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CHINA: Latest Africa Foray: Altruism or Hegemony?

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Nov 9 2009 (IPS) - Brushing off accusations that its investment is denuding Africa of precious natural resources, China has pledged “going all-out” to help African countries overcome poverty and fight new threats like climate change.

Beijing on Monday offered full assistance to Africa in agriculture and infrastructure on the heels of its pledge to extend 10 billion U.S. dollars over the next three years in concessional loans to the continent’s countries.

At the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in the Egyptian resort of Sham el-Sheikh, Beijing won applauses for its no-strings attached foreign aid and was held as an example for development worth emulating by countries around the world.

“China has been able to develop its economy without plundering other countries, and the Chinese economic miracle is indeed a source of pride and inspiration,” Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe told the forum. Beijing’s engagement with the continent was a model the rest of the world should adopt, he said.

But on the sidelines of the forum, Beijing has had to fight criticism that its expansion in Africa is driven solely by interests in the continent’s vast natural resources.

Zhai Jun, an assistant foreign minister, told the media that China was not seeking to impose its “hegemony” in Africa.

“China will not treat Africa in an imperialist way. China will not be pointing fingers or bullying African countries,” he said, reiterating that China would not “practice colonialism in African countries.”

Zhai’s remarks echo some Chinese commentators here. They have launched a counter-offensive, saying criticism of China is driven by envy because western countries continue to treat Africa like a colony.

“The West envies China’s engagement with Africa,” said an editorial in the ‘Global Times’, a tabloid published by the Communist party’s flagship newspaper, the ‘People’s Daily’, last week.

“Europeans view Africa as their own backyard,” the paper quoted Xu Weizhong, an expert on Africa, as saying. “Of course they don’t like to see China encroaching on their ‘territory”.

Beijing has always denied it harbours any intentions of replicating the West’s colonial expansion in Africa. But earlier this year, delegates to the annual session of China’s parliament debated a proposal to seek employment for up to one million Chinese in various African countries.

The proposal was put forward by delegate Zhao Zhihai, a researcher with the Zhangjiakou Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China’s breadbasket province of Hebei.

Zhao, who had visited Ethiopia and Guinea to explore possibilities for agricultural cooperation in cultivating hybrid rice on the continent, told delegates that Africa’s vast land and underdeveloped agriculture could provide employment for up to one million Chinese labourers.

“In the current economic climate, with so many of our people unemployed, China can benefit from finding jobs for them and Africa can benefit from our expertise in developing any type of land and crop,” Zhao told the parliament.

He suggested Beijing should draft a long-term strategy of dispatching Chinese labourers to Africa in order to solve two of China’s greatest challenges—food security and unemployment.

Zhao’s proposal may have not been endorsed at the top level, but its having been publicised by the media has provoked comments of approval in some of the popular Internet forums here.

“At last we have heard of something useful from our delegates to the parliament,” wrote one netizen in a sarcastic jab at China’s National People’s Congress, often derided here as a “rubber stamp”.

Another, writing in ‘tianya’ forum (, suggested that Angola, Congo and Equatorial Guinea should be developed as “outposts” of China’s overall strategy of transforming Africa into a “China-friendly backyard” and Beijing should seek to buy land and send labourers to those countries in order to relieve China’s “food and land bottlenecks”.

China’s rush for Africa is part of a global race underway to tap the continent’s energy resources and mineral wealth. Prices of many commodities have been soaring recently, making Africa’s vast deposits of copper, bauxite, cobalt, iron ore and gold all the more attractive.

While Beijing is not alone in its pursuit of Africa’s oil, gas and precious materials, it has invited more criticism than any other government for its huge diplomatic and commercial expansion in the continent.

The aid offered by premier Wen Jiabao at this China-Africa forum was double that unveiled by president Hu Jintao at the last summit in Beijing in 2006. Then Beijing pledged five billion U.S. dollars in assistance over three years and signed agreements to relieve or cancel the debts owed by 31 African states.

Critics say Beijing has been unscrupulous in grabbing African resources, disregarding human rights and environmental issues. The Chinese government and its state-run companies have struck lucrative deals with some of the most unsavoury governments in Africa.

In October one Chinese company—China International Fund—struck a seven- billion U.S. deal for oil and mineral rights in Guinea, a country run by a military junta, which was responsible for the recent massacre of 150 pro- democracy protesters.

Beijing says it would refrain from interfering in the internal politics of any African country.

“China’s support and aid for Africa has never and will never attach any political conditions,” Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said in his address at the summit held Nov. 8 to 9.

But lack of transparency surrounding much of Beijing’s expansion in Africa has hurt China’s attempt to set itself up as a pioneer of new diplomacy. Experts say that China’s advance on the continent appears a little ad-hoc and few in the Chinese government, if any, know the full extent of overall aid and investment and how these are being utilised in Africa.

“The problem is, we don’t know what the volume of aid from China is,” Brian Atwood, who served for six years as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Clinton administration, told the Foreign Correspondents Club in Beijing recently. “There is a lack of transparency about what is actually happening… It is not a conspiracy, but it’s not joined up; no one is keeping track of it all”.

The murky nature of China’s aid-giving has given rise to fears that it does not lay a base for sustainable development on the continent and that only benefits Chinese companies and labourers.

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