Chinese Aid Flows into Africa

The Chinese government is pouring aid into Africa, and is writing off millions of dollars in debts owed it by various African countries. China is promising further financial relief to Africa, as it seeks to gain access to the continent’s natural resources to sustain its development. But China’s aid to Africa, which comes with no political strings attached, remains controversial. There are also allegations of poor labor practices by Chinese companies in Africa. Analysts are convinced that China’s investment strategies on the continent will have to change if it’s to be perceived as a true partner in Africa’s development, and not as a new exploiter of the continent’s resources. In the fourth of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor examines the nature of China’s aid to Africa, and further concerns about the Far Eastern giant’s growing presence on the continent.

Some analysts describe China as a “rogue donor” because of its apparent willingness to “bail out” and bolster administrations such as those of Zimbabwe and Sudan by means of aid funds and investments. When threatened with financial and other sanctions by the West, such states have turned to China for help, and the country often seems eager to please – in so doing, seeming to counter efforts at democratic reforms in Africa.

Responding to concerns that China’s aid to Africa is to the detriment of good governance on the continent, a senior official at China’s Embassy in Washington D.C., Sun Baohong, says: “We are dedicated to non-interference and social development of African countries.”

She says the Chinese government understands that “sometimes African countries will be in extremely difficult (political) situations” like “social instability” – but she says it believes that sanctions and other methods as promoted by the West are “not productive” and lead only to “increasing hostility…We think that when you’re dealing with a failing state or a sensitive state, other methods than those used by Western people will be more productive.”  

In terms of their new strategic partnership with Africa, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have made several promises to the continent - including that of doubling aid to Africa to a billion dollars per annum. According to the Chinese government, up until 2006 it had given $5.74 billion in aid to Africa - and this figure excludes debt relief, which the Chinese don’t consider aid. 

Beijing is setting aside a $5 billion fund for Chinese investment in Africa; preferential loans and buyer’s credits will amount to an additional $5 billion; China has pledged large-scale debt cancellation amounting to tens of millions of dollars in Africa and is training African professionals, building infrastructure and establishing “economic cooperation zones” on the continent.

An expert on China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joshua Kurlantzick, says the country’s goals in giving aid to Africa are clearly access to the continent’s natural resources, markets for Chinese multinational companies, political allies and the isolation of Taiwan. 

Chinese tools of influence in achieving these goals, says Kurlantzick, include large aid disbursements, aid-linked commercial loans that are quickly forgiven, and the promotion of Chinese language studies - increasing numbers of Africans are going to China for training and education.

Prof. Deborah Brautigam, of American University’s School of International Service who has been studying China’s relationship with Africa since the early 1980’s, says the Chinese have been giving aid to the continent and cooperating with it economically since the 1950’s and 1960’s, when China began establishing agricultural and health projects, and building factories, in Africa.

“Since the 1980’s, there’s been a switch from one-way aid loans from China to Africa, to cooperation that is beneficial to both partners,” says Brautigam.

She’s of the opinion that the economic exchanges between Africa and China are only now getting attention because of fears that China’s motive in giving aid and building infrastructure is to curry favor with African leaders to ultimately plunder the continent of its natural resources.

Various underlying principles characterize China’s current aid to Africa, according to Brautigam - especially the principle of mutual benefit.

“Chinese aid is not supposed to be like these alms coming to the poor, but is supposed to be something of mutual benefit, and they’re very frank about that. It’s also got no conditions – this is controversial. It’s supposed to have quick results – this is why they use a lot of Chinese labor (in Africa),” she explains.

Sun says Chinese aid to Africa has two key elements: “The first is no political strings attached. And the second is…we try to do the utmost within our capacity to help Africa…We fully respect the wills of the African countries. Each time we implement the projects through friendly negotiations.”

In China, says Brautigam, aid is merely one part of an economic relationship with Africa that is focused on commerce and business.

Since the 1980’s, Chinese aid projects in Africa have tended to evolve into trade projects, she explains. Chinese workers have provided aid and then remained behind upon completion of the project to provide a platform for Chinese companies to bid for state contracts.

