Beijing's links to Africa under the gun


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Weapons shipment to Zimbabwe, Darfur debacle, focus world attention on China's ties to continent

Apr 28, 2008 04:30 AM

By: Olivia Ward; Foreign Affairs Reporter

For almost half a century, China has been quietly doing business with Africa, often slipping under the radar of public attention.

But that changed recently when a South African court barred a shipment of Chinese arms bound for embattled Zimbabwe, and protests mounted against China's support for the Sudanese government held responsible for rebel attacks on vulnerable Darfur civilians.

Now, China's presence in Africa is in the crosshairs as never before, with Beijing's behaviour denounced as predatory and damaging to human rights.

"China insists that it will not `interfere' in other countries' domestic affairs, but it also claims to be a great friend of the African people and a responsible major power," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But that doesn't square with staying silent while mass killings go on in Darfur."

Meanwhile, Western voices are arguing populous China's thirst for oil and other African resources threatens their interests in an increasingly competitive market.

But experts in relations between China and African states say that its image as a ruthless, come-lately exploiter of Africa's vital resources is too simplistic, and needs recalibrating in the complex new realities of the 21st century.

"What China is doing in Sudan is bad," says Stephen Brown, a professor of political science at University of Ottawa.

"But there's a lot of hypocrisy in criticizing China's presence in Africa. Historically, the West has a much worse record there."

And, says World Bank economist Harry Broadman, "if you pick up a newspaper you get the impression that China just discovered Africa in the last three years, and is only in it for the oil. They're both myths."

China's involvement with Africa goes back much farther than the current Communist regime – to 3000 BC, when a vast intercontinental trade network stretched from Asia to Africa. More recently, in the Cold War 1960s, it allied itself with African countries waging wars of independence against Western colonial powers.

China's 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown heightened its interest in Africa, as Beijing found common ground with authoritarian leaders like Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. But China's impact in Africa has gone far beyond propping up dictatorships.

"We tend to look at China's presence through the lens of pariah states," says Chris Alden of London School of Economics and author of China in Africa. "But there are 53 countries in Africa, and China has relations with 49."

And he adds, since the 1970s when China built the Tanzam Railway from Tanzania to Zambia as a political gesture, it has constructed major road and telephone networks and rehabilitated public buildings.

China lacks the colonial connections that gave Westerners a head start in tapping Africa's riches. But it is catching up fast, thanks to a speedy and relatively restriction-free financial system.

"Through the Export-Import Bank and the China Development Bank it can provide export credits, loans and investment guarantees to Chinese investors," says Broadman, author of Africa's Silk Road: China and India's New Economic Frontier.

The money often comes in cash, and without the democratic, human rights or financial transparency rules laid down by the West. Nor are Chinese firms afraid to lowball bids on infrastructure projects if they help to achieve long-term market objectives, Broadman adds.

China is also lengthening its welcome mat with plans to double aid to Africa by the end of next year, cancel debts of the poorest countries, create a China-Africa development fund to expand Chinese investment and build an African Union conference centre.

China has lagged behind the United States in volume of trade and investment. But its African trade has jumped from $10 billion five years ago to more than $33 billion, a sum likely to escalate over the next decade. Oil from Sudan, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria and the Republic of Congo accounts for much of the increase. But Africa also furnishes a growing amount of raw materials needed by China's massive manufacturing sector.

Meanwhile, China, along with its competitor India, has opened new factories in Africa.

"They're bringing in sophisticated technology and ways of doing business, processing goods on the continent before they export them," says Broadman, who studied Chinese and Indian companies in four African countries.

Some Africans say China's burgeoning interest isn't an unmixed blessing: "the bottom line is that China seeks to cushion its (Chinese) victims of globalization by exporting them to Africa, where they can create wealth for themselves and their motherland," says political commentator Jackson Mwalulu in Kenya's Nationmedia.com.

While Chinese migration to Africa is still small, it's making an impact on struggling African nations. "Africa hasn't experienced this kind of migration since the early 20th century," says Alden. "The Chinese may not settle there for long, but they are going everywhere, they want to make money, and they would like to take it home."

Resentment has also arisen in Africa, over environmental damage in areas where forests, minerals and agricultural land are exploited for Chinese exports.

And most visibly, human rights violations linked with China's presence are creating ripples of protest that are spreading in the weeks leading up to the Beijing Olympics.

That, says Brown, may bring a new awareness that Beijing cannot ignore human rights in Africa, something it has traditionally dismissed as "cultural diversity."

"There has been a shift over Darfur," he says. "The Chinese didn't veto the last UN Security Council resolution on setting up a (peacekeeping) mission."

With an increasing number of Chinese companies floated on Western stock exchanges, Beijing will be exposed to scrutiny after the Olympics end.

"As China goes more mainstream on trade, it will be more and more responsive to public opinion," says Brown.
 

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