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China Provokes Debate in Africa

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An image from the Closing Ceremony of the World Social Forum in Nairobi, January 2007. Photo by Skasuga. flickr.com
An image from the Closing Ceremony of the World Social Forum in Nairobi, January 2007. Photo by Skasuga. flickr.com Licensed under Creative Commons

It was unexpected.

At the Seventh World Social Forum (WSF), held in Nairobi, Kenya, in late January, the most controversial topic was not HIV-AIDS, the U.S. occupation of Iraq, or neoliberalism. The topic that generated the most heat was China's relations with Africa.

At a packed panel discussion organized by a semi-official Chinese NGO, the discussion was candid and angry. First, Europe and America took over our big businesses. Now China is driving our small and medium entrepreneurs to bankruptcy, Humphrey Pole-Pole of the Tanzanian Social Forum told the Chinese speakers. You don't even contribute to employment because you bring in your own labor.

Stung by such remarks from the floor, Cui Jianjun, secretary general of the China NGO Network for International Exchanges, lost his diplomatic cool and launched into an emotional defense of Chinese foreign investment, saying that we Chinese had to make the same hard decision on whether to accept foreign investment many, many years ago. You have to make the right decision or you will lose, lose, lose. You have to decide right, or you will remain poor, poor, poor.

The vigorous exchange should have been anticipated since many Africans view China as having the potential to bring either great promise or great harm. If African civil society representatives were hard on China, this was because they desperately wanted China to reverse course before it was too late, so that it would avoid the path trod by Europe and the United States.

Beijing's High Profile in Africa

The debate at the WSF took place amid a marked elevation of Africa's profile in China's foreign policy. In early February, President Hu Jintao made his third trip to Africa in three years, following the success of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which took place November 4-5, 2006. Attended by 48 African delegations, most of them led by heads of state, the Forum was the largest international summit held in Beijing.

At the start of the summit, Beijing unveiled a glittering trade and aid plan designed to cement its strategic partnership with Africa. The key items in the package committed China to doubling its 2006 assistance within three years, providing $3 billion worth of preferential loans and $2 billion worth of export credits, and canceling all interest-free government loans that matured at the end of 2005 and were owed by the heavily indebted and poorest African countries. In addition, the two sides agreed to raise the volume of trade from $40 billion in 2005 to $100 billion by 2010 and set up of a China-Africa Development Fund that would be capitalized to the tune of $5 billion to support Chinese companies investing in Africa.

If not yet the biggest external player in Africa, China is certainly the most dynamic. It now accounts for 60% of oil exports from Sudan and 35% of those from Angola. Chinese firms mine copper in Zambia and Congo-Brazzaville, cobalt in the Congo, gold in South Africa, and uranium in Zimbabwe. Its ecological footprint is large, says Michelle Chan-Fishel of Friends of the Earth International, consuming as it does 46% of Gabon's forest exports, 60% of timber exported from Equatorial Guinea, and 11% of timber exports from Cameroon.

Contrasting Images of China

China is popular with African governments. There is something refreshing to China's approach, said a Nigerian diplomat who asked not to be identified. They don't attach all those conditionalities that accompany Western loans. Adds Justin Fong, executive director of the Chinese NGO, Moving Mountains: Whether accurate or not, the image Africans have of the Chinese is that they get things done. They don't waste their time in meetings. They just go ahead and build roads.

An African development specialist working with a western aid organization claimed that Chinese projects are low cost affairs compared to western projects. Labor costs are low, they integrate African labor, so some transfer of skills takes place, and the Chinese workers live in the village, and this means living like the villagers, down to competing with them for dog meat.

While they might dispute this characterization of China's impact, most NGOs are nuanced in their assessments. They acknowledge that China has a different trajectory in Africa than Europe and the United States. Whereas the West began by exploiting Africa, China initiated its relations with Africa with people-to-people medical and technical assistance missions in the 1960s and 1970s, the most famous of which was the building of the now fabled Tanzania-Zambia (Tanzam) Railway. But with China's rise as a modernizing economic superpower after the definitive decision in 1984 to use capitalism as the engine of growth, the old solidarity rationale has been replaced by a dangerously single-minded pursuit of economic interests -- in this case, mainly oil and mineral resources to feed a red-hot economy.

If African governments were accountable to their people, say NGO critics, Chinese aid could play a very positive role, especially compared to World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans that come with conditions to bring down tariffs, loosen government regulation, and privatize state enterprises. But with non-accountable, non-transparent governments, such as those in the Sudan and Zimbabwe, say the critics, Chinese loan and aid programs contribute instead to consolidating the rule of non-democratic elites.

Crossing the Line in Sudan

Where China has definitely crossed the line is in Sudan. Using its veto power at the UN Security Council, China has prevented the international community from creating and deploying a multinational force to protect people in Darfur who are being killed or raped by militias backed by the Sudanese government. Even one African diplomat sympathetic to China asserts, China's strong backing for the Sudanese government has discouraged African governments that are trying to push it to accept an African Union solution to the problem.

China has very substantial interests in Sudan. These are set out in detail in an important collection of studies launched at the WSF entitled African Perspectives on China in Africa, edited by Firoze Manji and Stephen Marks. China obtained oil exploration and production rights in 1995 when the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) bought a 40% stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, which is pumping over 300,000 barrels per day. Sinopec, another Chinese firm, is building a 1500-kilometer pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where China's Petroleum Engineering Construction Company is constructing a tanker terminal. Author John Rocha estimates Chinese investment in oil exploration to reach $8 billion.

