Beijing Envy

Joshua Kurlantzick

  • China and Africa: Engagement and Compromise by Ian Taylor
    Routledge, 233 pp, £75.00, August 2006, ISBN 0 415 39740 5
  • China and the Developing World: Beijing’s Strategy for the 21st Century edited by Joshua Eisenman, Eric Heginbotham and Derek Mitchell
    Sharpe, 232 pp, $29.95, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 7656 1713 2
  • China’s African Policy
    Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, January 2006
  • China’s Expanding Role in Africa: Implications for the United States by Bates Gill, Chin-hao Huang and J. Stephen Morrison
    Centre for Strategic and International Studies, February 2007
  • Friends and Interests: China’s Distinctive Links with Africa by Barry Sautman
    Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, April 2006
  • African Perspectives on China in Africa edited by Firoze Manji and Stephen Marks
    Fahamu, 174 pp, £11.95, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 9545637 3 8
  • Africa’s Silk Road: China and India’s New Economic Frontier by Harry Broadman
    World Bank, 391 pp, $20.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 8213 6835 4

Earlier this year, the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, went on a 12-day tour of Africa. In Zambia he announced that China would build an economic co-operation zone in the country that would attract $800 million of investment. Zambia’s former president, Kenneth Kaunda, received him personally, and the Chinese president delivered his usual speech: ‘China is happy to have Zambia as a good friend, good partner, and a good brother.’

Two years earlier, around fifty Zambians were killed in an accident at an explosives factory that supplied a Chinese-owned copper mine. Protesters had afterwards demanded better safety conditions and higher salaries: they earned roughly £35 a month, less than the minimum wage. Armed with tree trunks, they marched to the company’s gates, but no supervisor came to negotiate with them. Instead, guards opened fire. Demonstrators then took to the streets of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, where they targeted Chinese-owned businesses and held a rally outside the Chinese Embassy.

Hu had planned to visit Zambia’s copper-producing region, where he was to lay the cornerstone of a new stadium financed by Beijing. Probably, at the last moment, his advisers realised he might face protests of a kind Chinese leaders have not faced at home since 1989, and have little idea how to handle. Hu cancelled his trip. The protests shocked many Chinese policy-makers. ‘I don’t understand – why would they attack Chinese businesses?’ one Chinese scholar asked me. ‘Why would anyone hate them?’

As Ian Taylor notes in China and Africa, the People’s Republic has had substantial relations with sub-Saharan Africa since at least the early 1950s. Back then, Beijing chose allies for ideological reasons. For a time, it supported the African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid rule. It funded leftist rebels in Congo, and used the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania to propagate socialism to the many liberation movements.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, China retreated from the world. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late 1970s, he asked his countrymen to focus on domestic development. China should ‘keep a low profile and never take the lead’ on global issues, he warned. Beijing wasn’t strong enough to expose itself by taking a world leadership role. Deng pulled back China’s diplomats and cut off subsidies to leftists around the world. The sports stadiums and railways China had built across Africa in the 1950s and 1960s rusted and warped.

But in the past five years, China has re-emerged as a force in Africa, and may soon be the most important foreign power on the continent. At a summit in Shanghai in May, Chinese leaders promised a further $20 billion to Africa, though it is unclear whether this is intended to take the form of aid or commercial loans. China’s trade with Africa has been rising by 50 per cent a year, and Chinese peacekeepers now serve there. Senior Chinese leaders have been making two visits a year to Africa (George Bush has not visited the continent during his second term), and last November nearly every African leader attended a major summit in Beijing.

China’s poor labour standards, environmental policies and human rights failings were once issues only for people in China. Now, however, Chinese leaders find themselves under fire for their relationship with the government of Sudan, among others, attacked by locals in Africa because of Chinese companies’ poor safety standards, and criticised by Western and African leaders for their enormous demand for African resources. Some of these criticisms seem churlish. After all, the United States, France and Britain haven’t got much of a record of supporting human rights in Africa. Only last year Condoleezza Rice warmly welcomed the leader of Equatorial Guinea, a petrostate where the security forces reportedly gang-rape prisoners and the elite squirrels money away in Washington bank accounts while half the population lives in poverty. As China becomes the first nation since the Soviet Union to challenge America’s pre-eminence, what kind of power will it be?

China’s breakneck economic growth has made the Chinese public feel more confident, and over the past decade intellectuals have been calling for the country to play a larger role in global affairs. The education system was revamped after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, with the aim of inculcating nationalism, and bestselling books touting China’s strength and questioning the ‘cultural colonialism’ of the West have reinforced the nationalist mindset. Meanwhile, China’s leadership was becoming more confident. Until the mid-1990s, the generation that had grown up around Mao still dominated the country. But this generation died, or was forcibly retired, and a new generation rose to power, one whose members had been to university and had more experience overseas, as well as the ability and resources to develop sophisticated foreign policies.

In China and the Developing World, Joshua Eisenman, Eric Heginbotham and Derek Mitchell cogently explain why a more confident leadership has chosen to demonstrate its muscle – and its appeal – in parts of the developing world. Many recent books on China’s foreign policy simply list actions without attempting to divine a strategy. Eisenman, Heginbotham and Mitchell try to understand the reasons China’s leadership makes decisions, though they know that the country’s foreign policy remains a work in progress.

Compared with the United States, Europe and Japan, where the public acceptance of China plummeted after Tiananmen, Africa offers Beijing a blank slate. As Zhang Xizhen, who teaches international relations at Beijing University, has said: ‘Threatened and actual economic sanctions and international political isolation jeopardised our opening up and reform process. [We had] to strengthen relations with our neighbours and break out of the Western blockade.’ Chinese leaders must also have realised that Africa was a low priority for the United States. Not coincidentally, Africa also offered them a chance to undermine Taiwan, which still has five formal allies on the continent.

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