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Chinese Minister Rejects Charge of Neocolonialism in Africa

China’s Vice Minister of Commerce Fu Ziying has defended his country’s rapidly expanding involvement in Africa against critics who have called it an economic invasion.

China and Ethiopia this week signed a $12.4 million loan and grant agreement worth $12.4 million. Ethiopia’s state-run news agencies quoted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as saying the $7.8 million grant and $4.6 million loan are important in achieving the struggling nation’s five-year economic plan.

For China’s vice minister of Commerce Fu Ziying, the signing was one in a series during a trip across Africa. It follows continental tours by several other top Chinese officials.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Prime Minister Wang Qishan both visited the continent earlier this year, signing a host of investment deals. News reports say both officials stopped in Zimbabwe, offering tens of millions of dollars in grants and loans to the mineral rich but economically depressed nation.

The visits have underscored China’s rapidly expanding influence in Africa, and sparked concerns that Beijing is implementing a continent-wide strategy to dominate the economic landscape.

After the signing ceremony in Addis Ababa, vice minister Fu met with a cross-section of officials, including representatives of foreign donors, non-governmental organizations, and journalists.

Several, such as Gedion Gamora, a consultant to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, questioned Beijing’s motive and tactics in its aggressive outreach program. "Unlike western companies, technology transfer is very low for Chinese companies. The other point is, there is a big cultural gap between Chinese workers and African workers. In this regard, how the Chinese government is working? The other point is lack of transparency. Chinese companies are very much closed, so this I think might invite corruption, which is a big problem in Africa," he said.

Fu urged those at the meeting not to have too high expectations as China navigates the difficult path from a poor developing country to an economic powerhouse. He noted that China’s per capita output is estimated at $4,000 a year, one-tenth that of the United States.

"China remains a developing country. According to the poverty standards of the United Nations, that is $1.25 a day, according to these standards, China has 200 million people living under poverty. On the one hand china has some impressive cosmopolitan [areas] such as Shanghai and Beijing, but on the other hand, rural areas in some parts of China’s central and western areas are still stuck in poverty," he said.

The minister also rejected suggestions that China’s strategy is a new form of colonialism, aimed at locking up Africa’s energy and mineral resources at bargain basement prices. He used his visit to resource poor Mali in West Africa earlier in the week as an example. "One of you mentioned that China comes to Africa just for natural resources. I believe there has been some misunderstanding. You will see China has invested heavily in sectors outside the energy sector. I believe Mali doesn’t have a lot natural resources but it is an important development partner with China," he said.

African officials often argue they are forced to depend more and more on Chinese aid because it is increasingly difficult to get assistance from traditional partners. The French news agency this week quoted Togo’s Finance Minister Adji Oteh Ayas as saying Chinese loans are a good thing at a time when most African countries cannot access markets to borrow for critical infrastructure programs.

A recent African Development Bank report said China’s investments in Africa’s infrastructure have increased at an average rate of 46 percent a year over the past decade. At the same time, Africa’s exports to China have doubled.

The Bank report says crude oil makes up about 70 percent of African exports to China, most of it from two countries, Angola and Sudan. Another 15 percent of the export total consists of minerals.

Europe remains Africa’s largest export market, but it share has fallen from 50 percent two decades ago to about 30 percent today.