China vows to avoid 'colonial' path in Africa. What will it do instead?

On a four-nation Africa tour, Chinese premier Li Keqiang said there are some 'growing pains' in the China-Africa relationship and indicated a concern for social development in Africa. 

Elias Asmare/AP
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, left, is welcomed by Ethiopian Premier Hailemariam Desalegn at the Ethiopian Presidential Palace, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Sunday May 4, 2014.

Five years after becoming Africa’s biggest trade partner, China is starting to admit that all is not perfect in its great African foray.

On Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is on a four-nation visit that began in Ethiopia, acknowledged that trouble spots in Chinese-invested projects in several countries indicate “growing pains.” Li will also visit Nigeria, Kenya, and Angola in his seven-day trip, all countries where China has a weighty presence in resource extraction and infrastructure development.

The premier, who signed more than a dozen deals for building roads and industrial parks in Ethiopia, told a pre-departure news conference that China is deeply concerned with social development in Africa, not in becoming a new colonial power. That line may be more difficult to maintain in the years ahead.

“I wish to assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did, or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa,” Li was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.

On Monday, Li announced in Ethiopia that China would expand an existing credit line to several African nations by $10 billion and add another $2 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund. 

China has established a reputation of investing in Africa without attaching humanitarian strings. The strategy has been lauded by those who believe the terms are more honest than outdated Western development aid, but vilified by critics who see China as propping up corrupt, brutal regimes across the continent. 

On the ground, many are wary of China’s labor practices, and of a barrage of fake and substandard products, medicines, and consumer goods. Chinese-owned and managed mines and construction sites in several countries have suffered labor disputes. In addition to a lack of transparency in the terms agreed between Chinese and African dealmakers, China also faces an image problem among ordinary Africans.

With that backdrop, China appears to be changing its tactics a bit. China has become more involved in UN peacekeeping activities in Africa and positioned itself as a central diplomatic power in trying to quell violence in South Sudan. These moves represent a departure from China’s previous business-first-and-only tactics, but officials haven't spelled out just how involved China could be in steering regional politics.

In a speech at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa on Monday, Li called growth in China-Africa relations an “unstoppable historical trend,” but gave no specifics on how China might change its dealings with African countries. It has pledged to double trade flows to $400 billion by 2020. 

In an interview with several journalists from the countries he will visit, Li issued a statement that African countries should follow China’s lead on economic and social development – another new turn from China in dispensing advice on how countries should develop.

“Africa must begin to self-assess and learn from the Chinese path of development to be able to initiate its own development plans and pursue African dreams,” Li was quoted as saying. 

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