Should The Trade Between Africa And China Be Regulated?

By Aaron Sikombe

Ofodile (2008) refers to the Africa-China trade as the third scramble for Africa, while Muekali (2004) calls it a ‘strategic partnership.’ Whatever the name one thing is for sure the Africa-China trade is on the rise and is showing no signs of slowing down (Time Magazine, 2011). The Arica-China trade is no new thing, as it dates decades back when the first few African countries were being birthed from colonialism. The first trade agreement with China involved two African countries Zambia and Tanzania. The trade agreement was prompted by Zambia’s need to gain access to an international sea port to transport its imports and exports. Following this, the Zambia government made an agreement with the Tanzanian government to jointly build a railway line from the Indian Ocean port of Dar es salam in Tanzania to the mining town of Kapiri in Zambia (Ofodile, 2008). The Chinese government saw this as an opportunity to win votes from the two Nations to bar USSR from attending the Asia-Africa summit, and so, they offered to foot the cost of the rail project with a condition that China be allowed free trade with the two countries. According to Muekali (2004) this trade deal signed in 1970 was the first sitting of Chinese involvement in Africa. The unregulated nature of the trade has prompted a lot of abuse, which can only be curbed by firm regulations.

Although most people are in favour of the current practice of unregulated trade between Africa and China, it is best to control trade due to the abuse in the existing situation. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to outline the effects of this trade on the African continent.
To start with, Chinese companies have taken advantage of the free trade and the soft foreign investment policies set up by African governments, to set up operations in various industries which including mining, agriculture, construction and textile. As good as it may sound this investment is more of a bane than a solution to Africa’s high unemployment rate, which the African Union (2010) points to be at 75 per cent. Chinese investors have little or no regard for the health of their African workers putting the health of African workers at risk. The mining industry is an industry that requires high levels of protection for workers as they work in hazardous conditions yet Chinese mine owners provide little or no protection for these workers. For instance, the abuse in Zambia’s mamba coal mine which could have been avoided if regulations were in place. It was sad to note that African workers have to work for two years before being given safety helmets (BBC,2011). African workers are constantly exposed to hazardous environments yet their employers do not provide them with medical insurance.
In additions, Chinese employers have taken advantage of the poorly enforced labour laws Africa by paying workers less than the stipulated minimum wage. In a South African town of New Castle Chinese run textile factories pay workers $200 monthly, which is much less than the stipulated minimum wage in South Africa (The Economist, 2011). It further reports that workers in these factories say it’s better to be poorly paid than have no job. Workers have no rights at all when they work for Chinese owned firms. Take Sinazongwe mine in Zambia for instance, when workers collectively decided to protest against poor working conditions, their Chinese employers picked up shotguns and fired directly at the workers who were peacefully asking for their rights (Laing,2010). Such inhuman treatment falls short of the dream that African had when the Chinese first arrived in Africa.
Next, the coming of Chinese firms to Africa to set up operations seemed like a step that will help to provide jobs to jobless Africans. However that has turned out to be a white elephant as the Chinese firms employee only a few African workers, even for unskilled jobs. To add salt to the wound Chinese firms have been reported to bring prisoners from the main land to work in Africa. This was brought to light by the now Zambian president in 2009 when he was running for presidency, he said ‘if 100 Chinese come, 20 of them are skilled and the other 80 are unskilled prisoners.’ This has since brought outrage among the unemployed in Zambia who feel short changed by the new investors (Lombe and Chilemba, 2009)
However, just like his predecessors, after being elected into office Mr Sata changed his stance that was strongly against Chinese investment in Africa (Zambian Watchdog,2012). Which leaves the poor African worker with no other avenue for change, and it’s not like they ask for too much all they asked for was for the government to standby it promise to regulate the trade between Africa and China to easy the abuse that is being brought about by deregulation.
Nigeria, which according to Affic news (2010) is the second largest trading partner in African second only to South Africa. However analysts say that China benefits more form this partnership and it is easy to see why this is the case Muekali (2004) says that China made over 20 billion dollars from its trade with Africa whereas Africa only got 8 billion dollars. Which is highly unfair for Africa, hence the need for regulations to curb such injustice. China has flooded not only the Nigerian market but the entire African continent with its substandard goods. The main concern that comes with these substandard goods is the absence of quality control by most African governments. Nyoni, a Zimbabwean, writes in the New Nationalist (2011), that the government in Zimbabwe and other African governments have failed to protect their people from unhealthy substandard goods from China. He further claims that, the Chinese do not entirely make substandard goods for other markets but they bring substandard goods to African. This practice is a blatant infringement of the rights of African consumers.
Furthermore, with the lack of proper quality control in Africa one only wonders what the Chinese putting in consumer products shipped to Africa. If the Chinese are able to ship contaminated baby milk powder to countries that have strict quality control measures without regard it is not hard to imagine that Africans have been subjected to even worse products. Norfolk (2011) reports that in 2010 the South African government discovered that Mattel toys made China were laced with lead. The safety of Africans from these unscrupulous business men lies in the hands of African leaders to regulate this deep form of abuse on their people.
It is a well-known fact that the majority of Africans live below the poverty line and it is sickening to note how the Chinese are taking advantage of these poor people by selling products that are not durable at a cheap price to the poor Africans. Poor Africans prefer to buy Chinese products because they are cheap despite the products being of poor quality (Magu, 2011). This in a way is one of the worst kinds of exploitations and it clearly shows the lack of morals and business ethics by the Chinese, who take money from poor Africans in exchange for goods that will not last as they have many defects Nyoni (2011) says that most Chinese products are sold with no warrant or guarantee, once bought consumers are not even allowed to exchange the product if any defects are noticed later.
