10/06/2012 18:15 BST | Updated 10/08/2012 06:12 BST

Ask Not What China Wants From Africa, But What Africa Wants From China

It's 05.30am in Zambia's capital Lusaka and already the "city market" is bustling. Behind the rows of vegetables laid out on the ground are about a dozen pickup trucks, each loaded with thousands of chickens crammed into little cages.

The hooded men selling the hens are no ordinary market traders. They are Chinese poultry farmers, selling their produce to Zambian traders.

"China China chicken," shouts one woman. "We like China China chickens because they are cheaper than the ones sold by Zambian farmers," she adds.

A few minutes' drive to Kamwala market - another part of Lusaka - Chinese traders sell their merchandise, mostly cheap manufactured imports from China, alongside Zambian traders.

"The Chinese are here to stay," says Musonda, an hotelier. "They are good and bad; good because they sell affordable goods, but bad because they drive Zambians out of business," he adds.

It's easy to understand Musonda's sentiments. The relationship between China and Zambia - one of the world's top copper exporters - has come to symbolise Beijing's economic dominance on the continent. In just under three years, the Southern African country has seen increased investment by Chinese state and private firms in various sectors. These range from micro enterprise and copper mining to massive infrastructure projects including hospitals, a power station, roads and two stadia that were constructed in less than two years.

Until recently, Zambia, like most African countries, had not had any serious infrastructure development since the construction of the Tazara railway (by China) in the 1970s. At present, Ethiopia, DR Congo, Kenya, Ghana and Sierra Leone are all beneficiaries of major road projects supported by China.

During the last three years alone, China has given more loans to developing countries, mainly in Africa, than the World Bank. Trade between China and the continent has increased in the last decade, more than six-fold to $120bn in 2011, making China Africa's largest trade partner.

Zambia's deputy finance minister Miles Sampa, who represented the government during the May edition of the BBC Africa Debate programme on Sino-Africa relations, says the cheapest finance capital in the world is from China: "We are able to borrow $100 million for 20 years with a grace period of five years at a rate of 1%. Are we able to do that from anywhere else?" he asked. "The Chinese are not our relatives or friends, they are here for business and they are our partners."

While China's renewed activities in Africa have been applauded by many African leaders as an alternative to Western economic and political dominance, not everyone is comfortable with the so-called "partnership". China's engagement with Africa is viewed with suspicion especially in the West, with some commentators and politicians describing it as a new imperialist.

Human-rights advocates also accuse Beijing of supporting "bad" African leaders, arguing that by so doing, China is in fact undermining Africa's forward march towards democracy.

For its part, China argues that its approach is consistent with its policy of "non- interference" in domestic affairs. Its emphasis, China says, is on peaceful development and strategic partnerships which amount to a win-win situation.

But is it really an equal partnership? Are all parties winning? Why does the relationship appear to be skewed in favour of China?

During the debate that was presented by the editor Yuwen Wu and Akwasi Sarpong of BBC Africa, several participants accused Chinese companies of disregarding environment, labour and health and safety regulations of the countries they operate in. It is a well documented fact that there has been tension in Zambia's copper mines.

Hope Ndhlovu-Chanda, an official of Zambia's human rights commission, says that while there is a higher rate of reports of rights violations by people employed in Chinese copper mines, the problems are not exclusive to Chinese companies: "Several investors, whether from Europe, America, China, and even some Zambians, often don't adhere to Zambia's labour laws," she added.

So who is responsible for ensuring that Chinese companies or indeed foreign investors operate within the legal framework of the host countries? What about the "expatriate" chicken farmers and shop keepers, aren't they a threat to Zambia's micro-enterprise sector?

Well, despite complaints that they are taking over the informal economy, and destroying the bulk of the population's livelihoods, they are operating within the law, because these sectors are not protected from outside competition.

So is it the responsibility of the Chinese to play fair in an open market environment?

The way an investor behaves is pretty much determined by the rules of the game set by the host country. Every government has the right to set rules and ensure that they are enforced. Why are governments such as Zambia's unable to assert their authority? Investors can always take advantage of weak institutions.

Questions about China's role must continue to be asked, but isn't it high time that some of these questions are directed at African governments?

China is open and unapologetic about its strategic objectives in Africa. It is hungry for Africa's natural resources and has already secured deals for oil, minerals and trade amongst others.

As well as its declared interest to tap into Africa's unsaturated markets for its manufactured goods, Beijing is also seeking to expand its global influence with the diplomatic help of African countries.

But what about the African countries it is dealing with? What do they want from China? How many of them have policies for dealing with the economic superpower?

An African official privy to such negotiations told me that most times they go into negotiations unprepared and make adhoc decisions based on what is being offered. "We once signed a 200-page document without reading the small print," he laughed.

This lack of foresight inevitably puts such governments on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

How many African countries have clearly defined visions for the next 30 years? It's difficult to work out a route if you don't have a planned destination.

The relationship countries with stronger institutions, such as South Africa and Mauritius, enjoy with China is very different from other African countries.

China's activities have the potential to contribute to Africa's development, but the challenge is on African governments to not only create enabling environments for business but also strengthen their institutional capacities.

This can only be done if they have clearly defined policies and rules of engagement, which ensure that the deals they sign benefit their people in the long term.