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.

Although a few countries, such as Nigeria, had developed their oil and gas sectors, many African nations’ fields remained untapped, as they did in Sudan, where the political risk was such that Western oil companies didn’t dare go there, and feared the consumer backlash that investment would bring. More than 80 per cent of new global oil reserves discovered between 2001 and 2004 are in West Africa. China’s demand for oil has doubled over the past decade, and by 2015, it will probably be the world’s largest consumer of oil, gas, timber and most metals. And since the Chinese Communist Party has essentially abandoned all ideology – one visit to a frenzied street market in Shanghai would convince any observer that Communism died long ago – its only legitimacy rests on continued high rates of economic growth. Any energy shortfall threatens that growth. Any decline in growth threatens the Party. Yet in the summer, major Chinese cities often suffer from electricity blackouts, shutting down factories.

According to Erica Downs, an energy analyst at the Brookings Institution who closely follows debate within the Chinese leadership, Beijing believes that it cannot trust world markets for long-term supplies of oil, gas, minerals and other commodities, since the US controls global sea lanes. China has limited domestic petroleum reserves, and cannot match the long-standing relationships that the US has with Arab oil producers. What China’s leaders fear, in Downs’s view, is that, in the event of a conflict between Washington and Beijing, the US could stop China from obtaining supplies. China must therefore control stakes in the oil, gas and other resources to be found in foreign nations, and win the trust of those states. In the long run, most energy analysts believe, China wants to control the entire process of resource extraction in Africa, from taking commodities out of the ground to shipping them back to China.

Those who lead African opinion may know little about China, but they know plenty about the West: decades of loans linked to stringent conditions for economic reform (the ‘Washington Consensus’) that failed to produce sustainable growth; billions of dollars given in aid, yet much of it on condition that it be spent on contracts with companies based in the donor country; hundreds of lectures on human rights while France, the US and Britain engaged with dictators across the continent. For a time in the 1970s, France infamously stood behind Bokassa, the leader of the Central African Republic, who crowned himself ‘emperor’ and dined on the bodies of his opponents. Much of the current US relationship with Africa is based on counterterrorism programmes; Washington has cultivated the repressive leaders of Ethiopia and has even contemplated improving its relations with Sudan’s intelligence service. For decades, Western leaders have paid attention to Africa only when it suffered miseries that trickled onto CNN and the BBC, and Western expatriates have descended on Africa armed with PowerPoint presentations, Land Rovers, business class tickets on South African Airways, and suitcases full of Purell hand sanitiser.

Many African states were looking for a new model of development, and a partner among the major powers that would treat Africa as a priority, not as a continent to be ignored except in times of humanitarian emergency. Eisenman, Heginbotham and Mitchell show how Chinese leaders play on the African demand for respect. Win-win co-operation is to be the basis of the relationship; there will be no interference in any country’s domestic affairs; after all, as a developing nation itself, China is uniquely suited to understanding African concerns. In a speech in South Africa, Hu likened the foreign powers that preyed on China in the 19th and 20th centuries to the colonial and racist regimes that Africans have suffered under. In its most recent white paper on relations with Africa, the Chinese Foreign Ministry tried to present its policies as the opposite of those of the West, which, as Barry Sautman puts it in his analysis of the white paper, ‘ignored African aspirations for a more equitable international distribution of wealth and power’. China, as it presents itself to African nations, would be more willing to help them acquire the technology and skills they need to develop, and to earn some of the wealth that industrialised nations now possess.

Firoze Manji and Stephen Marks’s book, the first attempt in recent years to examine African views of China, makes clear that there is hunger in Africa for a new partner. Though they are cautious about the negative impact of China’s rise, and wary of the way China treats its own activists, many contributors to the book find it hard to restrain their envy of Beijing. ‘Because it has not depended on aid to the same extent as Africa, [China] has achieved impressive development,’ Moreblessings Chidaushe writes. ‘It is no wonder Africa is ready to embrace engagement with China.’

