China’s chance to get it right for Africa

By Chandran Nair
Ethical Corporation

Many see China's dealings with Africa as sinister and exploitative, but perhaps there is reason to hope a 'win win' relationship is possible

Much has been made of the growing amount of aid and investment that China is pouring into African countries, and of the trade deals that have been struck.

There are two versions of this story. One brandishes innuendo and criticism as though governments on both sides were harbouring deeply sinister agendas. The other paints a bright and positive relationship between struggling nations with much to offer and a China that is flexing its newly acquired international muscle.

The Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in Beijing in November, the largest gathering of heads of state in China, punctuated 50 years of ties. It marked a strategic partnership that, according to participants, helps African nations to develop, promotes human rights, and will help fight poverty through trade, aid and co-operation. The relationship also addresses China’s development needs, providing access to resources.

Hu Jintao, China’s president, pledged US$5 billion in soft loans and credits to African nations and promised to double aid by 2009. Chinese companies signed $1.9 billion in investment deals with 11 African countries, in telecommunications and high-tech equipment, infrastructure, raw materials, and banking and insurance. Beijing also gave assurances that it would not monopolise Africa’s resources as its influence across the continent grows, a major concern of US conservatives. Trade between China and Africa is expected to reach $50 billion in 2006, doubling by 2010.

A degree of health scepticism is probably appropriate when considering the communiqués from such events, but the tenor from the Beijing summit was positive and co-operative.

In general, however, the China-Africa nexus has been characterised as immoral: if one were to believe the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, World Bank president, China’s banks were not only ignoring human rights and environmental standards in lending to developing countries in Africa, but was also encouraging corruption and grabbing greedily at energy resources, especially oil.

History and hypocrisy

May be the hawks should not be so quick to criticise. History has a long memory, and there is no doubting a degree of hypocrisy here. The Chinese do not have any historical baggage in Africa and are an inspiration to developing African nations. Those that are struggling look to China and see that it has come from similar dire conditions not so long ago, to stand now as an emerging superpower.

The help is welcome, as Ethiopia’s ambassador, Haile-Kiros Gessesse, has pointed out, saying: “There is a need and a good opportunity for full co-operation and meaningful engagement from our friends and partners such as China to realise … objectives [of rejuvenation and development].” His foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, said the partnership “is promoting Africa’s development, scoring success in fighting poverty, overcoming the predicament the African countries face today”.

There are issues of sustainability at stake – raw materials, energy, trade, and inter-generational considerations – and the proper development and resolution of them need to be scrutinised in the unfolding and developing relationships.

Two avenues are open to Beijing. One is that which the critics would have you believe is China’s intention: to lock Africa in a new cycle of dependency, encouraging corruption and raping the continent of its wealth without any return – an interesting, if ironic, perspective.

The other avenue is a challenge for China to live up to its pledges. President Hu described the summit as “an effort to jointly safeguard the legal interests of developing nations and make contributions to the construction of a harmonious world”. There is now an opportunity to test Beijing’s theory of a harmonious society beyond its own political borders.

Opening trade further is one way, but there must be a rigorous regime of compliance with legislation and regulations that preclude corruption, promote transparency and ensure the equitable disbursement of what is owed to whom. China's pledges and the deals struck at the Beijing summit were described by at least one delegate as an “opportunity tantamount to development assistance”.

Another way is for China to give something back to those countries that are helping build its wealth: it can use its increasing influence to change the conversation about the needs of Africans; it can listen to Africans and perhaps even turn some of its huge foreign reserves towards reducing poverty in Africa. In that way it would be helping Africa to help China.