“What happens is that the Chinese aid teams that constructed the stadiums and other things stay behind and they retain their equipment, so they are well positioned to start bidding on government contracts,” Brautigam explains. 

Another controversial aspect of China’s evolving presence in Africa is the country’s provision of cheap labor to African countries - Mauritius, for example, has hired Chinese workers for its factories, to the exclusion of local workers. 

“We take advantage of our low cost, cheap materials, technology and cheap labor to maximize our efficiency of aid (to Africa),” Sun maintains.

But the “dumping” of cheap Chinese goods and labor upon African economies has bred increasing resentment of China in some parts of the continent.   

Sun says the criticism is the result of “misunderstanding.” She understands all the “sudden focus” on China’s involvement in Africa as follows: “Some people are curious. Some people are interested. Some people have prejudices. And some people fear for their domination in this regard, and they fear that the alternative constitutes competition.”

But Prof. Ian Taylor, who studies Chinese foreign policy at the Department of International Relations at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says the rejection of criticism of China’s policies in Africa on the basis that it’s “simply jealousy by Westerners” and based upon hypocrisy because of the West’s previous colonial domination and exploitation of Africa “misses the point, because it’s not only Westerners who are raising concerns: It’s more and more Africans themselves.”

Taylor says “serious” political leaders, civil society and media in Africa are increasingly beginning to criticize China’s behavior on the continent.

But the Executive Director of Nigeria’s Centre for Law and Social Action, Ndubisi Obiorah, says “fierce critiques” of China’s involvement in Africa are often perceived by people on the continent as being motivated by the West’s fear of losing its traditional influence over Africa and losing access to natural resources.

“Some of these less rational critiques have the effect of sort of driving Africans into China’s arms; the attitude (in Africa) is: If the West is against it, then there must be something good in it,” says Obiorah.      

But US businesswoman, Carolyn Harper, says the criticism of China’s “rush” into Africa is often valid. She has regular contact with African enterprises, and says their managers often complain to her about “poor practices” and “unfair competition” by their Chinese counterparts.    

“I’m hearing bad reports from my African sisters and brothers, that (the Chinese) are stealing from them; (the Chinese) are fighting them from getting their own fish out of the water…They (Africans) have to import fish from the US of A, because they have to fight the Chinese to get the fish out of their own waters,” Harper says.  

Sun responds that China is a “sovereign state, and we have legitimate national interests for development. When we pursue business in Africa, it’s to maximize benefits on both sides.”  

She reiterates that China has a legitimate right to try to feed and “develop” a population of 1.3 billion people, but agrees that this shouldn’t be achieved at the expense of Africa.  

“What we engage with Africa is indeed a win-win policy, and it’s a win-win model, and we do not want to do anything…detrimental to Africans’ interest, that is why China is so popular on the African continent nowadays,” Sun maintains.

But China is not popular in some parts of Africa, according to Kurlantzick – particularly in southern Africa.   

“(In southern Africa) you have a kind of explosive mix of powerful trade union movements – particularly in South Africa and to some extent in Zambia; (there are) perceptions that Chinese companies have poor labor and environmental policies. It (China) has significant investments in dangerous sectors like mining, and a substantial amount of Chinese aid. You have the potential for a very explosive situation.”

In some cases in Africa, anti-Chinese feeling has found expression in violence. In October last year, rioters attacked Chinese people and businesses in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, after local police had opened fire on mineworkers who were protesting against poor working conditions in Chinese-owned mines in the country. The political opposition had also accused China of exploitation and turning Zambia into a “dumping ground” for Chinese “slave labor.” In the past few years, more than 30,000 Chinese nationals have moved into Lusaka, where the riot took place. During President Hu’s visit to Zambia in February, miners and retrenched textile workers continued their anti-China protests.

The demonstrations offered more evidence of growing resentment in Africa about the use of imported Chinese labor in factories and mines across the continent. China ships immigrants to Africa to work on large-scale construction projects, at textile mills and mines. For Chinese corporations operating in Africa, there are many benefits to this - including exemption from local labor and wage legislation and a workforce that can easily be fired and sent back home.

