Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kind-hearted China ?

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, on a five-nation tour of Africa, insisted “I want to make clear one point, that is, China will never follow the track of western colonists and all cooperation with Africa will never come at the expense of the ecology, environment or long-term interests of Africa.” His remarks were made to Chinese Central Television while Wang was in Kenya, where Chinese firms are carrying out a $653m (£430m) expansion of the main airport in the capital, Nairobi.

A diplomatic cable, published via WikiLeaks in 2010 and not intended for public consumption, had an US official suggesting a less than altruistic purpose: “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons. China is in Africa for China primarily.”

 Richard Poplak, Daily Maverick correspondent and co-author of a forthcoming book examining China’s relationship with the continent, concurs.
“Those are wonderful sentiments, but they don't really stand up to scrutiny. On the many projects I've visited on the continent being built by Chinese state-owned enterprises – which is to say companies executing Chinese foreign policy whims – the environmental assessments have been poor or non-existent. For the foreign ministry's statements to have any resonance, Chinese state-owned enterprises need to transparently adhere to global best practices, or spare us the rhetoric. I'm not saying the Chinese are 'worse' than those from whom the foreign minister is distancing his country. I'm saying they're no better, until they prove otherwise.”

Ross Anthony, interim director of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Chinese Studies, who told the Daily Maverick that the lofty language doesn’t necessarily match China’s hard-nosed business approach. “Chinese defence against ‘neo-colonialism’ is nothing new; several Chinese presidents, ministers and ambassadors have been refuting this claim as long as (particularly) western critics have been making it,” said Anthony.

Even if we assume that there is no hint of neo-colonialism in China’s involvement in Africa, it does not necessarily follow that China’s motives are pure, nor that Africa will benefit from its presence here.

“What I have witnessed, from talks with academics and business people, is that the relation seems to be placed on a more equal level, on the basis of mutual interest,” commented Gaia Manco, a freelance journalist who splits her time between Johannesburg and Beijing, and who is a specialist on the China-Africa relationship. “The key interest is making business, and more precisely trade. So China might not be here to exploit [just] African resources, but they are certainly here to sell Chinese products and technology, and I will not expect Chinese business to care about any African long-term interest, such as the establishment of African factories and businesses. So yes, Chinese rulers and businesspeople might be right when they don't see themselves as colonialists, but does this mean a benefit for Africa in the end?”

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