By Bill Powell
This is supposed to be the Fortune/TIME/CNN “Global Forum,” but some of the delegates could be forgiven if they come to believe it’s really the "China in Africa" forum.
The Chinese are everywhere here in Capetown, and on virtually every panel, China’s growing influence not just on Africa but on the world comes up. Consider just the discussions held on Sunday morning alone: Li Zongwei, the young chief financial officer of Yingu Green Energy Holding Co. (a big sponsor of the World Cup Soccer tournament) talks about how Chinese solar companies are driving costs down—in effect, creating a “China price” for solar energy companies that, given time, could obviate the need for governments to subsidize this key form of renewable energy. (Think about how critical would that be as we inevitably move, in the United States and Europe, into an era of governmental belt tightening...)
Wang Jianzhou, Chairman and CEO of China Mobile, the world’s largest telecom company by market cap, speaks about how he had mobile telephony profitable in even the poorest, most rural provinces of China—and the lessons that might hold as African nations get connected.
Peter Vosser, on a panel about climate change and energy efficiency, the Chairman and CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, notes that China is moving forward more rapidly than anyone else in implementing energy conservation policies that save its consumers and businesses money. <!-- more -->
It’s not a surprise—or shouldn’t be. China—that is to say, its state owned companies—invested more in Africa last year than the continent got in loans from the World Bank. At a session Saturday on the African growth story, several members of the audience noted that rates of returns on equity investments in Africa have exceeded those pretty much everywhere else in several countries here in the last few years. China is helping drive that growth, and is also benefiting from it.
What’s astonishing—but telling—is the relative lack of high-powered US corporate representation here. Sure, there are a handful of big time CEOs here (Ellen Kullman of DuPont for example), and former President Bill Clinton gave a keynote speech Sunday afternoon, but they are not, as they say, driving the bus at this conference.
When the US (or Europe) does come up in conversation, it’s in worried tones about the likelihood of the dreaded double dip recession that is now on the tips of everyone’s tongues. But even if that comes, notes Ken Courtis, founding Partner at Themes Investment Management, his Hong Kong based firm, Africa is likely to be okay, because Chinese growth, while it may moderate, will likely still be relatively strong. Strong enough, in fact, to keep commodity prices at relatively high levels—the key factor underpinning growth on this continent. (Indeed, Martyn Davies, the CEO of Frontier Advisors, his Pretoria based consulting firm, notes that growth on the African continent is almost correlated one to one with growth in China.)
China’s still doing just fine, relatively speaking, and though neither it nor the other key emerging markets, including those in Africa, are completely decoupled from the U.S., the message of this conference is loud and clear (and from an American perspective, somewhat depressing): we’re still the biggest economy (slightly over $14 trillion in GDP, compared to China’s $4.3 trillion), but the eyes (and the wallets) of the developing world are firmly on what, for them, is the most influential economy on the planet--the one that's driving growth. And that’s China.