China's engagement with Africa is not 'new'. Its roots date back to the 1950s, when China fought the Soviet Union and the United States for Africa, which was then seen as an ideal terrain in the Cold War. Known as the "coolie trade", China focused its efforts on African mining, plantation and railway construction. The most notable being the construction of the TamZam railway between 1970 and 1975, which linked Zambia directly to Dar-es-Salaam, breaking the dependency on white-ruled Zimbabwe. It was during this period that the Sino-African relations became political. By 1978, China had established diplomatic relations with 43 African countries. At the end of the 1970s it decided to focus on its internal challenges, China's leadership forgot about Africa and turned to outright neglect in the 1980s. The inauguration of the new leader, Deng Xiaoping, in 1978 led to a new political direction and the uncertainty of economic development in China. Economic aid to Africa was reduced, accompanied by a decline in bilateral trade. However, self-sufficiency - a central pillar of Chinese policy - could no longer be maintained in a host of vital areas including energy, forestry resources and even food production. By the end of 2011, Chinese investment in African countries totalled almost $90 billion (£55.4 billion), the third-largest recipient behind Asia and Europe. Oil is the top item imported from Angola, followed by hardwood timber from Liberia. Sudan exports two-thirds of its oil to China.
As Chinese investment in Africa increases, the emergence of small-scale Chinese retailers threatens to undermine existing local shops. In Huambo, Angola, Chinese shops have increased ten-fold, from two in 2002 to over 20 in 2006. In Oshikango, Namibia, the first Chinese shop was opened in 1999; by 2006, there were 75. The influx of Chinese trading shops has been met with a mix of enthusiasm and concern. . In South Africa, Chinese migrants are seen as intruders, even by those who buy at their shops. A street vendor in Kenya scornfully remarks: "The Chinese come here with promises of new jobs and better lifestyles, but they are taking away even the simple businesses like selling groceries. Yet, the government says we should celebrate Chinese investment?" Dipak Patel, former trade minister for Zambia: "Does Zambia need Chinese investors who sell shoes, clothes, food, chickens and eggs in our markets when the indigenous people can?" And in 2006, an opposition presidential candidate ran a "Zambia for Zambians" campaign aimed at expelling Chinese influence from his country.
There is a debate regarding China's practice of employing its own nationals. A study commissioned by the Angolan government showed that while non-Chinese employers were expected to pay between $3 (£1.85) and $4 a day to Angolan labourers, Chinese labourers were paid $1 day by their own employers. At the World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007, Humphrey Pole-Pole, head of Tanzania Social Forum, declared: "First, Europe and America took our big businesses. Now China is driving our small and medium entrepreneurs to bankruptcy. You don't even contribute to employment because you bring in your own labour."
The general manager of China National Overseas Engineering Corporation, based in Lusaka, Zambia, attributes the differences to cultural barriers: "Chinese people can stand very hard work. They work until they finish and then rest. In Zambia, they are like the British; they work according to a plan. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off. For our construction company, that means that it costs a lot more."
While this low-cost model insinuates low wages, it has also become synonymous with bad working conditions, abusive practices and environmental degradation. In 2010, for example, 11 local employees of a coal mine in Sinazongwe, Zambia were sprayed with bullets by the Chinese managers while they were protesting about pay and working conditions. This followed a 2005 explosion in a Chinese copper mine in Chambishi, Zambia, which killed 46 workers. In 2007, the Nigerian government leased to China Nuclear International Uranium Company a tract of land belonging to ethnic Tuaregs, without compensating them. Legal and illegal timber logging has wreaked havoc on the prospects for sustainable forestry in Liberia and Mozambique. Dams built in Sudan and Mozambique have displaced thousands of local residents, while over-fishing off the eastern and southern African coasts has impaired communities dependant on fishing for their livelihood.