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Chinese leader's almost triumphal trip to Africa

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Joseph J. SchatzCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2007


Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Africa started out last week with the usual manly handshakes, red-carpet strolls, factory visits, and displays of African dance and music.

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This tour – which includes Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and the Seychelles, – serves to fulfill promises China made at a glitzy Beijing summit in November, where 48 African heads of state heard Mr. Hu pledge to double aid to Africa by 2009 and create an investment fund of $5 billion in the next three years.

By the end of 2006, China had already invested nearly $8 billion in Africa, mainly for extracting minerals and oil to fuel its booming economy, and during this trip, Hu has brought with him more loans and a veritable army of Chinese investors.

But the farther south Hu traveled this week, the more skepticism he met. Hu canceled a visit to Zambia's copper belt, fearing protests over low pay and poor working conditions at Chinese- run mines. In the lead-up to Zambia's Sept. 28 elections, runner-up presidential candidate Michael Sata promised to kick out the Chinese if he had won. In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki recently warned his fellow African leaders not to allow Chinese investment to become a "colonial relationship."

At least one message of this trip: President Hu, the African honeymoon is over.

"Mbeki's speech reflects a deeper concern that is more addressed to Africans than to the Chinese," says Francis Kornegay, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. "The Africans have to set the parameters of the relationship and know what they are getting out of the relationship."

Such caution on the part of a few African countries – concentrated in the south of the continent – doesn't mean that African leaders are ready to give China the boot. To the contrary, Hu's visit has been a rather triumphant follow-through on promises made during the Beijing summit.

At his first stop in Cameroon, Hu pledged $100 million in grants and soft loans. Last week, Hu and Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa launched a new copper-mining partnership, which, they say, will produce thousands of jobs, $800 million in investment – and plenty of copper for China's growing economy.

"It is in China's national interest and in Africa's interest to have a trading partnership," says Pieter Snyman, director of The Beijing Axis, a consultancy that helps South African companies do business with China. "African leaders find China to be more sympathetic to African needs than the West. Africa does not need just money or somebody to get infrastructure projects. It has to be a sustained relationship, and that's up to the Africans to get what they want out of it."

What Africans want, of course, differs from country to country. In Sudan, where Hu visited last week, leaders sought more investment in the oil industry and in refining. In South Africa, business and political leaders seemed eager to push China to accept more African imports into their markets. And in resource-rich but impoverished countries like Zambia, political leaders and workers alike were pushing for better wages, and a bigger cut in the profits from mining.

Anger in Zambia

"They are just using us – we are like tools. They come here to invest, but at the end of the month they just pay us peanuts," says Likezo Mukumbi, a security guard at a shopping complex in Zambia's capital, Lusaka. Mr. Mukumbi says the Zambian government should do more to ensure that the Chinese are treating Zambians fairly.

Sentiments like that fueled the presidential bid of Mr. Sata, a shrewd and charismatic former government minister, during September's national elections. Sata threatened to run "exploiter" Chinese investors out of town, drawing cheers from many of Zambia's urban poor. Sata said he would recognize Taiwan as an independent nation if elected, and drew a rebuke from China's ambassador in Zambia, who suggested that China would cut ties with Zambia if Sata was elected – calling into question China's avowed policy of noninterference in local politics.

Low wages and safety concerns at Chinese-run mines have drawn the ire of Zambian labor unions and mining communities. Concern built to outrage when an explosion at a Chinese-run Chambishi mine killed 51 Zambian miners in 2005. Hu's delegation canceled plans to visit Chambishi during his visit amid rumors of potential protests.