(Great song. Really.)
International relations is not my strongest area, but most of you know how much I love me some Cold War era history. And so it is with considerable interest that I've watched China replace the US and USSR in their former roles as patrons of the Third World during that lengthy conflict. For decades the two Cold War superpowers went around the world trying to outdo one another in generosity – primarily with massive packages of free military gear that sketchy leaders of newly independent and unstable nations saw as a means of staying in power – in return for swearing off the competing scourge of (communism/capitalism). Oh the Soviets are offering 100 MiG-17s? Those are obsolete, bro. Call Uncle Sam and he'll send over some F-4s. That's the good stuff.
China isn't providing military aid for the most part. Instead, they offer cheap loans for infrastructure projects and (foreshadowing!) the promise to get to work on them right away. China's view is and always has been, "Screw environmental impact studies. We have too many mouths to feed. You need power? Build a dam." Whereas Western investment often comes with multiple competing goals and interests ranging from social development to economic growth to political stability, China is more narrowly economically focused. If it's good for business, do it. If China's industries need lumber and copper they hand over the cash without asking the pesky questions Western nations tend to ask. China doesn't have environmental groups that matter. And African leaders have a long history of self-inflicted environmental degradation if the price is right.
Despite the Chinese economic slowdown, they announced $60 billion in new loans and investment in Africa as recently as January of this year including a single $13 billion infrastructure project in Kenya alone. This leads us to the $64,000 question: what exactly is it that China wants? The Cold War superpowers didn't lavish gifts on small countries out of the kindness of their hearts; it was quid pro quo aid. Most of the sober analysis agrees that China's motives are economic. That's never a bad guess. A more optimistic view is that Chinese firms recognize the limits of growth within their own borders and are looking elsewhere. Cynically, China sees cheap and abundant natural resources they want to extract and they see these projects as little trinkets that will curry favor with less sophisticated governments.
I'm not sure if this qualifies as a conspiracy theory, but I look at it differently. In the long term I don't think China has its eye on African resources so much as it has its eye on Africa.
For all their recent "Come to Jesus" talk about understanding the importance of sustainability and the environment, there is no nation on the planet that has trashed its own house quite like the Chinese have. Since Mao and his friends took over and put the country on an often calamitous crash course toward industrialization, China has polluted like no other nation on the planet can even hold a candle to – not even the CO2-belching US. The priorities have been feeding a billion people and becoming a modern industrial and economic colossus in record time. The environment wasn't even an afterthought. The growth of China's economy has indeed been impressive and rapid, but there have been costs. About 1/3 of all arable land in the country is heavy-metals poisoned, as is roughly 1/3 of their drinking water. They burn coal like Americans burn gasoline. Their cities are choked in air pollution that is the country's single biggest public health issue. Ever wonder why they were able to take the lead in so many manufacturing sectors, particularly electronics? It's not just cheap labor. Lots of places have cheap labor. It's the fact that in China you can pay someone almost nothing to melt down used motherboards and PC components without protective gear (Because who cares if the worker dies at 37? The government doesn't.) and then dump the results in a river. They simply don't care. Or if they do care now, they waited too long.
So we have a nation with a billion and a half people, and that number is still growing. This nation has exhausted its natural resources for the most part and done staggering damage to its ability to produce food thanks to desertification and toxic soil in industrial areas. Either the nation is going to undertake the single greatest environmental remediation and sustainability turnaround in human history or they're going to need to find someplace else for their population to spread and grow. I don't mean that China will show up, guns in hand, to annex half of Africa. But this steady stream of Chinese emigrating to Africa now is likely to continue growing. While the motivation for that movement ostensibly is economic, I can't help but think there's a strategic long-term demographic strategy at play as well.
The way America pollutes is ultimately of more consequence because our carbon emissions affect the whole planet. China, conversely, has been the primary victim of China's environmental inaction. England went through this on a smaller scale during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era, the point at which they had to confront as a nation the possibility that London would be uninhabitable if they didn't stop pumping coal fumes into the air and pouring industrial waste in the Thames. The British certainly looked beyond their own borders as a partial solution to their problems, and China is in the process of doing the same.