The agreement for China to build a new East African railway, superseding the decaying British colonial mainline, is further proof of the PRC’s long-term commitment to Africa, which its’ leaders recognise both as an excellent investment opportunity and as a way to provide Chinese workers with jobs.
A Chinese firm will build the first stage of the new rail project between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, with further links planned into Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. It follows on from massive Chinese investment in the African economy. In the past few years, Chinese firms have acquired extensive mineral extraction rights, have overtaken vast agricultural holdings and expanded industrial production.
What the Chinese have also gained from ignoring sticky issues such as human rights abuses and corruption (which remain endemic in Africa) is an export base for their labour force. As China’s economic growth slows, the drop in employment opportunities at home can be offset by work abroad, with Africa a main location. Significantly, most African states receiving Chinese investment are not fussy about the nationality of their industrial labour force as long as their pockets get lined. The Chinese have sought to appease the frustration of local job-seekers overlooked in favour of Chinese workers by investing in large infrastructure projects.
This is not so different from their British colonial predecessors. Imperialism was an economic venture first and foremost. But the British colonial mantra put emphasis on indigenous improvement as much as plundering Africa’s abundant natural resources.
Between 1895 and 1901, the British built a railway line between Mombasa and Lake Victoria, at the cost of four workers for every one of the line’s 580 miles. The construction of the railway was necessary for British trading purposes but it was also a signal of their commitment to their African colonies which did help win the support of many indigenous inhabitants.
Britain still invests a vast amount of money in Africa yet, perhaps because of its perceived colonial legacy, has a far less visible presence than the Chinese. Furthermore, with $14.7bn of foreign direct investment in 2012, this Chinese presence will only increase and large enterprises such as the East African Railway will help ingratiate the Chinese with African leaders.
Britain, Europe and the US remain key and keen investors in Africa yet the incessant preaching of their governments about complying to democratic morals and norms is likely to prove irksome to many African politicians and businessmen. Similarly, the over-bureaucratization of big business in the West and tiresome regulations that must be followed give the Chinese a distinct long-term advantage.
The communists look set to turn imperialist; both they and African will reap the rewards.