Unfair to paint China as a colonialist in Africa

He Yafei says accusations of Chinese exploitation of African resources are not based on the facts, which instead show much-needed investment and trade helping to build up the continent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 4:09am

The African continent, with its fast growth of the past decade, is a future wonderland for prosperity that will benefit foreign investment and entrepreneurs. Strangely, rumours have been circulating that target China as a "villain" which is plundering Africa for its energy resources. That's a big lie. The real story about China and Africa is one of a long-lasting friendship based on mutual benefit and support.

Friendly relations go back several decades. China's signature aid project, the Tanzania-Zambia railroad, is a symbol of that strong bond.

Today, those ties are even stronger, with the political relationship having been upgraded to a strategic partnership. This was articulated in 2006 by then Ethiopian premier Meles Zenawi, who noted that China's principle of sovereign equality and non-interference constituted the foundation of mutual trust between the two regions.

For half a century, China has offered full and unswerving support to African nations in their fight against colonialism and apartheid as well as for independence. Africa, an important group in the UN system, has stood behind China as it sought to safeguard its interests in various fields.

Africa has become one of the pillars in Beijing's pursuit of sustainable economic development; China is the biggest trading partner and one of the key investors in Africa. Since the 1990s, China-African economic co-operation has morphed from one of mainly economic assistance to a complex model of co-operation in trade, investment, finance and technology.

Annual bilateral trade in 2012 topped US$200 billion while China's investment stood at US$21.23 billion. Meanwhile, African investment in China - from sovereign funds in South Africa, Nigeria, Gabon, Angola and others - has surpassed US$10 billion.

More than 2,000 Chinese companies have invested in over 50 African countries in areas ranging from finance, aerospace and manufacturing, to logistics and real estate, in addition to traditional sectors like agriculture, mining and infrastructure construction.

It's true that Africa is one of the key suppliers of energy resources to China and investment in its energy resources is rising. China now imports over one third of its petroleum from Africa. However, it must be emphasised that China's imports of oil are much less than those by the US and Europe; and, China is doing its utmost to help build up manufacturing capacity in Africa, knowing very well that this is key to sound economic development. South African President Jacob Zuma has said that " China has never engaged in any colonialist activities in Africa. The relationship between Africa and China is by no means a colonialist one."

As relations have become closer, so more reports have appeared in the Western media supposedly exposing China's misdeeds, claiming for example that China's aid feeds corruption, Chinese companies are violating African people's human rights and Chinese investments prop up dictators. These allegations can't be further from the truth.

The first thing that rattles Western countries is the principle of China providing aid with no political strings attached. This is a clear demonstration of China's long-held policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.

US Professor Deborah Brautigam, the author of The Dragon's Gift, has said that China's aid and investment actually inhibits corruption in recipient countries because the funds are directly transferred to companies instead of going into government coffers, as is the practice of World Bank-financed projects and others.

Take Angola, for example. China needs petroleum and Angola needs infrastructure. A bilateral co-operation programme has been designed to address exactly those needs, with China importing Angolan oil while helping the nation build roads, homes, schools and hospitals with funds from both the proceeds of oil sales and long-term, low-interest loans from Chinese banks.

Another example is Zimbabwe, whose economy has been ruined by Western nations' embargoes and isolation for political reasons. Meanwhile, China has given assistance to Zimbabwe, proving a great help to that nation.

Secondly, both state-owned enterprises and private companies that invest in Africa take their social responsibilities seriously, contrary to what is reported in the Western media. The most prominent contribution they make is the provision of jobs for local people.

In Sudan, for instance, a Chinese company was contracted to help build the Merowe Dam; that project alone employed more than 16,000 local workers. A refinery project involved 1,100 local employees, with half in training while the other half worked.

Thirdly, China's aid and investment is very much tailored to the economic development strategy of African countries. Sudan used to be an oil-importing country and now, with China's help, it has become an oil exporter with both upstream and downstream capacity in exploration, extraction and refinery.

Another example is Niger, one of the world's least-developed countries, whose economy had been in poor shape for a long time even though it has abundant reserves of uranium ore. Why? Because the uranium mines were exclusively in the hands of a French company that artificially kept the prices low. With Chinese companies coming in, the situation has now changed in favour of Niger; not only is uranium ore fetching a better price, but Niger is also building up its infrastructure at a quicker pace.

The most important difference between China's aid and investment in Africa and colonialism is that the latter was forced upon African countries while China's activities are based on the needs of Africa and the principle of sovereign and business equality.

The counsel general of Nigeria in Hong Kong once said that the reason they want to do business with China is because they can sit down and talk on an equal footing. That was not possible in the colonial days.

Zambian author Dambisa Moyo has said that the roughly US$1 trillion in Western aid to Africa over the past half a century has brought more harm than good.

History is a mirror as well as a teacher. This mirror reflects China in the right perspective, as long as we view its aid and investment activities in Africa without colonialist bias.

He Yafei is vice-minister of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council