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November 10, 2009

Give me your little girl!!!

The Fourth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has kicked off in the sunny Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik this weekend with China’s number two, Wen Jiabao, announcing $10 billion worth of preferential loans for African states and businesses. This is double the $5billion announced at the last meeting in 2006, re-affirming China’s benevolent, win-win, harmonious, equal, warm, cosy, south-south generally wonderful for all involved and totally not neo-colonial approach to Africa.

Without continuing to be smarmy, the figures are impressive: Africa’s exports to China, most notably in natural resources, have increased by nearly 40% every year between 2001 and 2006. One pledge made at the 2006 FOCAC stands out, which was to increase trade value to $100 billion by 2010. Despite the financial crisis, this commitment was actually achieved in 2008, when trade hit $107 billion, marking a ten-fold increase since 2001. The rate of this growth seems set to continue: For example, after having established diplomatic ties only ten years ago, China has recently become South Africa’s largest export market.

In his cliche (white-ex-hack-writes-about-Africa) but actually alright book, Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden argued that while Europe still saw Africa as some poor helpless victim in need of a handout from its post-colonial masters, and America sees Africa as a dangerous minefield of security threats, China sees Africa as a business opportunity. In a commentary for The Times, Dowden suggests that the post-colonial states don’t like this very much:

“There is a widespread perception that saintly Britain had adopted this poor little girl called Africa and was busy saving her from hunger, war, disease and poverty. Suddenly big, greedy China, flashing huge deals and cheap goods, has seduced the girl and is leading her astray, even raping her. And to make it worse for Britain, ungrateful Africa sometimes feels that although Chinese intentions may not be entirely honourable, China at least treats her like a grown up.”

My oh my! Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. The President of Rwanda, Monsieur no-blood-on-these-hands Kagame, certainly takes this view, arguing that

While helpful, aid has not delivered sustainable development. It is clear that trade and investment bring greater opportunity for wealth creation … Given the choice, people would prefer to work and provide for themselves, rather than receive charity. Africans want self-determination and dignity.”

Dowden goes onto to argue that whileChina is already the most powerful outside player in Africa” and while the relationship may be good for African leaders such as Kagame, these days

China’s desperate search for mineral deals can lead it into the sort of mistakes the West made in the past … In places such as Guinea and Sudan, the Chinese may have to learn the hard way that secret deals with governments — especially coup leaders — will not protect their investments or benefit Africa’s development. The Chinese want stability and consistency, but they will find that African governments can rarely deliver these. You have to learn how to operate in Africa’s culture and hidden power structures … Western countries, Britain in particular, do have in-depth knowledge and experience of Africa and could offer insights that China may welcome.

This argument has a lot of merit to it: Economic growth and profit requires security and stability. If, for example, Sudan’s north-south war was to break out again, one of China’s biggest sources of energy would be jeopardised. As such, through learning and adaptation, Chinese policy will seek to ensure stability on the continent. However Dowden goes on to argue that only democracy and human rights can bring stability in Africa and that China may not adopt these virtues at home, but it may learn” – ostensibly from the British government – “that in Africa they are essential.”

Firstly, I’m not sure if democracy and human rights are the only strategy to establish security and stability in Africa, and that the Chinese leadership, who have spent 60 years stabilising and securitising their own country through very different means, will rely on such a strategy. But that’s another debate for another time.

More importantly, is it really Britain & Co. who should be doing the teaching? In reference to all the media hoo-haa over China’s dealing with Guinea Bissau (check out China in Africa for more),  The Financial Times, that bastion of left-wing radical Marxist political commentary, noted that  Western governments and NGOs are quick to criticise China’s willingness to do business in Africa regardless of the rights record of host regimes. Fewer though draw attention to the ugly complicity of western companies and governments in propping up the likes of Mr Obiang”, who is the other Guinea’s (Equatorial) less-than-charming dictator of thirty years. Equatorial Guinea, of course, provides about 380,000 barrels of the good black stuff a day through predominantly western oil multinationals. In fact so much so that Condi Rice introduced him as  a “good friend” on a visit to the US in 2006. Obiang has hardly come under pressure from the west over human rights and democracy.

But wait, you’re thinking, is this not the same Obiang who Simon Mann, Mark Thatcher and their band of merry mercenaries tried to overthrow in 2004?! Well it is. And didn’t the British government (and others) know about it and, well, sort of let it happen? Well, maybe, but there’s no proof beyond common sense and what Mann says, and he’s only the coup leader!

And suppose for one ludicrously hypothetical moment that they were willing to allow it to happen, it would only be because they were tired of propping up such a nasty dictatorship. You see the Brits are all about democracy and human rights. In fact, through the benevolent means of a privatized military coup, they were simply seeking to bring democracy and human rights in an African state not because it was strategically important for energy security, but because of its poor oppressed population of vulnerable little girls… right?


Oh dear…

Oh my…

Gosh, Dowden might be right: Those Chinese do have a lot to learn from Africa’s concerned ex-colonial Samaritans.

(See here for more).


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