Li Keqiang

Africa must wait and see on Li Keqiang's ambitious promises, analysts say

Premier pledges mutual benefits and no-strings funding on four-nation tour, but it remains to be seen if Africans are convinced, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:50am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 8:09am

During his week-long visit to Africa, Premier Li Keqiang secured economic and trade deals while simultaneously trying to persuade his hosts China had learned from mistakes on how to engage with the continent.

Brushing aside criticism about China's motives for its growing presence in Africa, Li announced a series of initiatives during stops in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya that Beijing hoped would convince Africans that Chinese involvement would help their communities.

Observers said the latest moves indicated China was keen to boost its image in the continent, although the effectiveness of the strategy remained to be seen.

Throughout his trip, Li admitted there were still "growing pains" in Sino-African ties. But some Africans and other observers question whether the billions of dollars in aid and loans mask an intention to control the continent's resources, such as oil, precious metals and cocoa, and effectively colonise it.

Investment by Chinese companies in Africa was not a "zero sum" game, Xinhua quoted Li as saying during a meeting with the Chinese community in Angola, where he asked them to recruit local workers.

"It should create mutual benefit," Li said. "The livelihood of our people, and that of the local people here, should be combined."

Vijaya Ramachandran, a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, a Washington think tank, said criticism of past practices had pushed China to modify its approach so it would be seen as a reliable partner.

"China sees its relationship with Africa as a very long-term one and is building the relationship in a number of ways, including [through] providing assistance to a large number of people," said Ramachandran, who keeps track of Chinese aid in Africa. "It sees the relationship as broader and more comprehensive than just extracting resources."

Energy, trade and infrastructure still top the agenda - Li pledged to double China-Africa trade to US$400 billion by 2020 and quadruple Chinese direct investment to US$100 billion. But the premier also visited a hospital in Ethiopia that has provided free cataract operations to 2,000 local patients through Chinese aid.

Li announced a US$10 million grant for African wildlife-protection projects, and US$8 million in humanitarian aid to war-torn South Sudan.

But critics have accused Beijing of adopting a neocolonial strategy that sought only to exploit Africa's vast mineral and energy resources.

They say an influx of Chinese companies bringing their own workers has deprived Africans of jobs.

In Angola, for example, a Beijing-backed US$14.5 billion line of credit brought not only a new soccer stadium, airports and roads but an influx of about 300,000 Chinese workers to the south African nation, stirring local resentment. "There has been a rapid deepening of economic relations and high-level engagement, but a gap in perception seems to remain between Africans and Chinese," said Yu-shan Wu, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, a non-government think tank based in Johannesburg.

"So, Beijing also needs to communicate its actions to its own public, as well as abroad."

Speaking at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Nigeria, Li said China would spend half of its overseas aid budget on Africa, focusing on anti-poverty, agriculture and clean-water projects, and disaster relief. But he insisted that the massive funds had no political strings attached.

"We will help resolve the public livelihood problems of Africa," the premier said. "There are no political conditions attached to Chinese aid. We will not interfere in the internal affairs of African nations, and will not raise demands that are hard to accept."

Some observers said it was too early to say if these projects would improve African perceptions of China. Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said some of the aid was related to China's economic development. For example, some health projects were being used to promote Chinese-made pharmaceuticals. China not only imported it own workers, but materials and equipment, too.

"The aid is still controversial. Some Africans view the projects as ways to extend China's market access and resource exploration," he said.

Ramachandran said China needed to review mistakes, and help African nations get better use out of assistance programmes, such as by training doctors and teachers when hospitals and schools were built.