In China, a nation that shunned the Washington Consensus in favour of its own version of development (export-centred, state-directed economic liberalisation without political reform), African states may find a model. A first-time African visitor to Shanghai would see how, in just twenty years, China has built an urban area comparable to the old colonial capitals of London or Paris. ‘You are an example of transformation,’ Marc Ravalomanana, the president of Madagascar, told Chinese leaders in Shanghai in May. ‘We in Africa must learn from your success.’ And presumably they will: China now trains 3000 African officials a year.

Chinese policy-makers seem to recognise that they are decades away from challenging America’s military power, in Africa and around the world; and although Beijing does not necessarily plan to avoid a conflict with the US, for now at least it seems willing to downplay its hard power. So while the US has increased its military contacts on the African continent since 9/11 through the Pan-Sahel Initiative, an African counterterrorism training programme that works closely with local armed forces, Beijing, which has over $1 trillion in currency reserves, has developed one of the biggest aid programmes. It has offered some $6 billion in assistance to Angola alone, a major oil producer and thus a key target, though it is difficult to tell how much of this money comes as commercial and how much as concessional loans. China also has taken advantage of African complaints about Western trade barriers: Beijing has no tariffs on exports of some raw materials, including oil, from Africa’s 25 poorest nations. China’s new, more savvy diplomats – a report in 2005 found that half the members of China’s foreign service were 35 or younger – take pains to advertise Beijing’s largesse, implicitly contrasting it to Western stinginess.

China no longer spends its aid money only on sports stadiums. As the US once did by creating the Peace Corps, it has begun to emphasise personal contact, funding anti-malaria clinics and launching a programme to bring idealistic young volunteers to teach Chinese or help farmers. Nearly 18,000 Africans have received scholarships to study in China, the Chinese government has started to support Chinese-language studies in Africa, and Beijing has run an ‘Understanding China’ symposium for African diplomats. China has even created ‘Confucius Institutes’, which offer courses in Chinese language and culture at leading universities in cities like Nairobi. The pool of African students heading to China probably includes some of the continent’s future political leaders, who once would have gone to the LSE, the University of Chicago or Sciences Po.

And, while Western donors long ago gave up funding new infrastructure in Africa, fearing criticism by environmental groups, China seems willing to fund any road, rail, port or dam African nations can design, including the massive Mepanda Nkua dam in Mozambique and a new railway across Nigeria. China finances these projects with few conditions: nothing is said about the environment or about graft; the only stipulation is that Chinese contractors be used. China’s voracious demand for resources has given commodity-dependent African states a new lease on life, as Harry Broadman and his colleagues at the World Bank reveal. Many African nations squandered the commodity boom of the 1960s and 1970s on prestige projects and fleets of Mercedes. China is now giving them a second chance. It also offers them a chance to reduce Africa’s crippling trade deficits by exporting resources to China. Though Africa’s share of world exports plummeted after independence, its exports to Asia are now growing by nearly 20 per cent a year, and the continent currently trades as much with Asia as with Europe.

Large, state-linked companies handle much of China’s investment in African resources, and thanks to the support they get from the state-linked banks, they have an advantage over Western firms. The Export-Import Bank helps finance projects in Africa that have no commercial rationale, but serve China’s strategic interests. That isn’t the whole story, however. The loosening of restrictions on emigration from China has created a wave of small traders moving to Africa, including as many as a hundred thousand in South Africa alone. They often rely on family members to staff their stores and ship their goods, and tolerate higher degrees of political risk than European or American firms. So it should not come as a surprise to find Chinese companies setting up shops in Liberia or opening hotels in Sierra Leone, hoping to lure holidaymakers to a country better known for images of drugged-out child soldiers. Many of these Chinese entrepreneurs live like locals, and sell cheap products, such as low-end electronics or textiles. Some even sleep in their stalls at outdoor markets, ready to open the shop at dawn.

