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The Middle Kingdom comes to the dark Continent


Twenty five years ago, after travelling for two weeks on business across Africa, I finally arrived in Kenya longing for some rice or noodles. On the way to the hotel I was surprised to see a Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Upon checking into the hotel, I ventured to this restaurant for some special fried rice or chicken chow mein. I encountered diners using chopsticks! That was an eye-opener, little did I know that Chinese restaurants exist in Africa or usage of chopsticks was common.

Foreign aid to the Dark Continent has been part of China’s strategy since the end of World War II. In the 1950s, China-Africa economic and trade cooperation centered on bilateral trade and China’s aid to Africa. Through joint efforts of both sides, cooperation has been developed in ever-expanding fields and with increasingly richer contents.

Investment in African countries by China began in the 1980s, and on a small scale at the beginning. In the 1990s China kept expanding its investment scale, widening the fields of investment and diversifying investment opportunities in Africa.

In 2000 with the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), economic and trade cooperation has been further enhanced and revitalized; trade, investment, infrastructure and capacity building have been pushed forward in an all-round way; and cooperation in finance and tourism has been gradually expanded, thereby forming a multi-tiered and wide-ranging cooperation pattern on a new historical starting point.

Meanwhile, Africa has also become active in its investment in China, and the business of a number of African enterprises is fast growing in the Chinese market.

The China-Africa relationship shot to attention in November 2006 when 48 African heads of government attended a forum in Beijing. China’s capital was festooned with images of exotic Africa for the occasion. Speeches were made and deals were struck.

“This is a new strategic partnership. There is no colonial history between Africa and China, so they are well received here. There is no psychological bias against the Chinese.” Tsegab Kebebew, a senior official in Ethiopia’s foreign ministry, who was in Beijing for the meeting told the BBC.

The image of China was divided between heroic assistance – in both liberation struggles and developmental efforts – and the romance of pony-tailed Shaolin fighters in the ubiquitous kung fu films. No one really wanted to understand China and fewer wanted to understand Africa. They just wanted to know about the ‘sudden’ arrival and growing suspicion by the Western outlook on resource-expropriation from Africa by China.

Engagement with Africa has deepened substantially over the past decade. For African nations, this engagement presents both opportunities and challenges at a critical conjuncture in the continent’s history.

Economic co-operation lies at the forefront of contemporary China-Africa relations. She has committed itself to becoming a development partner for Africa and has started to deliver development assistance. China’s engagement in Africa has been welcomed by many African leaders, who see it as an opportunity to fuel economic growth, to put them into a better negotiating position with traditional Western donors and to amplify Africa’s voice in international forums.

Bilateral relations with African states have been largely determined by the principles of non-interference and respect for state sovereignty. Domestic political affairs are seen as the exclusive concern of national governments: other states must respect this basic principle no matter the conduct of the government.

China has developed close relationships with African regimes that the international community, or more specifically Western countries, only engage with in a manner that is conditional on improvements in governance. Chinese officials maintain that such improvements must come from within and that, in order to allow this to happen, sovereignty must be respected.

Chinese scholars and officials subscribe to the view that underdevelopment is a root cause of conflict. They argue that through its trade, investment and development assistance, China contributes to African economic growth and thus plays a positive role in promoting African peace and security.

Chinese enterprises are encouraged and supported to expand their investment in Africa, and have adopted necessary measures to guide them in this respect. So far, China has signed bilateral agreements with 33 African countries regarding the promotion and protection of investment, and it has signed agreements with 11 African countries on avoiding double taxation, thereby creating favourable conditions for China-Africa enterprise cooperation.

An equity fund, China-Africa Development Fund, was created by China’s financial organisations to give special support to Chinese enterprises when investing in Africa.

Economic and trade cooperation zones in Africa have been created. Supported by governments of both sides, Chinese enterprises take charge of infrastructure construction in the operation zones, and attract Chinese and other foreign enterprises to move in to form industrial bases.

As economic globalisation progresses, the economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa will definitely gain momentum to reach a larger scale, broader scope and higher level with their joint endeavours, which can give new energy and vitality to overall China-Africa cooperation.

The truth is that China is itself a developing country that has successfully reduced its poverty from 53 to 8 percent over twenty years, while Africa’s poverty persists despite 60 years of aggressive foreign aid by the West.

There is much more to Africa than China and they can decide their own futures, with or without China.

Oh yes, I did have my chicken chow mein, though, not as good as my local takeaway.

Sonny Leong is Publisher and Chair for Chinese for Labour

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