China woos African trade
In Beijing this weekend, China is seeking tighter ties with regimes reviled in the West.
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"Khartoum can tell the rest of the world" where to go, complains Peter Takirambudde, head of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "They've got the cash. China gets a nice deal and in return it undertakes to see no evil and speak no evil about human rights. That's the most dangerous trend."Skip to next paragraph
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Beijing insists that it has used its influence with the Khartoum government to try to convince the authorities to accept a UN force. "We are using our own channels to try to bring the parties to a more sensible position" Mr. Zhai told reporters.
Chinese analysts also say that as latecomers to international investment, Chinese state-owned and private firms have been forced to explore markets that Western firms have not already snapped up, sometimes for political reasons.
International aid donors, though, worry that China's scruple-free approach undermines their efforts to improve African governance. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz complained last week that Chinese lenders "do not respect" a set of internationally agreed principles to ensure that loans to African countries fund projects that meet high social and environmental standards, and hoped that Beijing would not follow past Western practices of propping up corrupt African dictators.
Africans themselves are beginning to complain – especially businessmen and trade unionists in countries such as South Africa, where cheap Chinese imports are undercutting local manufactured goods and threatening local firms. In Zambia, anger over poor conditions at a Chinese-owned copper mine – where a Chinese security guard shot three workers in July – colored last month's presidential election campaign.
That incident should serve as "an early warning bell for the Chinese government and companies," says Dr. He. "These economic frictions can become a political issue."
One problem, says Wang Hongyi, an analyst with the China Institute of International Studies – a think tank linked to the foreign ministry – is that "even at home it is hard to supervise private companies." Another is that Chinese companies unaccustomed to strong trade unions or environmental laws at home find them difficult to deal with abroad.
Chinese firms, however, "are judged by the same standards as other international companies that operate in Africa," says Chris Alden, an expert in African politics at the London School of Economics.
In the long term, he predicts, Chinese investors – both state and private – "will conform to the same positions as other international players because governance issues will be as much a problem for them as they are for other multinationals.
"As China becomes a card-carrying member of the group of leading states, it will move away from its policy of not attaching conditions" to its loans and investment, Dr. Alden suggests. And with Beijing's activities in Africa under increasing international scrutiny, it will be obliged to "untangle and normalize relations" as it settles down to deal with classic donor problems such as debt management and trade disputes.
As it does so, says Mr. Takirambudde, "China will have to develop relations with Africans at large, not just with the top dogs.
"In the short term they can disregard" the behavior of their African partners, he adds. "But in the long term that is not sustainable. Eventually they will be forced to take account of these issues."