08/24/2006, 00.00
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Chinese invasion prompts crisis among African workers

Chinese goods in African markets are destroying local production. Bejing funds public works but expects the contracts to be given to its firms that use Chinese materials and personnel: there are 4 million Chinese workers in Angola alone.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China's interest in Africa stretches beyond the acquisition of raw materials to expanding its political and economic influence, flooding the markets with its merchandise and exporting its lifestyle. Local workers and traders are increasingly voicing their protests against this "invasion".

Between 2000 and 2005, trade between China and Africa rose by 300% to exceed 40 billion US dollars per year. Beijing seeks above all oil and other raw materials: metals, minerals and wood too. But it has also invested, financing roads and other public works and refineries, usually expecting the works to be contracted to Chinese firms. These firms, then, often bring raw materials (like cement) and workers with them, normally using the local workforce for unskilled labour. Many African workers have now come to dread the arrival of the Chinese, afraid that they could threaten their already miserable standard of life. This explains why workers in Zambia protested against the Chinese.

In Angola, where the majority of the population lives in extreme poverty, the premier, Fernando dos Santos, was accused in July of having authorized the immigration of four million Chinese workers. "The Chinese are coming to Angola within specific projects and after those projects come to an end they will return to their country," he replied, without denying the charge. In South Africa, trade unions representing workers, fearful of losing jobs especially in the textile and clothing sector, are calling on the government to re-negotiate trade deals with China, held to be too advantageous for Beijing. South African imports from China exceeded 31 billion rand (4.4 billion US dollars) in 2005 compared with eight billion rand in exports. Steven Friedman, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, said he believed China was seeking more than raw materials in Africa: it is a "superpower" that aims to expand its sphere of economic and political influence.

The competition posed by Chinese merchandise has impoverished the economies of many African states whose merchandise (like textiles) cannot compete on western markets and sometimes not even on domestic markets. Chinese products have flooded many states but they are increasingly turning out to be of substandard quality. In Nigeria, Chinese companies have been accused of filling Nigerian markets with fake and substandard goods. In December 2005, Nigerian officials shut down several shopping centers run by Chinese traders in the commercial capital, Lagos.

Moreover, Beijing does not deny that it offers collaboration and aid to the most repressive governments on the continent. Western states, on the other hand, tie trade to respect for political rights and the granting of social reforms. China is the number one exporter of oil in Angola, whose government is held to be one of the most corrupt. And it is a great buyer of Sudan's oil and lent the country significant political support at the United Nations, indicating that it may exercise its power of veto to prevent a tough resolution condemning the genocide in Darfur.

Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, has been isolated by western governments that call for more respect for human rights and the establishment of the rule of law. So his policy is "to look to the East". Beijing has sold him merchandise and arms, but not only. Newspaper publisher, Trevor Ncube, said it was not just goods but even the country's lifestyle that were becoming ever more made-in-China: Chinese buses, markets with Chinese goods, and Chinese-made planes in the skies. Chinese companies are major investors in mining and telecommunications too. "They are all over the place, in the streets, driving fancy cars, picking up their children from elite private schools," said Ncube. "If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place."

John Robertson, an economist in Harare, said he feared Zimbabwe could no longer manage without Chinese help. "My biggest fear is that Zimbabwe has become so weakened that at some stage the Chinese can say, 'We can bail you out,' and in exchange we not only will repay money but sell their products too. We will be come the tool that wipes out the clothing, footwear and textile industries for the whole of Southern Africa, and the Chinese will have the market to themselves."

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