When Hu Jintao made his first trip to Africa, in 2004, China seemed unable to do wrong on the continent, making deal after deal: a $2.5 billion stake in one of Nigeria’s offshore petroleum fields; a $1.5 billion pact to upgrade Ethiopia’s telecommunications system; investment in Angola that allowed China to more than double the amount of oil it received from that country between 2001 and 2005. Polls in South Africa showed that more than 60 per cent saw China as a positive influence, which was a higher figure than those who viewed the United States favourably. In 2005, Senegal, a leader of Francophone Africa, switched diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. Hu received the type of welcome and access that was once reserved for American or French leaders, and Beijing sent some six hundred peacekeeping troops to Liberia.

The president of the African Development Bank, the continent’s major lending institution, urged his colleagues to study the way China developed, while Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, argued that Africa should build a ‘strong developmental state’ like Beijing. ‘Non-intervention is our brand, like intervention is the Americans’ brand,’ Manji and Marks report one Chinese minister as boasting.

With virtually no concrete information about China’s activities in Africa, the State Department, the World Bank, France’s Foreign Ministry and others scrambled to get up to speed. In 2004, I found virtually no interest among American policymakers in China’s Africa policies; in 2006, it seemed as if I was being invited to a conference on China’s interests in Africa nearly every week. ‘It’s so trendy, it’s unbelievable,’ one expert on the oil industry said to me, speaking about China in Africa as if it were the latest handbag.

Since 9/11, a loose alliance of conservative policy-makers and oil companies have been promoting West Africa as an emerging source of petroleum for America. (Hence Condoleezza Rice making nice with the dictator of Equatorial Guinea.) China’s new interest in countries like Nigeria, they warned, threatened American oil firms. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think-tank, suggested the US prepare for a potential conflict with China over Africa. (As China’s influence on the continent grew, the Pentagon launched Africa Command, a new department in the US military.) Others offered more rational advice. Bates Gill, Chin-hao Huang and J. Stephen Morrison, in a series of recommendations produced for another Washington think-tank, suggested that, as the world’s two leading oil consumers, China and America share vital interests, and should institutionalise closer co-operation on energy issues in Africa.

The World Bank and other lenders expressed different fears. Paul Wolfowitz argued that Chinese loans to Africa could threaten the World Bank and IMF’s recent arrangement to forgive billions of African debt. Chinese investment, other Bank officials privately complained, could contribute to environmental destruction, poor labour standards or rampant graft, since China does not liaise with other donors to make sure aid money is spent according to international standards. On the contrary, the state-dominated business model preferred by Beijing makes corruption more likely. In Angola, one of the most corrupt nations on earth, Chinese financing worth some $6 billion allowed the regime to avoid having to deal with the IMF, which would have insisted that assistance be delivered transparently, making benefits more likely to trickle down to the vast underclass living on mountains of raw sewage in Luanda.

By the spring of 2007, China’s charm offensive had begun to sour. Hu may have received standing ovations as he made vast promises of aid, trade and investment and shook the hands of leaders from Liberia to Sudan. But he also faced one popular protest after another. In both South Africa and Namibia, for example, the press attacked the labour policies of Chinese firms. Several months after his trip, the Ogaden National Liberation Front launched an attack on a Chinese oil exploration area in eastern Ethiopia, killing nine Chinese workers and kidnapping seven others. The Front warned Beijing ‘to refrain from entering into agreements with the Ethiopian government’ and suggested that China, which had once been on the side of Africans, was now no different from the old colonial powers. Militants in the Niger Delta issued similar warnings and in January kidnapped a group of Chinese labourers. In Zambia, Angola and elsewhere, the press began reporting small-scale incidents of violence against Chinese migrants. The attacks did not seem to have much impact; one leader of Sinopec, the company operating in Ethiopia, told reporters: ‘There is no way we will withdraw from our projects there.’

What happened between Hu’s two trips? As Manji and Marks document, African civil society, which gave China an initial period of grace, began to make its voice heard, especially in southern Africa, which boasts vibrant trade unions, newspapers and activist groups. ‘In the name of non-interference, China justifies doing business with pariah states and dictators, which also means that civil society and the citizenry cannot hold them accountable for flaunting [sic] environmental and labour laws,’ John Blessing Karumbidze observes.

