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“China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa”

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As President Obama heads to Ghana, we look at China’s expanding role in Africa, where it recently became the continent’s second largest business partner, behind only the United States. We speak to author Serge Michel and analyst Nii Akuetteh. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Nii, we’d like to ask you to stay with us, as we turn to the issue of China’s economic expansion across Africa. China is now Africa’s third largest business partner, hot on the heels of France, at number two, and the United States, which remains in the top spot.

We’re joined now via Democracy Now! video stream by Swiss journalist Serge Michel. He’s the West Africa correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde and the co-author, with Michel Beuret, of the new book China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Serge. Can you talk about the significance of China in Africa?

SERGE MICHEL: Well, yeah, first, [inaudible] I have to just — to correct you, now China is number two. It has bypassed France last year, and it’s about — its business with Africa now is about a hundred billion dollars, and France is only seventy. So now it’s China is number two, just after — just a little bit behind the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as number two, talk about the significance of China.

SERGE MICHEL: Well, the significance is very important, because China, unlike France and Britain, doesn’t have former colonial territory in Africa. It has a blueprint to go in every fifty-three African countries. And in these countries, China is doing almost everything. I mean, they are extracting raw materials. They are building infrastructures. They are investing. They have private pioneers going there. They have settlement plans for Chinese people. And it has really changed the face of the continent.

We did this book about — it took about two years, and we went around twelve African countries. We met different Chinese, I mean, entrepreneurs, workers, bankers and farmers. We discovered that, in many aspects, Africa, which is like a place — as a Westerner, you would go there with empathy, because of misery, civil wars; Chinese go there with just the aim of making business, making a fortune, and they believe that this move will also benefit Africa.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Serge, I’d like to ask you, whatever infrastructure development occurred during the colonial era or the neocolonial era in Africa on the part of European countries was usually geared at assisting their own companies in being able to extract resources, whether it was the railroads they built or electrification or whatever. Are the Chinese doing anything fundamentally different in terms of their development? Are they attempting at all to meet the local needs of the different nations, rather than just their own economic needs?

SERGE MICHEL: No, they actually do exactly the same. The thing is that the roads or the railways that were built during the post-colonial time were not enough. And nowadays, American companies or French companies do not — cannot anymore build roads in Africa. This is too much of a rough business. They are into more sophisticated — they are looking for more sophisticated business. And the Chinese have this capacity. They can project about 10,000 workers anywhere, anytime in Africa for one of these large infrastructure projects. And they — of course, it benefits their own companies, but it also leaves — African needs infrastructure more than everything. I mean, they need electricity, roads, telecommunications. And we are far from the stage where we can say now we can develop more sophisticated businesses there.

AMY GOODMAN: Serge Michel, you’ve spent a lot of time traveling through Africa and now looking at China’s expansion in Africa, and you tell a very interesting story about Osama bin Laden in the Sudan and the project that China took over when he left to go to Afghanistan. Can you describe that, as an example of China’s presence in Africa?

Interesting, it looks like we’ve just lost him on the video stream. We’ll try to reestablish contact. But as we wait, let’s turn back to Nii Akuetteh.

Can you talk about the significance of China’s expansion going from number three, behind France and the United States, to number two in Africa?

NII AKUETTEH: I think it’s a story of a glass partially full. The fact that China is bringing significant technical expertise in building infrastructure is a good thing. The fact that they are bringing funding and investment in Africa is welcome, because Africa has such big developmental needs, and we need all the investment we can get.

However, in fact, I think the dangers — there are grave dangers associated with China’s presence in Africa. And frankly, I think that one of the biggest factors, positive factors, in Africa is civil society. But I do worry that African civil society is too sanguine about the presence of China. I worry about China’s presence, because I look at what China does in its own country, from the abuse of human rights, from pollution and exploitation of the environment, from taking people’s land and even their property in cities like Beijing for the Olympics. China is not a democratic — does not have a democratic government. And in its zeal for develop fast, it abuses human rights. And Africa needs both democracy and protection of human rights, as well as development.

Africa’s history is full of foreigners coming to Africa, saying that they are coming to help Africa and abusing Africa. This has been happening for over 500 years. The slavery was such an episode. Then you’ve got colonialism. Then you’ve got neocolonialism.

