Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Chinese Soft Power in Africa

China, which, through state-run company Poly Technologies Inc (PTI), donated a swimming pool and sports complex to the armed forces of Ghana in 2011. As well as the Olympic-size pool, complete with sun loungers, there's a gym, with weights and cardio equipment, and a studio where soldiers and civilians mingle over step aerobics, the Tae Bo fitness system, a weight loss programme and African dance. There are tennis courts, seven-a-side football pitches, volleyball, beach volleyball and a restaurant run by the Southern Fried Chicken franchise.

The country's ability to host the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations was given a huge boost by a $100m (£65m) soft loan from China for new stadiums, and construction is about to begin on a stadium in the colonial-era capital Cape Coast in central Ghana, for which China donated $30m.

"China has offered to build our new 15,000-capacity stadium at Cape Coast, without asking for anything in return," says Michael Frimpong, director of public relations for Ghana's ministry of sport.

Nothing in return?
PTI, for example, is one of China's top three arms manufacturers. It is a subsidiary of the state-controlled outfit China Poly Group Corporation, based in Beijing. Critics accuse PTI of exporting weapons to repressive regimes such as Burma and Zimbabwe, which paves the way for resource extraction by Chinese-owned firms.

And there is more to Ghana's relationship with PTI than treadmills and abdominal crunches. In 2011, a month before the new complex was completed, Ghana commissioned two 46-metre patrol vessels worth almost $40m from the company. Ghana has also entered into high-profile bilateral agreements with China such as a $10bn loan for infrastructure projects and a $3bn loan for its oil and gas sector. A source at the Chinese embassy said it had registered more than 300 Chinese companies that have opened an office in Ghana.
"China has a longstanding practice of offering package deals to countries in Africa," said David Shinn, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and co-author of China and Africa: A Century of Engagement. "They include very large concessionary loans that must be paid back, frequently with raw materials. These loans are often used to construct large infrastructure projects tied to Chinese companies and sometimes a component of Chinese labour. It is not unusual to include grants in kind [which] very often come in the form of a stadium, government building, or sports complex." Shinn adds: "In terms of the total package, the grants are usually a modest component and fall in the category of public relations. The idea is to garner good publicity for China."

The Chinese government has backed 1,700 projects on continent in 50 countries since 2000 in apparent attempt to win favour. $75bn (£48bn) on aid and development projects in Africa in the past decade (compared with $90bn the US committed over that period).

In Liberia, China has put millions towards the installation of solar traffic lights in Monrovia and financed a malaria prevention centre. In Mozambique, China's projects include a National School for Visual Arts in Maputo. In Algeria, construction has begun on a multimillion dollar 1,400-seat opera house in the Ouled Fayet suburbs of western Algiers. China has also sent thousands of doctors and teachers to work in Africa, welcomed many more students to learn in China or in Chinese language classes abroad and rolled out a continent-wide network of sports stadiums and concert halls.

The "China-Zambia Friendship Hospital" opened in August 2011 and includes casualty, dental and maternity wards as well as laboratories. It has 159 beds, treats 2,600 patients and delivers 260 babies each month on average. John Kachimba, medical superintendent and consultant urologist, said "I believe it was a gift from China. I think it was just a sign of friendship. They built this, they built a stadium in the copper belt." It was also certainly good PR, he says. "Looking at the hospital, your impression of them will be much better than looking at a mine with poor safety standards and controversy over wages. For them, the hospital is definitely a positive thing."

Many of the cultural and sporting projects across the continent are probably "upfront sweeteners" to win government favour, a "downpayment" for future commercial deals, suggests Stephen Chan, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Chinese medical teams have worked in Africa since 1963, but recently their objective has expanded to include promotion of China's pharmaceuticals such as antimalarials, according to Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said a combination of economic interests and the need to expand its political influence and improve its international image was driving Chinese health aid in Africa.

Last summer, the then Chinese president Hu Jintao announced an expansive aid programme that will offer 18,000 government scholarships and train 30,000 Africans "in various sectors" by 2015. China advertises these programmes as a kind-hearted diplomatic gesture – the terms "equality", "all-round co-operation" and "mutual gain" pepper its state media reports and programme descriptions. Experts say they're a calculated, long-term investment to win the hearts and minds of Africa's future leaders, many of whom fear China's investment in the continent may come with invisible strings attached. Mahamat Adam, a Cameroonian business consultant and former member of the China-Africa Business Council, said "It must be understood by the Africans, they are not there to do philanthropy or help, they are there to do business. The Chinese are here to work for us, but they're here for their own interests first."

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