Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is China changing its Africa tune?

FRANK CHING, From Tuesday's Globe and Mail - September 9, 2008

China refused to allow Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to take part in the opening session of the Olympic Games, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. The Australian paper said Mr. Mugabe had travelled to Hong Kong but was then persuaded by China to go home.

While the report was not confirmed, it is consistent with China's increasing desire to distance itself from pariah states in Africa and elsewhere that used to be treated as old friends. Mr. Mugabe has become an embarrassment and Beijing reportedly pressed him to negotiate with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change on a possible government of national unity.

Another African country that has drawn intensive Western criticism is Sudan, whose government is accused of waging genocide in Darfur. So closely is China identified with the government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir that a campaign was waged by actress Mia Farrow to dub the Beijing Games the "Genocide Olympics."

China, a big investor in Sudan's energy sector, was accused of not using its leverage to try to end the violence in Darfur, where 200,000 people have died and more than two million were forced to flee since fighting broke out in 2003 between rebels and the central government. But here, too, Beijing has made significant changes. It has pressed the Bashir government to accept peacekeepers from the African Union and the United Nations and has sent 315 military engineers to Darfur, making China the first non-African country to deploy in Darfur.

Beijing's involvement with Africa can be traced to the '50s and '60s, when it was keen on fomenting world revolution. Since the '70s, China focused on economic growth and now sees Africa as a source of raw materials, particularly oil. It is active in Nigeria and Angola, the continent's largest oil producers, as well as Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo.

But China's activities in Africa have not all been smooth sailing. In Sudan, the rebel Justice and Equality Movement attacked a Chinese-run oil field as part of a campaign to force Chinese oil companies to leave. In Zambia, anti-Chinese sentiment became an election issue in 2005 after an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine.

Partly as a result of China's economic activities, Africa registered 5.8 per cent growth in 2007. In July, the World Bank reported that China was funding infrastructure projects such as hydropower, railways, ports, dams and highways throughout Africa.

Newspaper headlines, meanwhile, focus on China's oil deals, creating the impression it is locking up supplies. Not many people appreciate that the bulk of Africa's oil exports still go to the U.S. and Europe, not China. As Thomas Christensen, deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a U.S. congressional subcommittee: "With the important exception of Sudan, where the China National Petroleum Company is the major operator, Chinese oil companies are relatively minor players in Africa."

Chinese are moving to Africa in record numbers, although Chinese settlement there is not new. During the apartheid era, Chinese were classified in South Africa as "coloured" and denied educational and business opportunities as well as the right to vote. Taiwanese immigrants, however, were treated as "honorary whites." When the apartheid era ended, Chinese did not receive the compensation given to black Africans. Recently, however, Patrick Chong, a South African citizen of Chinese ancestry, went to court and made an unusual petition: He is now officially an "honorary black."

From a historical perspective, Chinese connections with Africa are long and complicated. China's current ties need to be seen in context and not be simplistically labelled as condoning bad practices, including genocide. On its part, Beijing needs to be aware that business is never just business.