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

Amos Kimunya could hardly have been blunter.

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?' "

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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.

China's natural resource grab carries "disturbing echoes of the way the West dealt with Africa," worries Walden Bello, an activist academic from the Philippines who has long promoted closer links among developing countries. "There is a lot of caution among lots of us who had been looking forward" to a new era of international relations, he adds.

South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel explains the dilemma more starkly. "The key must be mutual benefit," he told Chinese and African officials at the AfDB meeting. "Otherwise we might end up with a few holes in the ground where the resources have been extracted, and all the added value will be in China."

Aside from allegations that China is treating Africa in a neocolonial economic fashion, the Eastern giant has also been accused of propping up dictators just as Western countries have done, and of showing little environmental or social responsibility in its African investments.

By deliberately attaching no conditions to its aid and investment, in a sign of South-South solidarity and noninterference, China has also been charged with failing to encourage better governance in Africa.

A 'huge gap' open for Chinese aid

But with Western donors failing to keep their promises to double their aid to Africa, and World Bank and International Monetary Fund pro-privatization policies frustrating many African leaders, "China's entry onto the scene on the whole offers a lot of promise," argues Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who heads the Earth Institute, a New York development think tank.

Western donors' reluctance to help African governments fund large public-sector infrastructure projects, he says, fills "a huge gap in needs where the Chinese are finding their way.

"China could end up doing things that are unhelpful," he adds, "but more likely than not, its presence will be helpful."

Certainly Chinese money has offered African leaders an alternative to Western aid that often promotes privatization and painful belt-tightening economic policies. "We offer African governments a choice, and more choice is a good thing for them," says Li Anshan, deputy head of the department of African studies at Peking University.

Striving for a louder voice

Chinese NGOs trying to monitor the choices on offer, though, must take their political circumstances into account.

Even if an NGO did find a way to galvanize Chinese public opinion about the social impact of a dam in Sudan, for example, it would not dare attempt to mobilize a mass movement, as a Western NGO might try. But other avenues are open, argues Ge Yun, director of the Xinjiang Conservation Fund.

"China wants to be a responsible member of the international community," she says. "The government cares about losing face in the international arena. This is the perspective from which we can appeal to the government."

Already some local NGOs are adopting some of the tactics their Western counterparts have refined, such as pressuring banks not to lend to companies that abuse the environment or their workforce.

Yu Xiaogang, an environmental activist from the southWestern province of Yunnan, hopes to take that further.

"Chinese NGOs must develop good knowledge of Chinese financial institutions' international policies and their impact," he says.

"Our hope," he adds, is that within three to five years, we NGOs can join in large project policymaking" by institutions such as China Eximbank, which funds billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure projects in Africa.

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."

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