|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
Africans Courted In China
President Abdillahi Yusuf of Somalia arrived in Beijing on Thursday, before a forum aimed at fostering political and economic ties between China and Africa.
BEIJING , November 2, 2006 – Billboards show elephants and giraffes stalking the savanna. Traffic has been curtailed, construction sites shut down and the sky rendered tantalizingly, if temporarily, blue.
Beijing has put on its best face to court Africa, "the land of myth and miracles," as official posters call it. Leaders of 48 of the 53 African countries, including 40 heads of state, plan to arrive this weekend for perhaps the biggest diplomatic event China has ever organized.
The official purpose of the three-day China-Africa Forum is to expand trade, allow China to secure the oil and ore it needs for its booming economy, and help African nations improve roads, railroads and schools.
The unofficial purpose is to redraw the world's strategic map, forming tighter political ties between China, now the fastest-growing major economy, and a continent whose leaders often complain of being neglected by the United States and Europe.
"African leaders see China as a new kind of global partner that has lots of money but treats them as equals," says Wenran Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who has studied Chinese-African relations. "Chinese leaders see Africa, in a strategic sense, as up for grabs."
China 's trade with Africa is growing faster than with any other region except the Middle East, increasing tenfold in the past decade to just shy of $40 billion last year.
Beijing 's enthusiasm has raised concerns among many in the West, where the United States is distracted by the war on terror and France, Britain and other former colonial powers exert less influence in Africa than they once did.
China does not follow international lending standards designed to fight corruption in the region. It has embraced the leaders of Sudan and Zimbabwe at a time when those countries are under heavy pressure to improve their poor human rights record. Major oil companies have complained that China uses its influence to secure concessions for state-owned companies.
Chinese officials say those concerns are overblown or hypocritical, and they deny that they have a grand scheme to create an exclusive sphere of influence in Africa. But China has nearly $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves, boundless entrepreneurial energy and a strong drive to compete there on its own terms.
"The Western approach of imposing its values and political system on other countries is not acceptable to China," said Wang Hongyi, a leading specialist on Africa at the China Institute of International Studies. "We focus on mutual development, not promoting one country at the expense of another."
Economically, Beijing's outreach aims to secure Africa's abundant supplies of oil, iron ore, copper and cotton at the lowest possible prices, delivered through a supply chain that China controls, analysts say. Chinese companies also view Africa as an open market, neglected by Western multinationals, that they can cultivate with their trademark low-priced goods.
But if the goal is mostly mercenary, and therefore not wholly unlike European objectives in Africa 150 years ago, the method is avowedly anti-imperialist.
The forum's slogan - "Peace, Friendship, Cooperation, Development" - underscores China's pledge not to discriminate or intervene. Beijing even invited the four remaining African countries that still extend diplomatic recognition to its archrival, Taiwan, though none of them agreed to attend.
In the long term, Chinese officials hope the overture will give their companies an edge in the competition for resources across Africa, and give their diplomats an advantage when pursuing Chinese interests at the United Nations and other international organizations, where African countries can constitute a powerful voting block.
" China has offered Africa a new model that focuses on straight commercial relations and fair market prices without the ideological agenda," says Moeletsi Mbeki, a South African businessman and political analyst.
"They are not the first big foreign power to come to Africa, but they may be the first not to act as though they are some kind of patron or teacher or conqueror," Mbeki said. "In that sense, there is a meeting of the minds."
The event itself, like most big political affairs in China, promises to be long on ceremony and propaganda and short on substance. President Hu Jintao is meeting a procession of heads of state. They will all have a chance to speak about blossoming relations.
State media has promoted the "three 50s": 50 years of Sino-African cooperation, 53 African countries, $50 billion in two-way trade (a projected figure for 2006).
China Central Television is conducting a nationwide survey to select the 10 most outstanding features of Africa.
Contenders include Cleopatra, South African diamonds and the Sahara.
Schools staggered class hours, government agencies restricted use of cars and big construction projects stopped work before the event, helping purify the air in Beijing and speed limousines through the normally choked boulevards.
Streets are lined with promotional materials extolling Sino-African ties. Many emphasize the continent's primitiveness in Chinese eyes. Giant posters depict jungles, wild animals, native warriors and women toting big packages on their heads.
Chinese diplomats hint that by the end of the meeting they will unveil a variety of trade and aid concessions. These are likely to include a list of African goods that can enter China tariff- free, increases in aid and technical cooperation, and forgiveness of past debts.
Unlike China's initial push into Africa under Mao Zedong, which aimed to support socialist regimes in post-colonial Africa, the focus is now on commerce.
China buys timber from Brazzaville in the Congo Republic, iron ore from South Africa and cobalt and copper from Zambia. There are an estimated 80,000 Chinese expatriates living in Africa, selling shoes, televisions and everything else the world's factory produces.
More vitally, Africa has helped quench China's growing thirst for oil. Angola, which China cultivated assiduously in recent years, has edged out Saudi Arabia as its largest foreign source of oil.
Sudan , shunned by the West for its civil war in the Darfur region, was a net oil importer before China arrived there in 1995. China has since invested heavily in oil extraction, helping Sudan export about $2 billion worth of crude annually, half of that to China.
Its aggressive pursuit of commodities has often been accompanied by generous aid programs, low-interest loans and other gifts that some Western interests say undermine efforts to foster good governance in Africa.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have raised concerns that China's unrestricted lending, including a new $2 billion credit line for corruption-plagued Angola, has undermined years of painstaking efforts to arrange conditional debt relief.
Some African economists complain that China wants to extract raw materials for industry and then sell manufactured goods back to Africa, repeating a mercantilist pattern that failed to spark sustained growth in the past.
Politically, Beijing has used the threat of its veto in the United Nations Security Council to protect Sudan and Zimbabwe against international sanctions. Human rights groups say Chinese arms exports to Sudan fuel the conflict in Darfur, which has claimed at least 180,000 lives and forced more than two million people from their homes over the past three years.
" 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," said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch in a statement. "But that doesn't square with staying silent while mass killings go on in Darfur."
Chinese officials, having insisted for years that such concerns are internal affairs of the countries involved, have recently changed their stance somewhat.
Zhai Jun, an assistant foreign minister responsible for African affairs, said last week that the Africa forum would address human rights and good governance, and specifically mentioned Sudan.
"The humanitarian situation in Darfur should be improved," Zhai said. "We will adopt our own method and use the upcoming summit to do our part."
Even if China does speak out on some rights issues, however, its basic strategy remains to engage African countries on their own terms.
Jiang, of the University of Alberta, said that Beijing now has a commercial strategy to unite the developing world's biggest beneficiary of globalization with the region most conspicuously left behind.
It will be up to each country's leaders, ultimately its people, to decide how to use the wealth created, he said.
"From China's perspective the Western powers and Western companies have had their chance in Africa and really nothing has happened," Jiang said.
" China is trying a different approach," he added. "It is saying, 'Let us have a chance.'"
Source: The New York Times