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Chinese activists looking to Africa

As its economic role in Africa expands, China's budding civil society takes cautious steps to hold its government to account.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2007

Shanghai, China

Amos Kimunya could hardly have been blunter.

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As the annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDA) here last week celebrated China's booming aid and trade with Africa, the Kenyan finance minister verged on the undiplomatic.

"The question we have to ask ourselves" as China plows billions of dollars into Africa and snaps up its oil and minerals, he told fellow ministers, "is, 'is this a blessing or a curse?' "

At a much smaller and more discreet gathering on the sidelines of the AfDB shindig, African and Chinese civil society groups were meeting for the first time to plan how they could at least take some of the rough edges off a relationship that has sparked controversy well beyond Africa's borders.

But holding the Chinese government to account for its behavior in Africa will be a tall order for Chinese nongovernmental organizations that are still testing the political waters and have no international experience.

"The problem for us Chinese is that we are not aware of the projects" Beijing is funding in Africa, says Wen Bo, a leading Chinese environmental activist. "Chinese people don't know what Chinese companies are doing in Africa."

That worries Charles Mutasa, head of the nongovernmental African Network on Debt and Development. "The absence of Chinese pressure groups lobbying about environmental damage makes the whole business of China [in Africa] a bit tricky," he says, because there are no Chinese civil society watchdogs keeping an eye on their government and investors.

The Chinese NGO community is still small and politically constrained, says Nick Young, who heads the Beijing-based China Development Brief, which monitors the development of Chinese civil society groups.

While international campaigning groups deliberately seek issues on which to attack their governments, Chinese NGOs navigating in often ambiguous legal limbo are a "mirror image," says Mr. Young. "Most of them will look for points on which they agree with the government and start there. They are committed to being constructive."

Nor do many Chinese NGOs, most of which work on the environment, health, and poverty reduction, pay any attention to the world beyond their borders. That is partly because they are overwhelmed by the problems they face at home and partly because they are ill informed about Chinese activities abroad, activists say.

"It is a far leap for Chinese citizens to think about the problems of African farmers," points out Justin Fong, the founder of Moving Mountains, a Beijing-based NGO that trains public-interest activists.

But as China plays an ever larger role on the world stage, he forecasts, its people will broaden their horizons, too. "As Chinese step into their role as global citizens, hopefully they will become more engaged in foreign policy," he says.

A South-South solution

That would add a new dimension to "South-South cooperation" – a development model that held out hope that the developing countries that dominate the southern hemisphere and of which China has long seen itself as champion – could benefit each others' economies through technical assistance and increased trade. The governments of many developing countries hoped that such cooperation would spare them the self-interested economic policies perceived to come from the North's developed nations.

Today, with China pledging to double its aid by 2009 to around $12 billion and having already grown its trade with Africa 10-fold between 1999 and 2006, "South-South cooperation" is no longer a dream. But nor is it all milk and honey.

Will Chinese activists help in Sudan?

Ali Askouri is trying to stop a dam. He came to the Shanghai NGO meeting looking for allies in China. He wants to publicize the fate of 70,000 of his fellow Nile villagers in Sudan, who are being displaced by a dam funded by China Eximbank.

But he had little success in reaching the ears of China's top brass.

As president of the Leadership Office of Hamdab Dam Affected People, his campaign has linked up with a global NGO, the International Rivers Network, with the goal of shaming ABB, the Swiss engineering giant, into withdrawing from Sudan. His group is also trying to put pressure on Alstom, a French company that is also involved in the project. But Mr. Askouri will be leaving with little expectation, at the moment, of Chinese activists joining his cause.

"NGOs here have too little experience and too little [political] space," says Askouri. "I'd love to see them put a lot of pressure on Eximbank, but it is hard to know how they might do it. And they might put themselves at risk. It's a hard issue for Chinese NGOs to get into at this stage."