Business and trade

How Chinese firms have changed Africa

Chinese companies have made their mark on the African continent, in ways good and bad

Outside a bar in Fungurume, a mining town in Congo, men caked in dust spit peanut shells onto the floor. Inside, where Chinese New Year lanterns hang from the walls, Emmanuel (not his real name) explains how things changed after 2016, when a majority stake in the Tengwe Fungurume Mine (TFM) was sold by an American firm to China Molybdenum. He says the new owners tried to cut his salary and used subcontractors who recruit day labourers and eschew safety protocols. He says staff racially abused and hit Congolese workers. “We loved Americans,” he says. “We are fed up with the Chinese. They treat us with total disrespect.” In response, says Emmanuel, some colleagues went on strike and burned the Chinese flag. (China Molybdenum says it adheres to all Congolese laws and international labour standards, and that abuses “cannot possibly be happening within the TFM site.”)

Around 70% of the world’s cobalt, which is an essential mineral in the production of electric vehicles, is mined in Congo. China, which dominates cobalt refining, has a stranglehold over its production. In 2020 Chinese firms owned or had a stake in 15 of Congo’s 19 cobalt-producing mines. American officials have tried to persuade President Félix Tshisekedi to loosen China’s grip. But Chinese firms, supported by their country’s diplomats, are canny in navigating Congolese politics, lobbying not just Mr Tshisekedi but powerful politicians in mining regions.

To ordinary Congolese, the arrival of Chinese miners is another episode in a history of venal elites colluding with extractive firms to exploit the country’s immense resources—…