Chinese interests go beyond oil. Its investment in textile mills is estimated at $100 million. It has emerged as one of Sudan's top arms suppliers. In one particular barter arrangement, China supplied $400 million worth of weapons in return for cotton. It is active in infrastructure, with its firms building bridges near the Merowe Dam and two other sites on the River Nile. It is involved in key hydropower projects, the most controversial being the Merowe Dam, which is expected to ultimately cost $1.8 billion.

The construction of the Merowe Dam has involved forced resettlement of the Hambdan people living at or near the site and repression and an armed attack on the Amri people who have been organizing to prevent the Sudanese government's plan to transfer them to the desert. Local police and private agencies now provide 24-hour security to Chinese engineering detachments, but civil society observers say the aim of these groups is less protection of the Chinese than repression of growing opposition. As Ali Askari, director of the London-based Piankhi Research Group, puts it, The sad truth is, both the Chinese and their elite partners in the Sudan government want to conceal some terrible facts about their partnership. They are joining hands to uproot poor people, expropriate their land, and appropriate their natural resources.

Chinese and Sudanese officials tend to dismiss such criticism as the machinations of western powers. Such powers are alarmed at China's becoming the top international player in a country long treated as being in the West's sphere of influence. But, according to Beijing and Khartoum, the West's dismal record of colonial plunder deprives its statements of any moral authority. Defending its close relations with the Sudanese government, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Zhai Jun, noted the contrast in African governments' reception of China and the West: Some people believe that by ëtaking' resources and energy from Africa, China is looting Africa...If this was so, then African countries would express their dissatisfaction.

Chinese officials are, however, wrong to think that African NGOs are merely parroting the rhetoric of self-interested western governments. In fact, civil society groups also consider such western criticism hypocritical. Commenting on the remark of a World Bank official to the effect that Chinese handouts without reforms would not be beneficial to Africa, John Karumbidza, a contributor to the China in Africa volume, acidly remarks, It is the case...that this same bank and Western approach over the past half century has failed to deliver development, and left Africa in more debt than when they began.

Other Problematic Partnerships

These criticisms are unlikely to go away, not only in Sudan but in many other countries where Chinese involvement with controversial regimes runs deep. With relations with the West and even South Africa deteriorating over his political record, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has increasingly turned to China, which one of his key ministers has characterized as an all weather friend. Chinese investment in mining, energy, telecommunications, agriculture, and other sectors was estimated at $600 million at the end of 2004, with another $600 million pledged in June 2005. The price, however, has been high, according to critics, who claim that Mugabe's government has handed de facto control of key strategic industries to the Chinese. A contract with China to farm 386 square miles of land while millions of Zimbabweans remain landless has come under fire, with rural sociologist John Karumbidza blasting it as nothing more than land renting and typical agri-business relations thatturn the land holders and their workers into labor tenants and subject them to exploitation.

The Nigerian government is another problematic Chinese partner, according to civil society activists. China has extensive interests in Nigeria, particularly in oil exploration and production. The China National Offshore Corporation (CNOOC), notes researcher John Rocha, has acquired a 45% working interest in an offshore enterprise, OML 130, for $2.3 billion; the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has invested in the Port Harcourt refinery; and a joint venture between the Chinese Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and the L.N. Mittal Group, plans to invest $6 billion in railways, oil refining, and power in exchange for rights to drill oil.

These interests have led to an increasingly tight alliance with the faction of the ruling People's Democratic Party dominated by President Olusegun Obasanjo. This relationship has a controversial security dimension. As Ndubisi Obiorah, another contributor to the China in Africa volume who is director of the Center for Law and Social Action in Lagos, notes: The Nigerian government is increasingly turning to China for weapons to deal with the worsening insurgency in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The Nigerian Air Force purchased 14 Chinese-made versions of the upgraded MiG 21 jet fighter; the navy has ordered patrol boats to secure the swamps and creeks of the Niger Delta. Not surprisingly, the rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigerian Delta (MEND) has warned Chinese companies to keep out of the region or risk attack.

With their integrated political, military, economic, and diplomatic components, China's strategic partnerships with governments such as those of Nigeria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe increasingly have the feel of the old U.S. and Soviet relationships with client states during the Cold War.

Will Civil Society Make the Difference?

Nevertheless, many civil society activists do not discount the possibility that things may yet be turned around. Though critical of current Chinese policies, Humphrey Pole-Pole of Tanzania appealed at the Nairobi meeting for a win-win-win strategy -- that is, a win for China, a win for African governments, and a win for African people. This is not impossible.

The key to such a change may be the growth of Chinese civil society organizations, some of which are increasingly independent of and indeed critical of government policies within China.

But closer ties between Chinese and African NGOs are not enough, says Justin Fong. Mechanisms to ensure Chinese government accountability are needed. One point of vulnerability he identifies is the practice of Chinese government entities, such as the China Export-Import Bank, of going for co-financing for their Africa projects to international banks such as HSBC and Citigroup. When it comes to controversial projects, pressure might be indirectly placed on the Chinese by lobbying these institutions, which are more sensitive about their image than Beijing. Such tactics, which sometimes worked with western governments and firms, may not, however, succeed with China.

But whatever their differences, civil society activists, African and Chinese, agree on one thing. It will be a hard, uphill struggle to change the Chinese juggernaut's direction in Africa.


Walden Bello is executive director of the Bangkok-based research and advocacy institute Focus on the Global South. This article was first published by Foreign Policy In Focus, and is reproduced with their kind permission.

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