Beijing finds pitfalls on the road to African adventures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2007, 12:00am

As the mainland emerges as a world power and pushes into Africa, it is learning the hard way about the need to protect its citizens abroad and the consequences of economic influence, analysts and officials say.

With the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, China has the financial resources to pour massive aid into the continent.

African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka said Beijing would provide US$20 billion in infrastructure and trade financing to Africa over the next three years, the Financial Times reported yesterday.

Mr Kaberuka brushed aside concerns about the mainland's investment.

'Chinese this, Chinese that. All business transactions have to be negotiated and I'm not persuaded finger-pointing will do Africa a service,' he said at the bank's annual meeting in Shanghai this week. Li Baoping , of the Africa Research Centre at Peking University, said the continent welcomed Chinese aid because Beijing did not impose conditions like some foreign lenders.

But critics say this 'no-strings attached' lending allows human rights abuses and corruption to take place.

'China helps African countries economically without any political conditions. This makes it easier for African states to accept aid from China,' Professor Li said.

The mainland's foray into Africa is backed by the need to secure energy supplies to fuel its booming economy and encourage companies to go abroad to find markets.

'China needs resources to power its economic evolution and to employ its masses. That's the easy answer. There are diplomatic reasons too, of which Taiwan is major,' said a US academic who declined to be named.

Taiwan has diplomatic relations with seven African countries and Taipei is battling to retain its contacts. Beijing's drive could also put it into conflict with the United States, which is pursuing resources and its own diplomatic goals in Africa.

Although the mainland and African officials reject descriptions of China as the new colonial master, comments from one academic offered an insight into how some mainland companies view the continent.

'They feel African people are slow and businesses and governments are not willing to work overtime,' said Lu Bo , deputy director of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation.

Chinese academics do not question the increased presence in Africa, blaming companies for problems and absolving Beijing of any blame.

'Some private enterprises investing in Africa chase after profits as the only objective. Thus they have caused problems and conflicts such as environmental pollution, negligence towards the interests of workers and overuse of natural resources,' Professor Li said.

However, analysts say the mainland cannot invest in Africa in a vacuum, ignoring political consequences. Chinese nationals have been killed in some African countries, most recently in Ethiopia, where a rebel attack on an oil installation killed nine Chinese and 64 other people.

China has also drawn international criticism for supporting Sudan, which has been accused of human rights violations and encouraging violence in the Darfur region.

The mainland blocked a UN move to send peacekeepers to Darfur yet it has appointed a special envoy and plans to send a team of engineers to the country.

Additional reporting by Laura Liu

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