South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka With China's Premier Wen Jiabao
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
By AUDRA ANG
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
(10-31) 11:33 PST BEIJING, China (AP) --Billboards of elephants, giraffes and sweeping African savannas are covering Beijing high-rises. Police have had holidays canceled to help ease gridlock in the capital. Conference centers are being carpeted with grass.
Beijing is making unusually lavish efforts to welcome leaders and officials from 48 African nations this week for a landmark summit meant to highlight China's huge and growing role in Africa.
Over the past decade, China has built an outsized presence in Africa, in a diplomatic and economic push that is helping to reshape the geo-political map. Trade has ballooned tenfold to $40 billion last year. Chinese investment has funded roads and been poured into copper mines and oil fields, helping to boost African economies and, for some, standards of living.
"China is the biggest developing country and Africa is a continent where the most developing countries are situated," said He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "They need each other."
In this exchange, China is picking up natural resources — oil, precious minerals — to feed its expanding economy and new markets for its burgeoning enterprises. The African countries get investment and both parties are building political alliances in a world they often see as overly dominated by the United States and other Western powers.
But China's African adventure is not friction-free. African workers have protested against what they see as ill-treatment and poor pay by Chinese companies, as well as the flood of Chinese workers who take away their jobs. South Africa, a staunch friend of Beijing, has complained that influxes of cheap Chinese clothes could devastate the textile industry.
In Zambia, a decades-old political ally, China became an issue in the September presidential election, with the opposition candidate questioning the benefit from Chinese investment. In July, scores of African workers at a Chinese-owned Zambian mine rioted over low wages.
There's a "growing perception that China's interests in Africa are very self-serving, if not predatory, that China is interested in making inroads into markets that are good for its energy needs — especially with countries that are not paragons of democratic virtue," said Garth le Pere of the Institute for Global Dialogue, a think tank based in Midrand, South Africa.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have raised concern that freely lavished Chinese aid money is compounding Africa's debts. China's exports of oil from Angola, seen as one of Africa's most corrupt governments, and Sudan, among the most repressive governments, have raised alarms from human rights and good governance groups.
Critics also have said that China's arms exports to Sudan's Darfur region have helped fuel the conflict, which has claimed at least 180,000 lives and forced more than 2 million people from their homes over the past three years.
Chinese officials, however, insist that their country's involvement has improved the lives of ordinary Africans without meddling in political affairs — strict adherence to China's diplomatic policy of noninterference.
"Chinese investment in Africa has promoted economic growth, increased job opportunities ... and improved living standards," Deputy Commerce Minister Wei Jianguo told reporters. "It has greatly benefited the local people and is very popular among them."
Since 1956, Wei said, China has also helped set up more than 700 projects in Africa in fisheries, telecommunications, hydropower, education and health, Wei said. "They have all proven to be very successful," he said.
For Beijing, the Nov. 3-5 China-African summit offers a fresh opportunity to try to blunt the controversy while pushing deeper economically and politically.
The summit will "exert an important and far-reaching influence over the long-term development over China-Africa relations," Wei said.
Among the countries invited to the summit are Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Malawi, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, which have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its own. The two have engaged in a diplomatic tug of war, offering inducements to nations to cut diplomatic ties with the other.
A conference for 1,500 Chinese and African entrepreneurs will be held along the sidelines, along with an African product exhibition to show off food, lumber, textiles and handicrafts.
Throughout the city, billboards touting "Africa — the land of myth and miracle" have been put up in numbers unusual even for a capital used to propaganda campaigns. Some 1,800 plainclothes and uniformed police officers are being put on summit duty, organizers said. So far, there have been no threats of protests. Volunteers will also be mobilized to patrol on the streets, many of which will be closed to public traffic.
State media have run almost daily reports touting relations between the two sides.
Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president who has been criticized in the West for trampling human rights, was quoted as saying that the summit will enhance cooperation.
"We have nothing to lose but our imperialist chains," the Xinhua News Agency quoted Mugabe as saying.
To ensure success, Beijing's Communist Party Secretary, Liu Qi, has called for "all-out efforts to create a seriously friendly atmosphere for Sino-African relations," state media reported.
To some, however, the issue isn't cooperation but whether African countries are leveraging their resources to get the most out of China. And the billions of dollars in aid, forgiven debt and investment China has poured into Africa is proving controversial even among Chinese.
"African countries have got what China wants but they're not bargaining," said Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Is it simply going to be a mutual admiration society, or is there going to be some real given and take?"