China has been at the forefront of two important developments this week. The first one is the lavish summit thrown by Beijing to discuss their future of African-Chinese relations, which brought together in an umprecedented move some 50 African Heads of State and Foreign Ministers vis-à-vis a singlegovernment. And soon enough, during the opening cerimony, China showed its generousity. The Guardian reported that
President Hu Jintao pledged to double China’s aid to Africa by 2009. Speaking at the opening ceremony, he promised $3bn in loans, $2bn in export credits and a $5bn fund to encourage Chinese businessmen and women to invest in the continent. ‘Chinese assistance to Africa is sincere, unselfish and has no strings attached,’ Premier Wen Jiabao said at yesterday’s gathering of Chinese and African entrepreneurs held as part of the conference. Possibly reacting to some of the criticism, Wen promised to ensure that projects are ‘open, just, fair and transparent’.
The Independent, which ran a 2-page report on the event a couple of days ago, was quick to remind us why China is appearing so keen to secure the favours of the poorest continent in the world:
Africa is rich in oil and other natural resources, while China is the world’s second-biggest consumer of oil and petrol after the United States. Its factories need iron ore and copper to keep churning out the industrial goods fuelling the country’s economic boom, and China has been unstinting in its efforts to maintain good relations, investing £3bn in Africa this year alone.
Indeed, this article – as well as several other media reports scattered on and off-line – goes as far as comparing China’s current political and economic moves to Europe’s XIX century ‘scramble for Africa’. The parallel is plainly obscene. The European powers carved out Africa – having plundered its coastlines and kidnapped its inhabitants to sell them as slaves to American plantations for over 2 centuries – using armies and guns, and murdering in the process millions of peoople. Comparing this to China’s political and economic maneuvering strikes me as manipulative and absurd.
But is it absurd, or something a little more sinister? Indeed, in the wake of this summit, and of the increased interest of China in the wealth of Africa, a strange coalition of INGOs and World Bank/IMF executives started raising concerns about this influx of aid and investment with no strings attached. The Guardian explained that
Human rights activists accuse China of supporting governments such as Sudan’s and Zimbabwe’s that are accused of chronic abuses. African business groups complain about poor treatment by Chinese companies and competition from a flood of low-cost imports.
And the World Bank ran a headline on Tuesday explaining that
We don’t have a lot of evidence of very high interest rates,’ said Benedicte Vibe Christensen, Deputy Director in the IMF’s Africa Department. ‘In many countries, China is still giving grants but in some cases the terms of the loans are not very transparent.’
In other words, the West is panicking. But why is it panicking? Is it because it is genuinely concerned about human rights in the region? I find it hard to believe, given the near-complete indifference with which most genocides from Rwanda to Darfur, are greeted in the West. Or is it because, having ignored the pight of Africa for the last 50 years, and having supported corrupt regimes whenever they allowed Western companies to plunder its resources – think just recently about the Angolagate in France, the Scorched Earth report involving Swedish Lundin Oil in Sudan, or even the all-time favourite Equatorial Guinea attempted coup involving Lady Thatcher’s lovely son Mark – the West finds itself confronted by an enemy it cannot simply buy-off or shoot?
The ramifications of Chinese involvement in Africa are clearly multi-fold, but one of the most significant is that in 10 years time anyone wanting to have a say on Africa’s future development will have to speak to Beijing first, and not London, Paris or Washington. Whether this will mean more wealth, democracy and life standards for Africans themselves, I doubt it. But it will certainly put an end to the hypocricy of Western aid to Africa.
The second – perhaps even more significant – news is the announcement of China’s move to boost unions and end abuses perpetrated against its workers by companies. The NY Times reports that
China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980’s.
Corporations are clearly not happy about this, but the Chinese government is now in a strong position to force upon them the new rules of the game, with companies such as Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s biggest retailer, forced to accept unions in its Chinese outlets.
So my final question in this sea of change is the following: is China showing the world how it is planning to reshape the global economy, or is this just a big bubble or – as some would say – business as usual…?