As China-Africa trade and investment soar, many leaders see relationship as central to continent
Li Xiaohai says the successful ties China now has with Africa are often down to the sweat of Chinese workers. The chairman of Sunon Asogli Power is in charge of a natural gas-fired power station in an isolated area about 30 kilometers from Accra. Many of the 290 workers operating the plant mostly live in dormitory accommodation on site and are exposed to the dangers of the environment. Malaria, which can be life-threatening in Africa, is a daily fact of life for Chinese workers. "Every day people get malaria. It is very tough. Right now we have two or three people with it and I have even had it myself," he says.
"Western companies have the technology, and the equipment and machinery we use is made by the likes of GE and Alstom but I think the harsh conditions and the threat of malaria make them hesitant to come here."
Zhou Yongsheng, general manager of China Communications Construction. Photo by Feng Yongbin / China Daily
China is not just building power stations but much needed infrastructure such as roads, ports and railways as well as cellular and 3G networks.
China's stock of overseas direct investment on the continent has increased eightfold from just $1.6 billion in 2005 to $13.04 billion at the end of 2010, the last year for which figures are available, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics. Trade between China and Africa has also seen a similar large increase, rising from $18.54 billion in 2003 to an estimated $200 billion this year.
Things have moved on since the late-1950s when China first began to build strong links with Africa when countries were becoming newly independent.
One of the first major early projects was the 2,000-kilometer Tanzania-Zambia railway, completed in 1975 and which was built and funded by the Chinese.
But the modern China-Africa geopolitical relationship is often viewed negatively in the West. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused China of using a "new colonialism" strategy in Africa in Zambia last year.
Some 4,300 km east of the Ghana power station, Xie Xiaoyan, the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, says such a view is divorced from reality.
Clinton's remarks were a central topic of conversation when he arrived from his previous posting in Iran just over a year ago.
"Since my arrival I have been asked this question on many occasions. The basic answer is that the accusation is groundless. I think it reflects the jealousy of the Western media and some forces in the West," he says.
Xie was speaking from the embassy building in the landscaped gardens brimming with birdlife and that offer almost a green lung from the hustle and bustle of the highest-altitude city in Africa that makes walking just a few paces exhausting.
"China has been accused of practicing neo-colonialism, the exploitation of energy resources and other minerals and also supporting tyranny and authoritarian regimes. I think none of this holds water. If you look at history, tell me when China has been a colonial power. If it hasn't been in the past, why should it be now?"
Speaking from his home in Washington, David Shinn, author of the recent book China and Africa: A Century of Engagement with the Sinologist Joshua Eisenman, says the Clinton view is not necessarily the mainstream US view of the China-Africa relationship.
"It was an unusual statement that didn't really track with the comments made by senior US officials, although not as senior, admittedly, as Mrs Clinton," he says.
Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia who is now adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, says the focus in Washington is on possible cooperation between the US and China in Africa.