Today's Indy has an analysis of China's influence in Africa. Beijing is hosting a forum where more than 40 African heads of state will be selling their souls in return for yen for their economies. It won't be long before you hear of African leaders sunning themselves in holiday villas in Guangdong, or going on shopping sprees to Shanghai. Sunday's Observer also had a piece on the same topic.
The pact between these two is rather simple: Africa gives Beijing its vast mineral resources (especially oil), and Beijing gives Africa money, in raw cash, loans, assistance. The Lagos to Kano railway line is a typical example. Nigeria gets a $1bn loan from China, and a Chinese firm CCECC (which is actually based in Hong Kong - not sure how much the distinction matters these days) builds the line.
Railway in Nigeria is going to be one of the keys to reviving the economy. And there are no better technicians to use than the Chinese. Chinese engineers and architects are leapfrogging stages in conventional progression. The Shanghai Maglev train is a prime example, and they're hoping to extend the line to Hangzhou by 2010. I suppose it is pie in the sky to hope for the Lagos-Kano line to use maglev, but we can at least expect cutting edge technology.
One of the arguments against China's investment in Africa is the hands-off approach to domestic affairs. Hence, China will say nothing of genocide being committed in Darfur. So long as the nation can still guzzle it Sudanese gas, it doesn't care. China is in Africa to do business, not to preach.
The irony of China's involvement in Africa is the aspirations of both parties. If Africa is going to compete in the next century, it needs to start adding value to natural resources. It needs to cut its diamonds, refine its oil, make stuff. And that is where China trumps all at the moment. China makes stuff for cheaper than any other country in the world. It has an army of workers just willing to sew footballs, stitch shirts, assemble electronics, the hallmarks of an industrialised nation. If Africa wants to compete, it will have to compete with China. Africa could obviously shun this method of development and follow the yellow brick road developing nations are treading - the ideas or knowledge economy.
Take the iPod. The man who led the design team for the iPod is Jonathan Ive (who also led the team behind the iMac), a Brit. He works for an American company, Apple Computer. However, the iPod is made in China. Nothing has been made by Britain or America, but their economies (or at least America) have much to gain from the invention and manufacture of the iPod.
If Africa isn't going to make stuff, it should be thinking of stuff to make. The problem with a knowledge economy is levels of education. Literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are at just over 60%. Compare that to 85% for China or even 99% for Western Europe. Africa has a long way to go if it's going to be doing competing with China rather than just selling raw materials.