention.

Mr. AKOUALA: No, no, no, no. (French spoken).

GJELTEN: To develop in a modern way, Akouala says, we need these international institutions. We'll let them go, he says, only when he have the knowledge and the ability to have good governance on our own. A question at that point, for Akouala and his government and for other African leaders, is whether they will appreciate or regret all the deals they're making today.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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