By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 01/11/06):
China will steal a march in the new race for Africa when it hosts an ambitious trade, investment and aid summit in Beijing this week for leaders of 48 African countries. But while the meeting is intended to fuel China’s global drive for resources, raw materials and markets, concerns are growing that the boosters of Beijing do not have Africa’s best interests at heart and that western countries will be cut out of future business.
Delegates to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which opens on Friday, can expect full red-carpet treatment, except the preferred colour is green after Communist party chiefs reportedly ordered conference centre floors to be covered with grass. Large posters of giraffes and elephants are also on display to make an expected 2,500 visiting politicians, businessmen and journalists feel at home.
Such witless gaucheries aside, the summit’s focus will be on shaping the economic and political realities in favour of Asia’s rising superpower. China’s trade with Africa has risen fourfold in the past four years, and was worth $40bn (£21bn) last year. The target is $100bn by 2010.
Beijing has overtaken Britain to become Africa’s third most important trading partner after the US and France, according to a report, The New Sinosphere: China in Africa, published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). Chinese lending and aid projects are multiplying and the conference is expected to see another round of debt cancellations and preferential tariff deals.
The summit also marks a shrewd attempt by China’s communist-capitalists to harness the mostly forgotten forces of Marxist historical inevitability. It marks the 50th anniversary of the decision by Nasser’s Egypt to recognise Mao Zedong’s government as sole rulers of China, rather than Taiwan’s nationalists. Egypt was the first African country to do so.
Now China has also invited the five African countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan to Beijing. Financial and other blandishments may yet induce Malawi, Gambia, Swaziland and the other holdouts to succumb to China’s blandiloquent embrace.
Chinese officials have been busily defending their activities from charges of self-interest and exploitation. “Chinese investment in Africa has promoted economic growth, increased job opportunities … and improved living standards,” said Wei Jianguo, the deputy commerce minister. “It has greatly benefited local people and is very popular.”
Other officials say the world’s biggest, most successful developing country simply wants to share its experience with others.
But claims of disinterested altruism are coming under increasing scrutiny as China’s clout grows, and not least in the US which sees a looming geopolitical and economic challenge. Beijing is variously accused of propping up corrupt and vicious regimes, as in Angola and Zimbabwe, exploiting cheap African labour, dumping manufactures and destroying indigenous industries, and of quasi-colonialist political interference, as appeared to be the case during Zambia’s recent presidential election.
Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, said this month that Chinese banks were ignoring human rights and environmental and corporate governance standards when lending to African countries. “There is a real risk of seeing countries which have benefited from (western) debt relief become heavily indebted once more,” he told the newspaper Les Échos. And in its new report, the IPPR draws particular attention to Sudan, where China has significant oil investments. It notes China’s blocking of UN action over Darfur and its weapons sales to Khartoum and urges increased international pressure on Beijing to help end the crisis.
“Managed well, China could bring real development benefits to Africans,” Leni Wild and David Mepham, the report’s authors, say. “Managed badly, China’s role may lead to worsening standards of governance and more corruption. As a one-party state, China’s foreign policy is not driven by a concern to promote human rights, in Africa or elsewhere.”
But it is plainly designed to make money, win friends, and gain influence. In Africa, it is as if the era of 19th century imperial expansion is happening all over again – but this time freebies and open chequebooks have replaced glass beads and pith helmets.