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China is emerging as a major science collaborator in Africa, joining the ranks of Europe and the United States, but critics remain divided over the Asian superpower’s true motives.
They say it is a thirst for the continent’s resources — oil, minerals and agricultural land — that fuels China’s interest in Africa.
But others counter that investment in science is China’s way of showing it cares about Africa’s development, too.
"China is responding to criticism that it is not building enough capacity in Africa," Sven Grimm, director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, told Nature.
Simon Zadek, a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, United States, said China is interested in both exploiting Africa’s natural resources and also helping it develop.
One benefit of China’s involvement is the speed at which it gets things done. "They bring everything, they set up everything in place; infrastructure, expert assistance. We never see the money, everything is handled by them," said Vasco Lino, research and innovation director of Mozambique’s science and technology ministry.
"It’s very easy and fast. In one year they finished everything."
But this speed has led to fears of quantity over quality and there are questions about what will happen when fixed-term Chinese funding for many of the projects runs out.
"The key problem is on the African side," said Grimm. "If governments don’t develop their science, for instance by tapping into returnees from other parts of the globe, it’s really wasting human resources."
Ludger Kuehnhardt, a political scientist at Bonn University in Germany, said that African countries need to push their own scientific agenda to ensure that they get the research institutes and expertise that they need to tackle their own research priorities and national challenges.
Emeka Oguzie, a Nigerian materials scientist who trained in China, said: "Partnerships and collaborations should be for mutual interests and benefits, and the earlier we in Africa realize this, the better for everyone."