Though they often detest the World Bank and other citadels of Western power, many of these activists realise that the conditions Western lenders impose on African governments do help to ensure that the money reaches beyond the big men and their drivers. China’s assistance to Angola has allowed the country’s autocrats to put off elections, infuriating the opposition. And that assistance rarely includes any assessment of the impact of the schemes it funds: a coalition of Mozambican NGOs argues that China’s funding of dams in Mozambique could prove extremely destructive to the environment. Militants in Ethiopia and Nigeria accuse Chinese companies of obtaining African resources while refusing to employ or train local people, and these complaints quickly make their way onto African websites. In colonial times, it would take months for stories of colonial atrocities to travel overland to the liberal European press; in the era of the internet, abuses get reported immediately.

Then there is Darfur. By building a critical oil pipeline and investing some $10 billion in Sudan, China has become the major patron of the ruinous Khartoum government. For three years after the genocide in Darfur began, China used its seat on the Security Council to blunt and block any international pressure on Khartoum. Slowly, China’s position is changing, and not only because it now faces a global campaign to link Darfur to the 2008 Olympics. There are some signs that Beijing is beginning to realise that, as it becomes a global power, it will be held responsible if it does not intervene in times of crisis. This spring a Chinese envoy visited refugee camps and publicly attempted to push Khartoum to allow in a peacekeeping force. China then named a special envoy to Darfur.

Some African policy-makers feel embarrassed that the world continues to judge the continent by its worst leaders, like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who also luxuriates in China’s support. During the run-up to Zimbabwe’s last national election, China offered the government riot gear and jamming devices to use against the opposition’s radio signal. ‘We have turned East where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets,’ Mugabe crowed. In the past year, however, Chinese officials are said to have chastised Zimbabwean officials in private. ‘China realises these countries are ruining its image, and what China wants is international respect,’ said one longtime observer of China’s Africa policies. ‘They can get this respect by acting in places like Sudan.’

Then again, some Chinese leaders clearly fear departing from their policy of non-interference. Even as China considered a tougher line towards Sudan, Beijing laid out the money to build Omar al-Bashir a new palace, while ignoring African NGOs seeking a dialogue with Chinese officials. ‘There is in all of Africa no more destructive bilateral relationship than that between China and Sudan,’ argues Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan.

In all likelihood China will be neither a saviour nor a destroyer. Some African opinion leaders have realised that it does not really stand for a different model. ‘Non-interference’ is not a value so much as a thin shield for old-fashioned realpolitik. China, like any other major power, generally puts its own strategic interests first. If its clients prove too embarrassing, it will restrain them, just as the United States once dumped Mobutu Sese Seko, when his taste for champagne, diamonds and bloodshed proved too embarrassing. Yet if China’s interests are better served by protecting rogues, it will protect them. If Chinese companies can get away with destroying Africa’s environment and paying little attention to its workers, they probably will. If they cannot – because local activists or consumers call them on it, or because it affects their sales in Africa and the West – perhaps they won’t.

Like the Western powers, China seems set to traffic in whatever images of Africa suit it: before the 2006 China-Africa summit in Beijing, Chinese officials plastered the city with posters of tribal warriors and lions that might have been taken from the National Geographic fifty years ago. Like the colonial powers, China will buy Africa’s resources and sell it manufactured products, regardless of whether Africa manages to produce anything that China wants to buy or succeeds in using China’s largesse to upgrade its own industries. ‘The key must be mutual benefit,’ Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s finance minister, told a group of Chinese officials. ‘Otherwise we might end up with a few holes in the ground where the resources have been extracted, and all the added value will be in China.’

Last summer, when the main opposition leader in Zambia, infuriated by the deaths in the explosives factory, made Chinese investment an issue in the presidential election, the Chinese Embassy threatened to break off relations with Zambia if he was elected. Hardly a model of non-interference.