Published on globalinfo.org, November 6, 2006 (IPS/GIN), by Antoaneta Bezlova – A flurry of trade deals worth two billion US dollars were signed here during an unprecedented China-Africa summit aimed at forging closer links with the resource-rich continent. But while talking business, China showed sensitivity to criticism that it is behaving like a traditional colonial power.
The announcement of the deals on Sunday came after Beijing pledged to double China’s aid to Africa from its 2006 level by 2009. Speaking at the summit, President Hu Jintao promised three billion dollars in preferential loans, two billion dollars in export credits and the setting up of a five billion dollar fund to encourage Chinese investment in Africa.
Hu declared China’s newly forged strategic partnership with Africa would be based on “political equality and mutual trust”. He emphasised also the “win-win economic cooperation”, noting that China and Africa conducted $40.6 billion of trade in the first nine months of the year, up 40 percent on a year earlier.
“Common destiny and common goals have brought us together,” Hu said, evoking Chinese and African nations’ past battles against colonialism.
Acknowledging China’s rise as an economic powerhouse, Hu promised Beijing would forgive more debts owed by the poorest African countries and grant more of their goods tariff-free import status. China has so far written off the debt of 31 countries and given an estimated $5.5 billion in assistance.
Yet, Beijing refused to link its aid and growing investment in the continent to human rights or democracy as the United States and western countries have often demanded.
“Chinese assistance to Africa is sincere, unselfish and has no strings attached,” Premier Wen Jiabao said at a gathering of Chinese and African entrepreneurs held as part of the two-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit.
Human rights groups have been concerned about China’s willingness to turn a blind eye on unethical policies of African governments while looking for oil and raw materials to supply its burgeoning economy.
China recently welcomed Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, who is largely ostracised in the international arena for his authoritarian and racially discriminatory rule.
Beijing is also a staunch supporter of Sudan regime, which has been accused of allowing genocide in its Darfur region. At least 200,000 people are said to have died as a result of Khartoum’s policies, but Sudan’s economy is booming largely as a result of oil exports to China.
Both Mugabe and Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, were among the 48 African leaders and representatives who attended the Beijing summit. It prompted the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to appeal to Chinese leaders to stop aiding their regimes by providing aid and supplying them with electronic-surveillance technology.
“A truly revolutionary approach for any power in Africa, and particularly one that prides itself on its solidarity with the developing world, would be to stand with the people of Africa and support their basic human rights,” HRW said in a statement.
With half-a-century of communist rule, China has been averse to making overt diplomatic interventions in other countries’ domestic politics. As China’s influence on the international arena has increased, though, its policy of “non-interference” has come under fire as self-serving and inappropriate for an emerging global player.
But at a press conference with the foreign ministers of Ethiopia and Egypt, Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing rejected such criticism saying China respected the choices made by African countries and would not impose China’s development mode on the continent.
Chinese commentators have also described the forum as an unprecedented opportunity for African leaders to get their voices heard in the international arena.
“No matter how highly you value the importance of the summit in this regard, you cannot overrate it,” said Liu Naiya, an African expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Having been politically and economically marginalised after the Cold War, African countries must rely on cooperation with the South in order to advance their dialogue with the North, Liu argued.
Beijing has pledged to lobby with the United Nations to pay more attention to economic development of Africa, and to promote South-South cooperation. The $1.9 billion worth of trade deals signed during the Nov.3-5 summit cover cooperation in a wide range of areas such as natural resources, infrastructure, finance, technology, textiles and communication.
The largest among them are a $938 million deal for China’s state-owned CITIC to set up an aluminium plant in Egypt and a $300 million deal to upgrade a highway in Nigeria.
Fending off criticism that its large investment projects bring with them expatriate Chinese workers and do not leave any legacy of skill transfer, Beijing announced it will train 15,000 African professionals while sending agriculture experts and youth volunteers to work in the continent. It said it would double to 4,000 the number of scholarships given to African students by 2009.