China and the long march into African agriculture.
Cahiers Agricultures, 22
The belief that China has nefarious designs for Africa involving mass migration of the peasantry onto African land, the theme of a best-selling novel quoted above, is not a new one. From the late 19th century, European settlers debated the potential impact of harnessing the prodigious productivity of Chinese labour to unlock the continent's potential. At the same time, many in the local European settler communities feared the impact of competition from China, both for themselves and paternalistically for the colonised African population. Indeed, these very concerns caused the newly formed Union of South Africa to repatriate thousands of Chinese workers brought to work in the mines in the early 1900s.
Today, China's interest in Africa's agriculture sector raises the same spectacle of promised productivity coupled to deep-set fears as to its transformative social impact (China's State Council News Office, 2010). Moreover, with China's foreign direct investments into African agriculture accelerating, rising to US$ 30 million in 2009 out of a total of US$ 1.44 billion that same year, 4 times the figure in 2000, the prospects for a greater role and impact on this sector are evident (Chinese Ministry of Commerce, 2010). And yet, this Manichean debate, casting the Chinese as either Africa's saviours or colonists, obscures a real discussion of the global trends and local opportunities posed by Chinese interests in agriculture in Africa.
Like other Asian and Gulf states, China's growing concern with food security has inspired a search for means of obtaining that security in the African context. The result has been, reflected in the official discourse since 2006, a Chinese commitment to greater involvement in the agriculture sector in Africa that has resulted in a number of initiatives. These include a push to acquire long-term leases of agricultural land in some African countries, an expansion of Chinese agro-industry into Africa and a deepening of the longstanding technical co-operation aimed at raising Africa's agricultural productivity.
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