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China in Africa

29 March 2006
Rory Carroll has an excellent article in Tuesday's Guardian on China's growing influence in Africa. In the past six years, Carroll writes, 500 Chinese funded companies have arrived in Africa, and trade between the two has almost quadrupled. Currently, China is the continent's third largest trading partner, ahead of Britain and catching up with France and the US.

Through its ever-expanding commercial interests in Africa, China has demonstrated a total disregard for human rights.

At a time when no Western government would touch Zimbabwe with a ten-foot pole, China supplied Robert Mugabe's regime with military equipment, interest-free loans, T-shirts for his youth militia, and a radio jammer to disrupt opposition broadcasts. It even tiled the roof of his mansion for free.

For all of this, it has gained access to Zimbabwe's gold and platinum resources.

In 2004, as Ben Schiller  has written in Open Democracy, the Chinese offered Angola a loan of $2 million for infrastructure projects. The IMF had been in negotiations with Angola prior to this, and had offered a loan with provisions to make sure corruption was tackled (Transparency International  has rated Angola as one of the most corrupt countries in the world), and with conditions of economic management. The Chinese loan had no such stipulations. Global Witness complained that this loan lacked transparency, while Africa Confidential reported that part of it would most likely be used to fund the government's reelection campaign in 2006.

According to Sahr Johnny, Sierra Leone's ambassador to Beijing, the Chinese are easier to deal with than their western counterparts. Since the end of Sierra Leone's civil war in 2002, the Chinese have built the new parliament, military headquarters, other government buildings, and a football stadium in the capital, Freetown. "We like Chinese investment because we have one meeting, we discuss what they want to do, and then they just do it," says Johnny. "There are no benchmarks and preconditions, no environmental impact assessment. If a G8 country had offered to rebuild the stadium, we'd still be having meetings about it."

Once again, this experience illustrates one of the big problems international NGOs have with Chinese business deals in Africa: the lack of accountability.

A far worse example of where the pursuit of naked self-interest supersedes human rights is taking place in Sudan. China is now Sudan's most important trading partner, taking 60% of the country's oil. Chinese companies have invested around $2 billion there, despite the international pressure that has come down on the Khartoum government over its facilitation of genocide in Darfur. (Although it should also be pointed out that France and Russia also opposed sanctions against Sudan over Darfur, because of their own interests.)

Despite all the (often-justifiable) criticism levelled at US foreign policy, it's worth imagining a world in which China, and not the US, is the sole global superpower.  If the Chinese experience in Africa is anything to go by, this paints a deeply unpleasant picture.

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