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  • Aug 30, 2014
  • Updated: 4:19pm

China - the lesser of two evils for Africa?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2007, 12:00am

That the west, especially the United States, thinks it is in any position to criticise China's expanding investment and diplomacy in Africa - on moral and human rights grounds, of all things - is truly mind-boggling. It is beyond hypocrisy.

China's activities are, in many ways, problematic. But the west, through its history of state-sponsored terrorism, failed economic policies and aid programmes, and sheer arrogance, has forfeited any right or moral grounds on which it can lecture others.

During the 1950s and 1960s - when one African state after another gained independence - the US could have opened Africa to much brighter prospects than the dreadful state much of the continent has been mired in for the past half century.

US president Lyndon Johnson briefly considered a kind of Marshall Plan for Africa in the 1960s. However, the CIA and the National Security Council recommended not taking it up. To what extent this was due to racism can be determined only by historians. Instead, many newly independent African states ended up on the receiving end of the 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' US foreign policy during the cold war - and that is the case even today.

It was not the Marshall Plan that became the foreign policy model. Rather, it was the CIA-assisted coup and assassination of newly independent Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba - in a conspiracy with the Belgium government.

Lumumba's murder was followed by the violent overthrow of Ghana's president Kwame Nkrumah, which again implicated the CIA. But even benign western and US economic and food aid did not help recipient African states much.

A study last year on China's links with Africa by Barry Sautman of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology provides some instructive figures. Of US$530 billion in aid and loans granted to Africa between 1970 and 2002, the recipients had repaid US$540 billion, with interest. The debts of only 14 African states were cancelled while the continent's debts stood at US$300 billion last year. 'Much [aid] is subject to conditions benefiting the donor economically and politically [including its security interests],' Dr Sautman wrote.

Most of the grants and contracts have to be used to buy goods and services from companies and non-governmental organisations from the donor country - even though they could be bought more cheaply elsewhere in the global market. Meanwhile, while under western tutelage and aid, Africa's share of world trade declined from 5 per cent in the 1970s to 1.5 per cent in 2005. In the 1980s, the continent received 30 per cent of the world's foreign investments, but this dropped to 7 per cent in 2003, according to figures cited by Dr Sautman.

China has been accused of being interested only in African oil and minerals. But currently, 75 per cent of US investment is in oil, while 64 per cent of China's was in manufacturing and 28 per cent in resources, up to 2000. However, the percentage of investment in resources has probably shot up during the current commodities boom.

As for China spreading corruption and propping up corrupt regimes, consider this: in 2005, China sold weapons to, or had military missions in, seven African countries; the US gave military aid and had arms sales with 47 of Africa's 53 states. Again, I cite Dr Sautman.

Last month, Beijing pledged US$5 billion to the Democratic Republic of Congo to build 3,200km of railways and the same length of roads, 31 hospitals, 145 health centres, two universities and 5,000 housing units, all in 36 months. As Howard French of The New York Times observes, if delivered, this will be more than the west has done for the country in its 47 years of independence.

So, which is worse, the ugly American or the ugly Chinaman? Africans may have to make that choice this century.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post

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