There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

From the global to the local, in no particular order…

  • For those who can read a bit of French, Radio France Internationale’s round-up of West African media reaction to the death of Gabon’s President Omar Bongo is fascinating. (I also have a piece in The Times that includes interviews with a couple of SA-based analysts about Gabon’s post-Bongo future.)
  • Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jr writes in The Guardian about his recently settled case against Shell Oil in Nigeria.
  • Chris Blattman has a much friendlier take on Douglas Foster’s Zuma piece than I did a couple weeks ago.
  • Philadelphia Daily News blogger Will Bunch takes on the Philly news establishment, and has some wise, if unkind words that are applicable to all newspapers in this day and age. Newspapers should focus on “forging new connections with the communities, more open to citizen journalists and forging ties with local bloggers, rethinking the whole purpose of print.” Philadelphia is a city with a vibrant online, informal, citizen journalist / blogger scene. On the other hand, the ineptitude of the print newspaper situation killed the notion of the viability of daily print-based newspapers in my mind. My current attitude towards the medium? Fun and a highly enjoyable throwback, but ultimately near-useless.
  • And, for fun, what the hell is happening to the hangouts of my youth?!?!