buys into China's generosity
27 JUL 2012 11:43 - LIESL
Analysts have warned that the reluctance of African leaders to challenge
their benefactor comes at a high price. Liesl Louw-Vaudran reports.
African leaders cheered when Chinese politburo chief Jia Qinglin
inaugurated the African Union's headquarters, paid for by China, in Addis
Ababa this year. There was no inkling of unease at receiving such a
But in the corridors some wondered about the symbolic significance of the
$200-million headquarters and the way African leaders seemed to embrace
China's aggressive investment and trade in Africa. "Gifts are generally not
innocent," said Professor Bola Akinterinwa, director general of the
Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.
Last week President Jacob Zuma, speaking at the fifth Forum for
China-Africa Co-operation, created something of a stir when he described
the unequal trade relations between Africa and China, characterised by "the
supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer", as
"Africa's past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be
cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies," he said.
China's trade with African countries reached $160-billion last year, a
thirteenfold increase in the past decade, and investment is said to be up
to $15-billion. Although the volumes favour Africa because of the export of
large amounts of raw materials, the value of Chinese-manufactured goods far
outstrip that of African exports.
At the summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao said China would provide an
additional $20-billion of credit to African countries.
Following Zuma's remarks, some are asking whether this is an indication of
a shift in thinking by African leaders. Do they now want to be seen as wary
of the dangers of a neocolonialist approach by China? Could the exit from
the scene of some of China's biggest proponents, such as Ethiopia's Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi, who has taken ill in Brussels, signal a more
cautious approach by the AU to China's growing influence?
Daouda Cissť, from the centre for Chinese studies at Stellenbosch
University, said Zuma's statement was welcomed by academics and civil
society members, who had been raising concerns about Sino-African relations
for some time.
"For the first time, an African head of state has now clearly mentioned
these issues. Coming from a policymaker, this type of remark is good,
because the most important negotiations for investments between China and
Africa happen at the state-to-state level."
However, if African leaders are serious about changing the imbalance
between Africa and China, it is not going to be easy.
"Africa does need foreign investments for its economic growth," Cissť said.
"The volume of trade and investments in Sino-Africa relations will not
change a lot in the forthcoming years."
The only way change can take place is if Africa can diversify its exports
to move away from raw materials to include, for example, processed goods,
manufactured products and services.
China would also need to take sustainable development into account in the
countries where it had a presence, Cissť said.
But African heads of state have been hesitant to raise this issue openly.
In some cases, governments such as those in Ghana and Nigeria have
capitalised on the long-standing resentment of street traders about the
presence of Chinese small businesses and expelled illegal Chinese. But,
generally, it has not been followed up at a government-to-government level.
China's most vocal critic on the continent, Zambia's President Michael
Sata, seems to have backed down on the issue since becoming head of state
last year and China's stake in Zambia's copper industry seems secure for
now. Following several government visits, a bilateral agreement was signed
in March this year, guaranteeing further grants, technical co-operation and
In Zambia, as elsewhere, one of the major gripes about the Chinese is the
large number of unskilled labourers brought in to work on the mines and
The generous aid and grants, dished out from Ethiopia to Angola, are also
not bound to political conditions but tied to the use of Chinese companies,
equipment and contract workers.
There are also serious environmental concerns about Chinese investments.
For example, a study done on Chinese aid to Ethiopia by the African Forum
on Debt and Development, a civil society organisation based in Zimbabwe,
rings alarm bells about the lack of environmental impact studies.
"China has either low or undeveloped environmental, health and safety
standards in several sectors, even within China (for example in mining),
and the use of Chinese companies and contract workers for a majority of
Chinese aid, trade and investment projects in Ethiopia has the effect of
transferring these weaknesses to Ethiopia, because regulation is weak in
Ethiopia," the forum states its 2011 report.
China is aware of the feeling among Africans that it is on the continent
merely to take out raw materials and inundate the informal markets with
At last week's summit, Hu also announced that China would train 30 000
personnel in various sectors, offer 18 000 government scholarships and
build cultural and vocational training facilities. China would also send
1500 medical personnel to Africa, he said.
To boost its image and increase its soft power in Africa, China is greatly
increasing its media presence. As African leaders enter the new AU
headquarters, a big digital screen offers the latest updates from its news
agency Xinhua. And, in many countries, when the state TV ceases to
broadcast it is CCTV, rather than CNN, that appears on the screen.
Many African policymakers also shy away from criticism because they admire
the Chinese economy. They are fascinated by the state-led capitalist model,
which they believe is the answer to economic growth in developing
countries. Achieving double-digit growth without embracing democracy is an
attractive option for many.
But, as power shifts from West to East and some predict Shanghai will soon
replace London and New York as the world's financial capital, African
leaders can ill afford to be seen to be anti-Chinese.
Received on Mon Jul 30 2012 - 21:21:35 EDT