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China Tries To Establish Foothold In Zambia, Tanzania


There has been a steady stream of top Chinese officials traveling to Africa lately. China's president made the continent his first foreign trip after taking office last year. The Chinese premier was in Kenya last month, and late last week Vice President Li Yuanchao wrapped up a trip to Tanzania and Zambia. Africa is big business for China and getting bigger. That's the topic of a new book "China's Second Continent." Howard French is the author. he's a former New York Times reporter. And when Steve Inskeep reached him in Uganda, he asked Howard French why countries like Zambia and Tanzania are of particular interest to China.

HOWARD FRENCH: First of all, in Zambia, China is interested in copper 'cause Zambia is one of the two or three of the world's largest copper exporting nations, and so China, being a manufacturing power, has a very keen interest in that. Tanzania has a host of newly tapped natural resources. There's lots of new hydrocarbon discoveries. Tanzania is also a very populous country, and it's a marketplace for China, as is almost all of sub-Saharan Africa. And China thinks this is an area of the world where it can really establish a foothold in terms of the marketing of Chinese products and brand-name recognition.


Are we talking about the same products that are ubiquitous in the United States, or is there a different menu of products that the Chinese would sell to Africa?

FRENCH: Well, you'll see many of the same sorts of things that are ubiquitous in the United States. But what Africa offers in particular to China is sort of entry-level consumer action for Chinese companies that make very simple and sometimes even crude products - flip flops, household accessories, very cheap cell phones, things like that that allow basic Chinese industries to sort of advance up the food chain, if you will. And China is very keen on establishing kind of brand-name equity or recognition among African consumers because the African population is going to double by the middle of the century, perhaps triple by the end of the century. And African middle classes and consuming classes are growing very fast.

INSKEEP: Wow, you just threw out a compelling statistic there. The population of Africa overall, if I'm not mistaken, is something like 800 million. And you're saying that's on the way to doubling?

FRENCH: Yeah, well, it's more like a billion and it's supposed to be 2 billion by 2050 according to the U.N. median estimates and perhaps as many as 3 billion by the end of the century.

INSKEEP: Wow, and given that China's own population is not growing that fast, you're saying that the various countries in Africa taken together, before too many decades have passed, might exceed the population of China.

FRENCH: Certainly will exceed the population of China, and if these projections are remotely accurate, will almost be as large as China and India combined by the end of the century.

INSKEEP: Do you encounter American companies or the U.S. government showing up in and competing with China for various deals?

FRENCH: One of the things I came across is the existence of American funding through the Millennium Challenge Account. These are projects whose financing is guaranteed by the American government. Very large-scale projects - $200-million projects to build a new airport, or some road system or something like that. And I was stunned to discover American companies simply didn't bid for these projects. And so in a city like Bamako, Mali, I was stunned to emerge from the old airport and see right next-door, with this American funding, the Millennium Challenge Account, a Chinese company was constructing a new airport.

You know, the American media, by and large, doesn't cover Africa in terms of a place of economic activity. We think of Africa, typically, as a place of disaster and conflict and humanitarian interests. And so our own public is not conditioned to think, as the Chinese have come to think, of Africa as this place of huge demographic expansion where much of the growth of the future may occur. We're sort of stuck in a old, outmoded view of Africa, and if you don't have a vision of opportunity, you're not likely to pursue these sorts of things.

INSKEEP: Howard French is the author of "China's Second Continent." Thanks very much for taking the time.

FRENCH: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.