Reading a newspaper commentary on the current China-Africa relationship and one will likely find the tone pessimistic. In recent years, jacking up its political and economic presence in the world’s poorest continent, China has drawn fire as a supporter of the Sudanese government, which stands accused of genocide.
It has also been criticised by the US for hoarding natural resources, including oil, which China is now importing in increasing quantities.
In addition, Chinese companies are being criticised by African politicians and media alike for poor work safety practices, importing large numbers of blue collar Chinese labourers, and most damagingly, flooding African markets with cheaply made Chinese goods threatening hundreds of thousands of livelihoods.
But while some commentators suggest this is a repeat of colonial-era exploitation, others beg to differ.
China’s Africa policy
Speaking in Beijing in August, the head of the United Nations Millennium Project, Jeffrey Sachs, praised China’s role as “extraordinarily positive and important”.
In Beijing to promote the project’s goals, which include reducing poverty and improving basic education, Professor Sachs indicated China’s Africa policy was achieving win-win results.
Speaking at a UN convened China-Africa forum, Sachs said: “China has a very pragmatic approach. It gives fewer lectures and gives more practical help. The overwhelming feeling from African leaders is gratitude towards Chinese support.”
He suggested Western governments could watch and learn from China’s example.
While partly reflecting the ongoing global debate over how to accommodate a rising China, the dichotomy of opinion over China-Africa relations is also a measure of how influential Beijing is becoming on the continent and the challenge it poses to established interests.
First venturing into Africa during the 1970s as part of a Cold war power play, China’s current safari has been driven by calculated mercantilist instincts. Chinese officials see in Africa a rich source of raw materials such as oil and potential consumers for cheap Chinese goods.
Senior politicians are on revolving-door diplomatic visits – Wen Jiabao, the premier, visited in June and Hu Jintao, the president, two months earlier – and two-way trade is projected to top $100bn in 2010, up from just $9.6bn in 2001, according to China’s ministry of commerce.
Already there is talk of a new shift in African trade relations. No longer will the continent be reliant on traditional north-south trading patterns between Africa and the developed Western world, but instead will have increased access to the Far East and India – the so-called south-south relationship.
In a World Bank report published last month, figures show that a third of African exports are now sold in Asia, up from 14% in 2000. At the same time, Asian exports to Africa are growing at 18% a year, in what the report called a “new Silk Road”.
The report said: “This new Silk Road potentially presents to Sub-Saharan Africa – home to 300 million of the globe’s poorest people and the world’s most formidable development challenge – a significant, and to date, rare, opportunity to hasten its international integration and growth.
Encouraged by Beijing to “go global” Chinese companies are now widely investing in Africa, and perhaps because Africa mimics aspects of China’s own development over the past half century, often in countries Western counterparts will not touch. Building hotels in Sierra Leone, telecommunications infrastructure in Nigeria, and railways in Angola, the Chinese are pumping billions of dollars into Africa’s economy.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs thinktank, told Aljazeera.net: “[They are] the only people prepared to invest in Liberia for example. In Angola, China’s post-conflict, rapid infrastructural development aid is exactly what the government is looking for.”
Other development experts cite support for China’s involvement in basic infrastructure. These were the sorts of projects Western countries once promoted in the 1960s and 70s but have since been neglected. Yet the absence of a decent road and rail network has hindered development, even at the most rudimentary level of farmers getting goods to market.
And with a successful legacy of raising millions of its own populace out of poverty, China is in its own way a role model for others. Highlighting areas of agricultural productivity, infrastructure development, and gender equality during his talk in Beijing, Sachs said that China had much to teach Africa.
But some Western governments and NGOs, as well as African journalists, are now asking China to go beyond trade and address wider social and political issues such as good governance, corruption and human rights. Currently much of the criticism levelled at China’s African policy is because of the apparent absence of any such policy.
Hopes are on China becoming a “responsible stakeholder”, in the words of Robert Zoellick, the former US deputy secretary of state. A term applicable to China’s actions in Iran and North Korea, as well as Africa, it is indicative of designs that China will accept, and work with, the Western interventionist model. In a further attempt to steer Chinese foreign policy, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, invited a Chinese representative to sit on his Commission for Africa.
Beijing’s ties to Khartoum are a case in point. The largest foreign investor in the country, China draws 5 per cent of its oil needs from beneath Sudan’s sands, and has threatened to veto any UN move to impose sanctions over the Darfur crisis despite deaths reported to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Concerns about China’s lack of transparency in its deal making are also being voiced. In an interview with The New Statesman magazine, Zainab Bangura, of Sierra Leone’s National Accountability Group, said the Chinese were undermining anti-corruption work.
“We’ve spent 15 years working on conventions against corruption, and now the Chinese come in and they haven’t signed up to any of it. I’m worried that African governments will see China as an alternative to G8 countries, because with the Chinese they don’t have to worry about good governance,” said Bangura.
In an October report by corruption watchdog Transparency International, China, India, and Russia were ranked among the worst offenders for propensity to bribe overseas.
Sensitive to criticism?
Traditionally sensitive towards outside criticism of its own domestic policies, China advocates a stance of non-intervention in internal affairs, and, at least publicly, makes a point of not tying trade, loan, or aid negotiations to political conditions, or as is sometimes the case with World Bank loans, to fiscal reform or privatisation agreements. Several African leaders have already voiced support for Chinese loans because of this.
Even so, says one Chinese Africa expert, China will need to pay more attention to a sustainable development model. Xu Weizhong, director of the department of African Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, and adviser to the foreign ministry, told Aljazeera.net: “China needs to move from engaging with elites to engaging with the population. [China] needs to understand the African public.”
Chatham House’s Alex Vines agrees saying a lack of local content is one of the “weaknesses of the Chinese model” and that China will need to learn how to become “multicultural in this climate of globalisation”.
“If the Chinese do not question what political elites do with resources, this could contribute to problems in the future. If the populations in these countries don’t see improvements in their own livelihoods, they will question where the aid goes,” said Vines who suggested a change of government in some countries, such as Zimbabwe, could be detrimental for China in the long term because of Beijing’s perceived cosiness with corrupt and unpopular leaders.
Targeting Chinese immigrants
A taste of this is currently occurring in Zambia where Michael Sata, an opposition party leader, is taking advantage of a groundswell of anti-foreign sentiment to attack Chinese industries. Numbering about 30,000, Chinese immigrants in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, were accused of stealing jobs and, earlier this month, they found their shops the target of organised looting.
But whether this will force China to mollifying its policy is another matter.
Some African leaders have said they prefer China’s “no questions asked” style of doing business. In a sign though that Beijing is listening to concerns, Wen Jiabao has announced a June quota limit on Chinese textile exports following complaints that African jobs were being destroyed.
Foreign ministry official Cao says more “practical polices” will be announced at the upcoming China-Africa ministerial meeting next month in Beijing.