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He Wenping: How Far Can China Go in Africa?

By: He Wenping, Director of African Studies ofInstitute of Western Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Source: People's Tribune at www.people.com.cn



China's soccer team did not make it toWorld Cup in South Africa, yet the "made-in-China"phenomenon seenon South African soccer fields still managed to leave a deep impression onmany people. From the small Vuvuzela to the major Chinese sponsor Yingli Group (a solar energy company), all seemed to have showcased the Chinese influence in Africa. And while the soccer games were still playing out, the press had already started to explore the greater political and economic significance of Africathe emerging market. Recently, the Time Magazine U.S. Edition published a long essay with a somewhat alarmist title - "China's Africa Gambit".The essay focused on how China exercised its influence in Africa and how in turn Africa also influenced China. From this point and with a sense of anxiety, the essay concluded that compared to the West China was taking a "Gambit" in Africa.

While the Western countries know Africa well, they do not stand with orspeak for Africa. China stands with Africa on many issues, but regrettably,China still does not know Africa well enough.

In the last decade, along with the rapid development of China-Africa relations, all sorts of opinions about China-Africa relations started to appear on the international press. There are negative voices like "China's neo-colonialism" and "Chinaisplundering African resources", and positive ones like "China is facilitating African development" and "China isa great opportunity" etc. So what development stage are China-Africa relations at? How great is China's actual influence in Africa? In other words, how farcan China go in Africa?

Inherent Advantage

Similar to measuring relations between people, we often use time and spaceinmeasuringrelations between countries. Compared to the West-Africa relations, China-Africa relations do not enjoy any advantage inthese two terms. As fortime, even though the earliest contact between China and Africa can be traced to Han dynasty around 200 BC, but the practical and regular contacts between China and Africa started only after 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded. Essentially, China-Africa contacts have spanned only 60 years. In contrast, the West has been present in Africa since 15thcentury, with hundreds of years of colonial rule. As a result, the West has left extensive and deep influence in Africa's political, economic and cultural spheres. Speaking of space, the West (especially European countries) is separated from Africa only by Mediterranean Sea, with many viewing Africa as their backyard. Many of this writer's friends are European scholars on African issues. When they talk about research trips to Africa, it sounds like a walk in the backyard for them, which they could perform with ease and freedom. Comparatively, China is separated from Africa by tens of thousands of miles. Many Chinese still viewAfrica as a distant and mysterious continent. Chinese scholars on African issues rarely have opportunities to do research in Africa. And when such an opportunity does arise, it is often sponsored by Western funding sources, and can only happen after a lengthyand difficult project validation and planning process.

Still, China and Africa share a common and painful history of sufferings under colonial invasions. Today in the modern era, they also share the goal of common development forsurvival and development in the West-dominantinternational order.More importantly, based on the principles of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, China-Africa relations have gonethrough the three stages of establishment, development and full-scale rapid progress in merely60 years. Today in the political arena, the frequent visits by senior officials on both sides plus the mutual support on major international and bilateral issues are strongly driving the establishment of the new type of China-Africa strategic partnership. In the economic arena, China-Africa trade volumehasaveraged a 35% annual growth in the last ten years, increasing from 10 billion U.S. dollars in 2000 to 106.8 billion U.S. dollars in 2008. Today China has overtaken theUnited States to become the second largest trading partner ofAfrica, second only to the European Union. Chinese investment to Africa has also grown from 50 million U.S. dollars in 2001 to an annual average of 1 billion U.S. dollars in recent years. Africa has also become the second largest engineering services contract marketfor China. According to statistics, there are nearly a million Chinese in Africa, with 1,600 Chinese enterprises doing business there. In the cultural and educational arena, Confucius Institutes have sprung up in Africa in increasing numbers with a mission to spread Chinese culture and promote cultural exchanges.African students studying and various African human resources training programs in China are also increasing dramatically...

