China’s influence in Africa goes so deep that African leaders are starting to shape their own agendas after China’s. In February 2012, South African President Jacob Zuma gave his “state of the nation” speech in Cape Town, but he might as well have been in Beijing. “For the year 2012 and beyond,” he said, “we invite the nation to join government in a massive infrastructure development drive.” By October, Zuma was vowing $100 billion in Chinese-style infrastructure investment to help create jobs. In welcoming Xi Jinping, China’s new president, to South Africa last month for a BRICS conference, Zuma gushed, “We view China’s success as a source of hope and inspiration.” Apparently, he also views China as a model for his country’s development.
The infatuation is mutual. Xi Jinping recently made his first major foreign diplomacy trip, choosing to go to Africa (after a brief visit to Moscow), stopping in Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo as he made the rounds of one of China’s most important regions for investment. After all, China’s foreign direct investment in Africa stood at less than $100 million in 2003; today, it’s more than $12 billion. China is already responsible for more than a quarter of all foreign investment in Africa — and commerce is still growing at a rapid clip.
At the BRICS summit in South Africa, Xi explained that African leaders need not worry that China is the same kind of benefactor as the U.S. “China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached,” he said. Of course, there may not be political strings attached, but there are plenty of economic strings, and China is keen to pull them.
It’s true that China doesn’t care what kind of government its investment partners have, or whether there’s systemic corruption, or if the balance of power between corporation and citizen is, well, balanced. But China cares very much what these countries can offer China and its emerging economy. For African countries, many of which are governed by authoritarian regimes, China might as well be an ATM.
Despite China’s friendly rhetoric, however, there are expectations of what it means to be a Chinese economic partner. And those expectations are leading some on the continent to wonder whether China is a new colonial power, conquering with its money instead of its military. It was one thing when Hillary Clinton called China’s exploits a “new colonialism in Africa” in 2011. But just last month the governor of Nigeria’s central bank, Lamido Sanusi, wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times that argued: