One by one, the heads of state of 48 African nations, and senior
officials from 13 more, shook hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao to
launch the Beijing summit of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum. It
wasn't long before China pledged US$5 billion in aid, mostly loans and
credit, and a more open market for African products.
African leaders greeted the promises with support and encouragement
while critics quickly denounced almost every aspect of the Africa-China
Human rights activists argued that China is tacitly endorsing
repressive regimes. It pointed to the summit invitations sent to
President Omar Hassan Al Bashir of Sudan and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe,
who are accused of serious human rights abuses and genocide.
Economic critics said China's tendency to deal with African nations
one-on-one, and regardless of international agreements, hinders the
long- term development of the continent.
All of these observations are likely to fall on deaf ears. Having
carefully nurtured its Africa policy, China can hardly be expected to
turn its back on the continent, especially as it is now the only
economic powerhouse consistently doing deals there. Trade jumped to
US$40 billion last year, up 40% from 2004, and is poised to hit US$50
billion this year.
China's growth story is one Africa would do well to emulate. In the
sub-Sahara region, average spending has grown a negligible 0.2% per
year in the last two decades. Meanwhile China, with a population of 1.3
billion, has created the world's fourth largest economy and reduced the
number of its poor by half.
Chinese businesses are buying, building and dealing across the
continent There are currently more than 600 Chinese infrastructure
projects in Africa, often attached to resource extraction agreements.
A dozen companies signed US$1.9 billion in trade agreements during the
summit. Sinopec will explore for oil and gas in Liberia, Sino Hydro
Corporation moved forward on a US$600-million hydroelectric dam deal in
Ghana, and CITIC group will build a US$938-million aluminum plant in
African countries are happy to see Chinese investment and are willing
to neglect relations with North America or Europe for cash with no
human rights strings attached.
There are catches. One is that African people may grow reliant on cheap
Chinese goods and neglect their own industries. Another is that the
biggest beneficiaries are often Chinese corporations and the autocratic
leaders critics love to parade.
The deals announced during a single weekend in Beijing feed into the
stereotype of a commodities-hungry giant dropping buckets of cash in
exchange for natural resources. On the other hand, leaders from 48 out
of 53 African states lining up to shake hands with Hu proves that these
buckets are a definite attraction.