China’s image in Africa, once marred by suspicion, is changing. Businessmen facing Chinese competition, especially in farming, retail and petty trading, still complain.
In Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, new rules restrict the industries or areas in which Chinese can operate. Yet a growing number of Africans say the Chinese create jobs, transfer skills and spend money in local economies. In small countries, where the Asian behemoth was most feared, the change is especially noticeable.
Michael Sata, president of Zambia and a long-standing China critic when in opposition until 2011, changed his tune once in office. Last year he demoted his labour minister, who had lambasted Chinese and Indian business interests. He also sent his vice-president to Beijing to discuss links between his Patriotic Front and the Chinese Communist Party. African democracy has so far not been damaged.
China turns a blind eye to human-rights abuses, but it has not undermined democratic institutions or conventions. In Zimbabwe, it continues to work with President Robert Mugabe, but it has also developed relations with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, inviting its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to Beijing.
Chinese leaders accommodated the democratic change of power in Senegal last year, including the loss of power of President Abdoulaye Wade, who had switched Senegal’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2005. Other popular fears triggered by China’s growing presence have also proved hollow.
It has not stoked armed conflict. On the contrary, China has occasionally played peacemaker, although motivated by self-interest. Sudan and South Sudan are both big Chinese trade partners. When they hovered on the brink of war last year, China intervened diplomatically along with other powers.
Only in Africa’s largest economies has China become less popular. There it is increasingly seen as a competitor. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, who long cultivated Chinese contacts, was last year forced by domestic critics to change posture.
In Nigeria the central-bank governor recently excoriated the Chinese for exuding “a whiff of colonialism”. Other Africans guffawed—in the past it was often the Nigerians and the South Africans who muscled into their markets.