Latest Opportunityfor Development

Naturally, the late-coming yet blossoming China-Africa relations have stirred up some excitement in Africa and alertin the West. In Africa, despite some negative commentsand coverage by the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and press, the mainstream viewispositive and constructive on China-Africa relations.Many of those with a vision recognize that different from the West, which grabbedAfrican resources for free over more thanhalf a century, thoughChina comes to Africa forextracting thenatural resources, ithas provided Africa with infrastructure development and large investment flow in exchange for the resources. China's participation in African affairs is the newest opportunity for African development (possibly the last historical opportunity), which Africa must seize and not miss. Even the ordinary people welcome the arrival of the Chinese in Africa, as theyhavedirect gainsfrom China's economic and trade activities as well as infrastructure development.

Naturally, the rapid development of China-Africa relations has made the Western countries jittery, as theystill view Africa as theirbackyard. Some Western politicians, mediaand NGOs put the Chinese government, enterprises or even individual businesspeople under scrutiny, focusing on every move and observing anypossible blemish ofthe Chinese in Africa. Some isolatedcases involving negative practices of Chinese enterprises areblown up as sweeping behavior of a nation. The normal operation of natural resources extractionisdescribed as "resourceplundering ". When Chinese enterprises participate in global competition and win bids with high efficiencyand lowcosts, they areaccused of "backroom dealing"or "receiving government support behind the scenes"etc. In addition, there are also allegations and criticisms against China's steadfast principle of non-interference in other countries' affairs, saying this principle is actually a disguisein support of "rogue" or "failed" states, not conducive tothe progress of "democracyandhuman rights causes oranti-totalitarianismand anti-corruption campaigns"advocatedby the Western countries in Africa.

For that alone, such condemnationofChina's principle of non-interference in other countries' affairs isfar-fetched and misplaced. Everycountry needs tostrive to achieve its own development. "Democracy", "human rights" and "good governance" are not houses to bebuilt on sand, and cannot be realized in a short period of time merely through catchy slogans and intensivepropaganda. They have tobe founded on economic development, rise of educational levels, development of rule of law, and growth of democratic values. The fact is China is striving to develop economic and trade cooperation in Africa, helping African countries in large scale infrastructure development, raising people's living standard, reducing poverty and vigorously developing African personnel training programs, which areall helping to buildan economic and human resources foundation for Africa to realize democracy and good governance. Africa's development path has tobe chosen by Africans.

How Far Can China Go in Africa?

While marveling at the great development of China-Africa relations today, we need tobeaware of the potential challenges and have a sense of crises. At present, we should clearly recognize that the rise of the trade volume does not equate to the synchronized rise of the economic competitiveness. In other words, trade structure, technical advancementin economic and trade cooperation, environment protection, capacity for sustainable development, and also thetraining and cultivation of a large numberof legal and other experts are all essential foreconomic competitiveness.To enhanceChina's political influence, economic competitiveness, moral appeal and diplomatic relationsin Africa, we still have a lot of potentialsto cultivate and a long way to go.

How far can China really go in Africa depends on how we deal with thesensitive issues inAfrica, such as strengthening management localization, local staff employment, textile competition,localinfant industryprotection, productqualityandraising corporate social responsibility in theChinese enterprises. The solution lies in how we respond to these concernsand how we can think from the African perspective whenentering Africa, fortruerealization ofmutual benefit and win-win.

Strengthening mutual understanding between Chinaand Africa is also an important factor in determining how far China can go in Africa. This writer went on a research trip to Zambia, Ethiopia and Ghana in September 2009. During this trip, some African scholars noted that due to hundreds of years of colonial history and an earlierstart inAfrican studies, the West hasconductedmore extensive and in-depth researcheson Africa. As a result, the West and Africa have better mutual understanding than between Chinaand Africa.At the same time, they also pointed out that while the Western countries know Africa well they do not stand with orspeak for Africa. While Chinastands with Africa on many issues, regrettably,China does not know Africa well enough.

Strengthening China-Africa mutual understanding is not something that can be done overnight. Instead it has tobefosteredgradually and activelyin both China and Africa. In China, a "China-Africa Research Fund" should be set up to support and promote institutions and individualsin African studies, so researchers can take their research to the target countries forobservation and research. In Africa, similar investment should be assignedto research institutions and think-tanks. Concerningthe African scholars who have studied in China and returned to their home countries particularly, efforts should be made to realize their full potential as a bridge between the two sides. It is only through continual strengthening of mutual understanding can the friendly relations between Chinaand Africa go further and further.

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