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WHERE THE LION RIDES THE DRAGON
Africa does business in China
pape teigne diouF – ‘Eternal Union’ (2003)
Spring in British politics
It was an unprecedented turnout. No party won an outright majority and a frantic period of negotiation could see a minority Conservative government, or one led by Labour with Liberal Democrat support.
The UK election campaign now seems ever stranger. There was a poster that showed a smiling Gordon Brown exhorting electors: “I increased the gap between rich and poor. Vote for me.” Its facts were true – 17% of UK national income was in the hands of the richest 1% of the population at the end of the Thatcher-Major years, and that increased to 21% after Blair and Brown took over in 1997. Its final words were “Vote Conservative”. Just for a moment, until you realised that the poster was Tory irony, it seemed that the parties had changed sides, and that Labour were extolling the golden boys in the City, and Conservatives fighting for the people, which was not so.
But throughout the campaigning, there were unusual signs of change, signs of a move to escape the dual, alternating rule of Thatcher and Blair, as if the UK were turning over a new leaf. Issues long banished from the political agenda were back: class, state intervention and trade unions (1). The Conservative campaign initially focused on debt and the need for austerity, but it had to change tack and admit that new taxes might be needed, as well as budget cuts, to restore the financial situation. The Conservatives proclaimed a dedication to the National Health Service, which Margaret Thatcher detested; they promised to increase the health budget year on year. They regretted their earlier homophobic attitudes and claimed to be true Greens. They held to their basic principles on security but then, so did Labour in power, passing bills creating 1,036 new imprisonable offences (2).
New Labour was all for financial deregulation and made London a safe haven for financial skullduggery. The result was ruin, which meant that the outgoing Labour government had cautiously to review its industrial policies and even give bankers a tentative slap on the wrist. A gaping budget deficit (11% of GDP), comparable to the Greek deficit (13.6%), means that the new government has no choice but to cut social spending. And it must repair the moral damage done to government by previous MPs who had dipped into public funds for cash to renovate their second homes and install floating duck houses on their ponds.
The Liberal Democrats, less involved than the other parties in the recent scandals, had an extraordinary campaign. Their leader, Nick Clegg, a banker’s son, Cambridge graduate, one-time adviser to the ultra-liberal European Commissioner for Competition, Leon Brittan, and married to an expert on international trade law, got his party taken seriously for the first time since its creation: he had an equal share (and considerable public success) in the new televised party leader debates. This pure product of the elite suggested that Thatcher and Blair’s neoliberal paradise might experience “Greek-style unrest” when the effects of social spending cuts and redundancies in the public sector were felt in the poorest regions. Though the “Clegg effect” stalled at the polls, his Lib Dems now hold the balance of power.
TRANSLATED BY BARBARA WILSON (1) See Seumas Milne, “The real political battle will begin after the election”, Guardian, London, 8 April 2010. (2) See Tony Wood, “Good Riddance to New Labour”, New Left Review, London, March-April 2010.
inside this issue Nuclear shield: the NPT may be full of holes, but at least it existsPage 2 Will Kyrgyzstan’s second revolution bring any real change?Page 3 South Africa in the spotlight: Jacob Zuma prepares to put on a show Page 10 The real enemy of peace between Israel and Palestine is propagandaPage 12 Special dossier on urbanisation: can we develop sustainably?Pages 13-15 Painting a different picture: Middle East art blossoms in DubaiPage 16
ne zone of Guangzhou, China’s workshop-of-the-world province, is home to perhaps 100,000 Africans, here to buy for the export market. Some of them are already considering moving on to India
BY TRISTAN COLOMA
This place is not really China, nor is it Africa; it lies between the thoroughfares of Xiaobei Lu and Guangyuan Xi Lu in Guangzhou, southern China, two hours by train from Hong Kong. Officially 20,000 Africans – and more like 100,000 according to a researcher at Hong Kong University (1) – live in or pass through “Africa Town”, between dual carriageways, elevated motorways and railway tracks, 10 square kilometres entirely given over to commerce, where Igbo, Wolof and Lingala mingle with Mandarin and Cantonese. The locals call it “Chocolate Town”.
China has attracted former colonial countries ever since it arrived on the international trade scene. As Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations writes, “Green tea, Jackie Chan and Confucius... [were] no match for McDonald’s, Hollywood and the Gettysburg address. However, China has managed to associate itself with... big ideas that are potentially very attractive to middleincome and developing countries, particularly those which have been subject to western colonialism” (2).
Africans are in this part of China less for its culture than its frenetic growth and wholesale consumer goods markets. Abou Kabba, a Guinean PhD in organic chemistry who has worked as a wholesaler in Asia for 15 years, is amazed at the numbers of young people here who believe Guangzhou is a staging post on the way to Europe, or a few metro stops from Tokyo.
In this roaring city of 18 million inhabitants and tens of thousands of micro factories, the commercial activity is very different from the oil deals and huge public works contracts the Chinese have secured in Africa. Here, the lion is riding the dragon to profit from China’s export fever. “I don’t care if they’re black or any other colour, as long as it’s good business,” said the female manager of an electronics shop in a Donfeng business centre between two phone calls and a mouthful of tea. In Guandong, the workshop of the world whose shop-window is Guangzhou, money has no colour. The Africans want to buy into the Chinese miracle. The list of goods they ship back is a long: generators, shoes, cotton buds, mopeds, construction materials, human hair and toys. “You can get anything you want in China,” quipped Joseph, a pedlar from Cameroon, “even blacks”.
This hidden side of Sino-African relations has reached surprising proportions. Each year thousands of containers are shipped to Dakar, Mombasa, Abidjan and Doula, growing by 294% between 2003 and 2007. At the fourth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (see Aid or neocolonialism?, page 5) in November 2009, China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao estimated bilateral trade in 2008 at $106.8bn, up 45.1% on 2007 (3). Forsaking traditional markets in Asia and Dubai, African traders have lost no time in exploiting the opportunities offered by China.
The foundations were laid in 1955 at the Bandung conference of Asian and African countries, which brought together non-aligned countries to resist Soviet influence as much as Western imperialism and colonialism. Beijing supported independence movements in Algeria, Angola and Southern Rhodesia. Their support enabled China to take over in 1971 the Chinese permanent seat on the UN Security Council, until then occupied by Taiwan. Not until the 1980s did the first African traders arrive in Hong Kong, at that time still under British rule. China joined the World Trade Organisation in September 2001 and, since then, they have preferred to go directly to the low-cost production source.
let’s make lots of money
“Almost 90% of goods on African markets come from China, Thailand and Indonesia,” said Sultane Barry, president of Guangzhou’s Guinean community. “Here in China you can mix different categories of goods in a single container. It’s more flexible.” Like nine out of 10 Africans in Guangzhou (4), Barry is a businessman, who started his career in pursuit of the American dream as a dealer in precious stones, and is now proud to be a part of Yellow River capitalism. From his office wedged between a prayer hall and a meeting room, he runs an entire floor of Tianxiu Dasha, a 35-storey Tower of Babel crammed with businesses: shops bursting with samples from the region’s factories, representative offices, freight forwarding companies, legal and illegal African restaurants, hairdressers and furnished apartments let by the week.
Ibrahim Kader Traore, an entrepreneur from Ivory Coast, explained how he and others live
Tristan Coloma is a journalist
Continued on page 4