JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - In Serowe, a parched town in the east of Botswana, the new district council chambers rising from the sandy soil are being built by a Chinese company, China Civil Engineering. Down the road, between the Quick Stop Supermarket and the Serowe Cash and Carry, Nan Fang International (Import-Export) hawks Chinese-made jeans jackets for $8 and tank tops for $2.
In Serowe and across Africa, there are increasingly visible signs of economic ties between China and the world's poorest continent. Chinese stores selling cheap textiles and electronics are a fixture even in small, remote African villages, while Chinese companies are winning contracts to build roads, bridges and government buildings.
Not everyone is pleased. "There are too many Chinese here now," said Joseph Katse, a Serowe resident, as he walked past Nan Fang. He gestured toward Serowe's stadium, past the new council chambers. "They stay alone, over there, and they don't even speak English. I think Botswana, not Chinese, should build the new things here." But, Katse also admitted, he sometimes bought goods from the Chinese stores because they are cheaper than in other stores.
It's not exactly a devil's bargain, but to some, China's relationship with Africa is decidedly lopsided. To be sure, there is surging demand in China, and to a lesser degree elsewhere in Asia, for African commodities like minerals and oil. Diamonds from Botswana, oil from Angola and Sudan, and iron ore from South Africa, along with agricultural products, which once headed north to Europe and America are now going east to China.
But Martyn Davies, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, notes that none of these are finished goods whose manufacture creates high-paying jobs. Much of that kind of work is moving out of Africa, which can't compete with the flood of cheap finished goods moving in from China. Some worry that closer economic ties between the two may not be good for Africa in the long run.
"China's economy is growing very fast. At some point in this century it will overtake the United States. Clearly that's an economy South Africa wants to be linked to," said Peter Draper, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
But at the same time, he notes, the South African government is pushing an industrial strategy that involves making more finished products - which runs smack into China's juggernaut. "China is also doing that and they're doing it much better than we ever could," Draper said.
The European Union, with its historic ties to Africa, still consumes more than half of Africa's exports. But the swift growth in African-Chinese trade has taken many observers by surprise. In 2000, trade between China and Africa was $10 billion. By last year, that had almost tripled.
China is also an increasingly important source of foreign aid and direct investment. According to the country's embassy in South Africa, last year alone 77 new Chinese-funded enterprises were begun.
But the numbers hide a worrying imbalance. Most of what China buys from the continent are raw resources, produced by low-margin businesses that use low-skilled workers - hardly the building blocks of a modern economy. What China sells here, by contrast, are mostly finished goods.
It's not that Africans aren't trying, or outsiders aren't helping. The U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 gave African manufacturing a competitive edge through duty-free access to American markets. In tiny countries like Lesotho, and the island state of Mauritius, small textile industries blossomed to employ tens of thousands of women.
But the effort pales against the growing manufacturing might of China. Even the United States has struggled to control a flood of Chinese textiles since the World Trade Organization quotas restricting Chinese exports ended this year. In South Africa, the end of textile quotas broke the back of the local industry.
According to the South African Clothing and Textile Union, in 2003 and 2004 at least 37,000 jobs were lost - jobs that South Africa, with an unemployment rate of over 30 percent, can ill afford to lose.
In Lesotho, where 55,000 women made clothes for export to the United States, at least six factories, all run by Chinese or Taiwanese nationals, closed for good over the 2004 Christmas holiday, leaving thousands of locals jobless. Others cut back the number of shifts.
"Some of the women were laid off and didn't even get their last month's pay. Others only get a few days work a week now," said Selloane Pitikoe, who works with factory workers for the international organization CARE. "They were already impoverished and now things are worse. ... Every day you can see the queues outside the other factories of women desperate for work."
Puleng Mothobi, 26, earned about $100 a month working in a textile factory outside Lesotho's capital city, Maseru, enough to rent a single room and give some money to her family. Now, she says, she tries to earn a little money selling fruit on the street, but no one has much to spend these days.
Some former factory workers, said Pitikoe, have turned to prostitution. And in a region ravaged by AIDS and the high cost of treatment, doctors at private hospitals say some patients have stopped taking their medications because they can no longer afford them.
Local producers accuse China of dumping goods on Africa below cost and say African producers can't compete. "China manages to export at prices that are frankly incredible, way below the raw material, the international raw material costs," said Brian Brink, head of the Textile Federation of South Africa.
The growing economic ties between Africa and Asia have political implications, too. Many African governments see Asia, and particularly China, as an alternative source of trade, aid and investment that comes without demands for good governance and human rights.
Under pressure from Western countries over human rights abuses, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has courted Chinese and Malaysian investment. China, which is investing heavily in oil production in the Sudan, has resisted international efforts to impose economic sanctions on the country over ethnic violence in the province of Darfur.
And last year, when the government of oil-rich Angola failed to come to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a $2-billion loan to fund reconstruction in the aftermath of the country's 27-year-long civil war, a Chinese bank made the loan. "African countries see China as a political balancer against the West, and particularly the U.S.," said Draper.Newsday