“Hey white man! You can’t take pictures here,” the Zambian security guard yelled. He gestured to an associate armed with a shotgun to keep an eye on me. The guard then disappeared into the booth outside the gate at the Chinese-owned Chambishi Copper Smelter.

After a time, the guard handed me the phone. No, the man in charge of public relations assured me, nobody there would talk to me. And of course, there would be no pictures.

The smelter employs several hundred locals. But getting Chinese managers to talk about just what they are doing, or even how they are helping Zambia, is a tricky business.

Across Africa, China is pursuing a natural resources bonanza. In Angola it’s oil; in Mozambique, it’s timber and in Zambia, it’s copper. This grand enterprise has earned the world’s greatest emerging economy both friends and critics.

The Chinese in recent years have lent Africans billions of dollars with few conditions. They have built roads, bridges and power plants. They’ve flooded African markets with cheap, affordable consumer goods. They’ve also exported the layers of secrecy so common to business and industrial dealings inside the People’s Republic.

That has left the field open to China’s critics.

Those critics, however, often overlook the fact the Chinese have filled a void left by western countries that have fled Africa. True, China invests heavily in odious regimes, but Beijing takes the view that jobs, food and basic necessities are the only human rights that matter in most African countries.

I spoke with several Zambian miners waiting for their shift to start at Non-Ferrous Metals Corporation Africa (NFCA), also in Chambishi in the country’s Copperbelt region. They criticize China the same way Chinese miners back home do: the pay is lousy.

In fact, though, the company pays about the same wages in both countries. And the miners grudgingly concede that Chinese jobs are better than no jobs.

Desperately needed infrastructure

Near the city of Ndola in Zambia’s Copperbelt region, Africans and Chinese workers hoist pipes, drive forklifts and pour cement to erect a living shrine to Zambia’s national obsession.

They are building what will be Zambia’s largest soccer stadium.

“OK, look, you can take pictures, but no interviews,” explained a friendly but resolute construction foreman named Jack. He is from Anhui province, near Shanghai.

Chinese engineers, managers and an army of skilled Chinese workers like Jack are leading major construction projects across Africa. The Africans do the grunt work. Some educated Africans find themselves working the administrative and accounting sides of these Chinese-initiated projects. Out of earshot of African friends who are labourers, they are thankful to the Chinese for their white-collar jobs.

The sports stadiums and the highways, the power plants and the ports, the railways and the modern buildings are important steppingstones to the next phase of Africa’s development, according to Garth Shelton, an Asia-Africa trade specialist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“Throughout the continent, wherever you go, you find economic development is hampered because of the lack of infrastructure. That’s one of the key things China can do … provide infrastructure that we desperately need, to get us up and moving. China offers that, and in exchange what can Africa offer? Simple — it’s raw materials.”

Challenge to the western ways

Shelton (like many of the experts I met over more than two weeks of travelling in Zambia and South Africa) says China’s efficiency is a bold challenge to several decades of failed western policies.

“I was quite surprised travelling around Uganda and Kenya last year. I expected the West to have done a better job after 30 years development assistance. I started to wonder. Where has the money actually gone? The lack of roads is a huge opportunity for China because the west has failed Africa. So it’s obvious Africa must turn to China. What else can Africa do?”

Shelton said that with the Chinese you can get a deal done in three hours that might take three years with western partners.

“The Chinese tend to put their cards on the table,” Yousef Dodia, an entrepreneur in the information technology sector in Lusaka, Zambia, told me. “They’re interested in resources, primary resources, and they make no bones about it. And they are quite interested in what we want in return for those resources.”

One thing China is happy to offer in return is a flood of cheap manufactured goods stamped with the “Made in China” label. In some sectors, notably South Africa’s textile industry, these imports are wiping out what little bits of local manufacturing might have existed.

And on the other hand, the Chinese are also moving manufacturing to the continent. In South Africa, for instance, three Chinese companies are making television sets — and most of their workers are black Africans, not Chinese. In Zambia’s Copperbelt, they will soon manufacture copper cables, a much sought-after, value-added product.

Yet despite China’s interests in securing Africa’s natural resources, the average African doesn’t appear to be getting any richer.

Most of the Africans I spoke to said they don’t blame the Chinese for making sure the wealth is spread around. They blame themselves. If the profits from a nation’s resources seem to be squandered or spread about within governing elites, they said, that is a matter for Africans to resolve.

Demands not made

In Africa, Chinese businesses pitch deals in construction, mining, drilling and other sectors that come with no strings attached.

Unlike with western businesses, there are no demands for transparency, human rights or democracy. There is no pause to consider the environmental impact. Chinese pitches fall on receptive ears, and a flurry of multi-billion dollar agreements between China and African nations are being signed every month.

Despite the common refrain that the Chinese are too frugal, there is nonetheless a sense in Africa that China is there for the long term. During the economic meltdown of 2008-2009, China announced that it would not be cutting a penny in any of its aid or investment funds for Africa.

With $2 trillion in its reserves and a multi-billion-dollar fund for foreign investment, China also has a lot of cash. And in Africa, rich friends who stick by you when times are tough earn a lot of respect and goodwill.

And there is no secrecy about that.