So, while China is helping in some areas, I worry a lot more, and which is why I do believe that democracy has to be Africa’s number one priority. When we have stronger democracy with strong institutions, we can then check any investor that comes in, be it a Western company, a French company, an American one, or a Chinese state-owned company. If we don’t do that, and if we drop the Chinese in the middle of vast countries like DRC and say, “Here, you extract the resources you want and just build roads,” I worry about that.

And I’m sure that Serge will tell you that there is growing frustration among the peoples of Africa with the Chinese presence. Zambia is an example. There have been criticism, both in Ghana of the China’s presence, in Senegal of the Chinese presence, so I think China’s presence is not a totally good thing. And Africans need to be very watchful and put pressure on them. The African governments, I mean, they like the investment, and they don’t suffer much of the consequences. So they are very welcome. But African peoples must hold the governments responsible and must be very careful about their engagement with China. And they have to look at what China does in its own country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We have Serge Michel back on the line here. I’d like to ask him about this whole issue of Chinese living in Africa. Your book estimates that somewhere between half a million and 750,000 Chinese now reside in Africa, a larger population even than French residents in Africa. What has been the impact of this massive migration in recent years to the African continent?

SERGE MICHEL: Well, just, I agree with what your previous interlocutor said about democracy. It should be aim number one. The problem is that it’s not the case; it’s not happening like that. And the problem is that the West has — was the advocate of this democracy blueprint and has disappointed Africa a lot by not investing enough, by not — you know, by pulling back. At the end of the Clinton years, there was a large pullback from the United States.

So, somehow, the Chinese came when nobody wanted to go to Africa, and they imposed another model. It’s very true it’s not based on democracy; it is based on other things. And it can work, as well, but with many dangers, of course. The thing is that it’s too late now to say — to think, wishful thinking, democracy is better than just a Chinese investment. Now, the Chinese are there. They are there in large numbers, as you said, half a million or 750,000 people. And they are doing everything. They are impacting the societies, like they have replaced some segments of the business. In Cameroon they are the street sellers. In Dakar they have a lot of shops. In Zambia they are farmers, and they are miners. So, they have really taken a big asset already.

AMY GOODMAN: And Serge, before we lost you for a moment there, that story of China and Osama bin Laden?

SERGE MICHEL: Yeah. No, we were driving from Khartoum to Port Sudan, and that road was, as we heard there, was built — was start building by Osama bin Laden as a gift, as a thank you for the Sudanese government, because he was hosted there when he was a refugee in Sudan. And he later had to leave, after the American attack on Sudan, and he went to Afghanistan to develop other projects than the civilian engineering. And the road was left like this. And Osama, you know, had a large — his father had a large building company in Saudi Arabia, so he had the capacity to build the road, but then the road was left.

And a few years later, Chinese came to Sudan massively. That was in ’95, ’96. And they just continued the road. And now they are even building a railway just parallel to that road. It’s a road that is cutting short the way from Sudan to — from Khartoum to Port Sudan by 400 kilometers. So it’s really an asset for the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Serge Michel, we want to thank you very much for being with us. But a quick thirty seconds on another issue entirely. You won France’s top journalistic prize, the Albert Londres Prize, for your coverage of Iran. And I’d just like to get a quick response from you on what is happening in Iran right now.

SERGE MICHEL: A very heavy repression is happening in Tehran. But it will not make an end. I mean, something has started. I’ve been there the whole month of June, and I have witnessed an extraordinary revival of the spirits in Iran. I was a bit desperate, because Iranians [inaudible] last years, they were feeling well, were just pursuing a private happiness, and not being so much into the political and the intellectual debate. Now they are back on that. The people are really determined to obtain some rights. And it’s not the repression — even if it’s very cruel, even if it leaves many more bodies on the ground, it’s not the repression that will end it. Iran has always been at the avant-garde of revolution and democracy’s quest. I mean, there was a constitutional revolution a hundred years ago. There was the oil nationalization in ’53. And Iran will continue to pursue this quest for freedom.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Serge Michel, West Africa correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde, co-author of China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa. And thank you also to Nii Akuetteh, independent Africa policy analyst, former executive director of Africa Action, speaking to us from Washington, DC.

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