Moving on, the other weakness in the Africa-China trade is the competitive political advantage that China has in world politics. This has given China the political muscle to trade with any African regime regardless of its international standing. China has misused this political power by trading with regimes that have international trade sanctions. For instance in 2006 when the Zimbabwean government was placed under trade sanctions by The UN and EU (Brookes and Shin, 2006). China violated the conditions attached to the sanctions by selling fighter aircrafts and military vehicles to Zimbabwe. In addition China gave the Zimbabwean government a military radio jamming device, which the Zimbabwean government used to block broadcasts of the human rights violations that were going on. This is clear that China provided the human rights violating regime of Robert Mugabe a life line from UN sanctions.
China’s support for regimes that violate human rights does not end with Zimbabwe; it is wide spread across most battle fields on the African continent. Sudan and Chard are just two of the numerous examples of China supplying weapons to human rights violators. In Sudan the BBC (2011) reports that China supplied weapons worth millions of dollars to gain access to the oil rich region of Dafoe, despite the fact that the regime’s leader was wanted by the international court of justice for crime against humanity.
They who support the free trade between Africa and China argue that, Africa’s economy has improved drastically due to Chinas high demand for natural resources and the massive investment that has followed. Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been on the rise due to the height Chinese trade (Carmody and Owusu, 2007) report that African economies had double digit growth even through the financial crisis trading with China which helped maintain the demand for the much needed natural resources. This is one of the signs that the trade with China yields positive benefits.
China has contributed greatly in the development of Africa, Time Magazine (2011) argues that Africa has not had any trading partner that has contributed to its development in the way that China has. This development is evident across most African countries where the sight of constructions sits with an army of Chinese workers is a common thing. The Chinese have in the resent few years constructed over 30,000 km of roads in Africa (The Economist, 2011). The Economist (2011) further states that the Chinese have not only stopped at building roads they have also helped Africa with the construction of over 30 hospitals across Africa to help African governments provide the much needed health car. Going through different African countries and one would be amazed at the works of the Chinese, from roads, hospitals and schools to sports stadia, the works of the Chinese across Africa is undeniable that of good will.
Supporters of the free trade further state that China has given in the past 10 years provided African governments with over $3 billion dollars in loans and grants (Wang, 2007). The loans given to African governments by China are not the same as IMF or World Bank loans, which are tied with a lot of conditions (Independent, 2008). This is clear that China has the best interest of the African people due to the fact that they offer a solution without wasting time asking struggling governments to meet certain conditions. These soft loans also help African governments plan better as they spend the money where it is needed most and not where the condition giving organisations want it to be spent.
In contrast, yes Africa’s GDP has increased but the benefits of this gain are only felt by the few Africans who are in high office. Moyo (2010) claims that the soft loans from China trade provide benefits only to the corrupt leaders that are in African governments. It is for this reason that organisations like the IMF and the World Bank give conditions to loans that they give out, because looking the rate of corruption in African it is only prudent to provide checks and balances after issuing loans that are intended to help Africans and not the leaders. The African Union, an organization of African nations, estimates that corruption is costing the continent $150 billion a year, as international donors were apparently turning a blind eye to the simple fact that aid money was carelessly used (Moyo, 2010).
Next, Infrastructure that is built by the Chinese in Africa is intended to soften African governments to allow the Chinese favours. As pointed out earlier the Chinese are prone to breaking labour laws hence the need for them to do favour for Africa governments to close one eye when they break laws. This come at a high cost to the ordinary African who does not benefit from the trade but is forced to face the inhuman treatment
In addition, the Chinese government has supported government with military equipment to fight off opposition. Mwanawina (2007) reports that the Chinese government provided weapons to the regime of Omar Al Bashir, a man wanted by the International Court Justice for crimes against humanity. Al Bashir who was at war with his own people from the southern part of his country aimed at oppressing oppositions against his reign.
All in all, the trade between Africa and China has a history that stretches back to the early post-colonial days. It is also clear that the pioneers of the trade are two neighbouring countries Zambia and Tanzania, which still remain at the epicentre of the trade. However, it has been sited that Chinese presence in Africa is a curse due to the following factors: Chinese investors do not adhere to the local labour laws, putting African workers health at risk, by exposing them to hazardous working environments with barely any protection. It has also been noted that African workers are exploited by their Chinese employers, who make them work for long hours and do not compensate them for the extra hours. Next, Chinese companies have been viewed to displace labour by employing only a few locals workers but more of their own nationals, who have been sited to be prisoners from main land China. Onwards, it is clear that the Chinese are dumping substandard goods in Africa taking advantage of the absence of proper quality control in Africa. These products have also raised health concerns among Africans. In this vain it has been established that the Chinese have taken advantage of the low income African community by selling them products that are of low durability. Moving on, China uses its strong political advantage to trade with embattled regimes and sanctioned governments, offering them with military and financial support.
The trade between China and Africa is highly beneficial to both parties; however free trade without regulations would lead to deserter in the long run. After all that has been sighted it is strongly recommended that African governments set regulations to guide the China-Africa trade in order to yield great benefits for both parties.