The Chinese are coming

G8: Africa - One country is investing large sums abroad - and it doesn't make a fuss about human ri

On Sunday mornings, the boys of Freetown play a football match on Lumley Beach, tackling each other in the sand, rushing into the waves after the ball. Little shops and bars have sprung up, and itinerant merchants sell trinkets to foreign aid workers and anyone else with money. But more ambitious plans are in train for this un- spoilt strip of yellow sand and mangrove swamp. The Sierra Leone tourism board and the Chinese construction company Henan Gouji recently signed an agreement for a $200m (£110m) resort with golf course, five-star hotel and beach bungalows.

The tourism minister, Chernor Jalloh, unfurls an artist's impression featuring a Chinese-style clock tower, pagoda-roofed holiday homes, fountains and happy tourists - European, Chinese and African. "Why should we wait for Britain or anyone else to get here?" he asks. "The Chinese are the ones coming to invest now."

For Tony Blair, Africa needs saving - nowhere more so than Sierra Leone, limping out of civil war. But China sees Africa as a proving ground for its "go global" policy, sending burgeoning private companies across the world to create new multinational corporations.

Nearly 700 Chinese companies operate in 49 African countries. Chinese trade with Africa will reach $30bn next year - triple the level five years ago. By the end of 2005, I read in Le Monde, China will overtake Britain as Africa's third-largest trading partner. It is increasingly turning to Africa as a source of the oil, timber and minerals needed to drive its own phenomenal growth.

Yet China is not a member of the G8, and Tony Blair's Commission for Africa report makes only one glancing reference to the impact of the People's Republic on the continent.

Three decades ago, the People's Republic built stadiums and other prestige projects across Africa to show solidarity, and supported anti-colonial guerrilla groups to spread communist ideology. In the 1980s it retreated to build economic success back home. Now China is back in Africa, spreading capitalism and a model of development in which human rights, democracy and welfare are distractions from the main business of economic growth.

Since the end of Sierra Leone's civil war in 2002, Chinese state and private companies have changed the face of the country's capital, Freetown. The new parliament, military headquarters and main government office block are all Chinese-built, while the football stadium, originally donated by China in the 1970s, and the biggest hotel, the Bintumani, have both been renovated by Chinese firms. The Chinese have invested in an industrial complex, a tractor factory and sugar plant. "High risk brings high return," says Yang Zhao, manager of the Bintumani, which is run by the state-owned Chinese Beijing Urban Construction Group.

"Africa is a good environment for us to invest in, because there's too much competition in Europe and America."

While European firms would baulk at the cost of renovating and running a 270-bed hotel in a potentially unstable, desperately poor African country, the Chinese minimise risk by keeping overheads low. The salary of a Chinese manager is a fraction of his European equivalent's. Everything in the hotel is imported from China, down to the sign on the toilet which reads "Ladie's" and the red lanterns in the porch, which swing in the tropical downpour. The doors are so small that a European has to stoop to pass through, and the electronic console that controls the lights beeps in the night when Freetown experiences its customary power cuts. No matter. What the Sierra Leonean government notes is that the Chinese are easy to deal with, and they have the cash.

"We like Chinese investment because we have one meeting, we discuss what they want to do, and then they just do it," says Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone's ambassador to Beijing, who was taking Chinese investors round potential sites, including a hydroelectric power plant. "There are no benchmarks and preconditions, no environmental impact assessment. If a G8 country had offered to rebuild the stadium, we'd still be having meetings about it."

That is what worries anti-corruption campaigners. "We've spent 15 years working on conventions against corruption, and now the Chinese come in and they haven't signed up to any of it," says Zainab Bangura of Sierra Leone's National Accountability Group. "They're secretive and they only deal with governments - they don't consult civil society or anyone. I'm worried that African governments will see China as an alternative to G8 countries, because with the Chinese they don't have to worry about good governance and all that."

Nowhere is the issue more acute than in oil-rich Angola, rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Last year China's export bank, Exim Bank, extended a $2bn line of credit to the Angolan government for infrastructure projects. In return for a low interest rate and a generous repayment schedule, Angola agreed to provide 10,000 barrels of oil a day and to award large construction contracts to Chinese firm. Meanwhile, negotiations over an IMF loan faltered because the Angola resisted anti-corruption conditions.

While America maintains partial oil sanctions against Sudan, China has become that country's biggest trading partner. Sixty per cent of Sudanese oil goes to China and Chinese companies are involved in nearly all new oil exploration, production and refinery projects. No wonder China refused to sign harsh UN Security Council resolutions about atrocities in Darfur last year, choosing to abstain instead. It is now providing a few peacekeepers in southern Sudan to show support for the international effort to end war. For the Chinese, the only thing that really matters is Sudan's potential to supply 9 per cent of their oil needs.

"I think the internal situation in the Sudan is an internal affair, and we are not in a position to impose upon them," said China's assistant deputy foreign minister Zhou Wenzhong, in an interview with a US newspaper last year. "You have tried to impose a market economy and multiparty democracy on these countries, which are not ready for it. We are also against embargoes, which you have tried to use against us."

"The Chinese are very nice," said Awad al-Jaz, Sudan's energy and mining minister. "They don't have anything to do with politics or problems. Things move smoothly, successfully."

Chinese companies have built three small-arms factories on the outskirts of Khartoum - weapons manufactured there were captured by southern rebels during the civil war, which ended in January. China also sold an estimated $1bn worth of armaments to both sides during the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict in the late 1990s. Celebrating 25 years of independence in May, the Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe, enjoyed a fly-past by three brand new Chinese fighter-jets he had purchased in the teeth of an EU arms embargo. "We are looking to the east where the sun rises, and have turned our backs on the west where the sun sets," he said.

In two decades China has lifted 400 million of its own people out of poverty - they haven't exactly made poverty history, but their success has not gone unnoticed in Africa. Compared to G8 countries and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, African leaders see China as dynamic and decisive, rather than full of empty promises. China's rapid penetration of Africa poses a challenge that G8 leaders meeting in Gleneagles do not appear to have factored in to their calculations.

"People say China is a sleeping giant," says Zainab Bangura, "but it's wide awake. It's the elephant creeping up behind us. Only, it's so big we can scarcely see it moving."

Lindsey Hilsum's film on China in Africa will be shown on Channel 4 News on Monday 4 July at 7pm