In Nigeria, China has received a lot of bad press as a result of poor working conditions in Chinese-owned factories. Workers have been processing metal ores without essential masks to protect them from noxious susbstances. There’ve been discharges of gas from Chinese factories in Lagos, which have also pumped poisonous effluent into rivers. 

But a Kenyan businessman based in the US, Ronald Kamau, says Africans are “overwhelmingly” happy that China is providing an alternative to the “unidirectional” option of international trade and commerce presented by the West.

A compatriot of Kamau’s, Kevin Kihara, who’s studying economics at a college in Washington D.C., agrees.

“Africa is just interested in business; we’re not interested in anything else…What Africans want is business and development; we want a better life. So we just want to find out, where can we get more Chinese businesses?”   

Obiorah says Kihara’s opinion mirrors that of the majority of Nigerian businesspeople, who give little consideration to reports of poor labor practices by Chinese-owned enterprises - unless they’re directly affected themselves, - and who pay even less attention to allegations that China is fomenting human rights abuses in Africa. 

“The word China does not evoke Darfur or Zimbabwe; the first thing that comes to mind for Nigerian businesspeople when you mention China, is business. The see China as a source of cheap consumer goods, of cheap and cost effective manufacturing technology, of cheap and cost effective expatriate technicians,” Obiorah explains.    

Sun says China is not forcing anything on Africa, that it supports “good business practice” in its enterprises on the continent and that it’s dedicated to the economic benefit of all Africans.

But Taylor disputes this.

“Things have been said like: The Chinese will listen to Africa’s will and promote socioeconomic development. Well, my take on that is that actually there’s a contradiction there because when we talk about state to state relationships particularly in Africa, (China is) not listening to the African people’s wills; (China is) listening to African elites’ wills; their interests and inclinations are extremely different to what the ordinary citizens’ might be.”

Taylor says there’s “considerable evidence” that Chinese policies – for example, non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, “make life worse for many Africans.”  

But, having said this, Taylor believes that China is “simply acting in a pragmatic and self-interested manner and following its own understanding of particular concepts, such as human rights, sovereignty and non-interference. The problem is not necessarily Beijing, but is to be found in the nature of many African nations.”

In a similar vein, Kurlantzick asserts that if the Chinese are indeed guilty of widespread abuse with regard to their business interests in Africa, then it’s up to African leaders to act, by means of laws and regulations, to protect their people against such exploitation and abuse. 

Nevertheless, asserts Taylor, China has a responsibility in its engagement with Africa.

“If China’s leaders are genuine in their belief that Chinese engagement with Africa will not repeat the crimes of European colonizers, then engaging without damaging remains the fundamental challenge to China’s Africa policies.” 

China often says it doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past – yet through its support of “gangs of crooks” in Africa, this is precisely what it’s doing, according to Taylor. 

Sun reaffirms China’s support for Africa’s efforts to “strengthening democracy, to strengthening rule of law and practicing good governance” but she once again emphasizes that China won’t “force any political systems on Africa as a precondition for our aid.”

Taylor, though, is convinced that China will soon learn that it cannot promote “long-term mutual benefit” and “win-win situations” in an environment where it’s engaging with “illegitimate states, whose policies promote instability, economic underdevelopment and political autocracy.”

But he does see “encouraging signs” that China is becoming a “lot more sensitive” in its engagements with countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

In recent visits to Africa, Chinese leaders have avoided Zimbabwe, and when President Hu visited Khartoum, he asked President Omar al-Bashir for a speedy resolution to the Darfur crisis – which is the closest Beijing has yet come to “interference” in the affairs of a sovereign state, observers say.

In the near future, Taylor foresees that Beijing will move away from the “rhetoric of win-win situations and mutual benefit,” to a China that is truly dedicated to true economic development for all, not just the elites of Africa.

“At the moment, it appears that China is actively undermining human security in Africa – either deliberately, in cases like Sudan - or by default. But I’m very hopeful that China’s policies towards Africa are evolving and maturing, and that we’ll see positive developments in the future.”         


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