Why Africa welcomes the ‘new colonialism’

OPINION – Beijing is enjoying its burgeoning power. But it should tread carefully: the African continent has a habit of frustrating grand plans

As the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, meets African leaders at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Sharm el-Sheikh today he will look back with some satisfaction on what has happened since the great meeting in Beijing three years ago when 48 out of Africa’s 53 rulers walked up the red carpet of the Great Hall of the People to shakes hands with him and President Hu Jintao. Since that symbolic moment of friendship — or obeisance — trade with Africa has doubled from $50 billion to more than $100 billion, exceeding China’s own predictions. China may overtake the EU as Africa’s biggest trading partner before long.

Since that symbolic moment of friendship — or obeisance — trade with Africa has doubled from $50 billion to more than $100 billion, exceeding China’s own predictions. China may overtake the EU as Africa’s biggest trading partner before long.

China is already the most powerful outside player in Africa. It assiduously courted Africa’s 53 leaders for their votes as part of its policy to thwart Taiwan’s quest to join the UN. Only four countries have not succumbed to Beijing’s lure and now it feels politically strong enough to challenge the West in Africa. The tipping point was July 12, 2008, the day that China vetoed a British and American resolution at the UN that would have imposed a ban on arms sales on Zimbabwe and a travel ban on its rulers. When Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary he said in a casual reference to China in Africa: “Welcome to the new colonialism.” The Chinese were so angry they cut all contact with the UK on African issues for a year. China is ready to demonstrate its new power there.

Economically China’s thirst for raw materials and oil has been good news for the continent, driving up its average annual growth rate to 5.4 per cent in the decade before the crash. For the first time millions of Africans can afford watches, new shirts, radios, even mobile phones, thanks to cheap Chinese goods — though clothes exports from China devastated South Africa’s textile industry. And to obtain sweet deals on raw materials, China wooed African rulers with grand infrastructure projects and promises of aid.

Despite the recession — and a resulting 30 per cent drop in the value of Africa-China trade this year — Chinese investment and aid have continued and Mr Wen may announce today increased aid to Africa to show China is not a fair-weather friend. Much of what Beijing calls aid is cheap credit to Chinese companies investing in Africa, but these companies are now being pushed away by state backers and told to find commercial lenders. Despite the fall-off in trade, China’s direct investment in Africa is expected to grow by nearly 80 per cent this year and now represents nearly a tenth of China’s total overseas direct investment. Unlike the short future time-frame of Western countries, Chinese companies plan to a 30-year horizon.

Many see China’s engagement in Africa as a catastrophe for the continent. There is a widespread perception that saintly Britain had adopted this poor little girl called Africa and was busy saving her from hunger, war, disease and poverty. Suddenly big, greedy China, flashing huge deals and cheap goods, has seduced the girl and is leading her astray, even raping her. And to make it worse for Britain, ungrateful Africa sometimes feels that although Chinese intentions may not be entirely honourable, China at least treats her like a grown up.

African leaders do not necessarily love China, but its ambassadors do not lecture them about elections, corruption, transparency and human rights. They welcome its non- interfering, government-to- government approach. China’s presence allows these leaders to play off East and West and push against the demands of Western donors, the IMF and the World Bank.

When Westerners complain about China’s behaviour the Chinese point to the state of Africa and ask why it is still so poor after centuries of trade and Western influence, including some 60 years of colonialism.

These days China’s desperate search for mineral deals can lead it into the sort of mistakes the West made in the past. In Guinea, for example. Last year the thuggish army captain, Moussa Dadis Camara, seized power on the death of President Lansana Conté. In September his presidential guard shot and killed at least 150 opposition demonstrators — an action condemned by regional governments and the African Union, which promptly imposed sanctions.

Yet days later one of Camara’s ministers announced that a $7 billion deal had been struck with China. Its International Development Fund agreed to buy oil and mining concessions in return for building roads and railways. Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing insisted that this was a Hong Kong-based fund with no formal ties to the Chinese Government. Yet it operates in Angola and other African countries with the diplomatic support of Beijing.

In places such as Guinea and Sudan, the Chinese may have to learn the hard way that secret deals with governments — especially coup leaders — will not protect their investments or benefit Africa’s development. The Chinese want stability and consistency, but they will find that African governments can rarely deliver these. Although you may have official permission and may find Africa welcoming at first, it has ways of tripping up hungry newcomers, frustrating their grand plans. You have to learn how to operate in Africa’s culture and hidden power structures.

Western countries cannot lecture China on behaving better in Africa. Prickly China is too defensive and the West’s own past makes hectoring unproductive. But Western countries, Britain in particular, do have in-depth knowledge and experience of Africa and could offer insights that China may welcome. The Department for International Development has already started to talk to the Chinese on such issues.

On democracy and respect for human rights, it is up to the British and Americans to try to persuade the Chinese that only these will create what they call stability and consistency in Africa’s fragile states. China may not adopt these virtues at home, but it may learn that in Africa they are essential.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles