A Good Man in Africa

As Chinese President Hu Jintao tied up his annual New Year African trip earlier this week, more than one eyebrow has been raised in the west regarding its agenda – skipping important countries for a clutch of also-rans. But with many voices, often African ones, becoming more prominent critics of Beijing's policies on the continent, it isn’t really surprising that China is seeking to broaden its relationships across the continent.

While the rest of the world is battling to save failing economies, Hu's visits to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius present new opportunities for ever- growing bilateral trade between the region and Beijing. In 2008 this figure jumped a staggering 45 percent to US$106 billion, much of it for energy purchases.

The figure, however, belies the growing discontent in many African countries over China's so-called One Africa policy. Chinese workers have been kidnapped and murdered in some countries and China has been accused of generating a slave empire that is looting the continent of its energy and minerals.

Beijing sees the continent as a market for the growing manufacturing surplus of the Pearl River Delta, which the Politburo's economy can ill afford. But the flow of goods into Africa is causing some of the same trade frictions that China faces with the west as China-manufactured goods overwhelm local industry, which can’t compete.

For instance, Nigeria's minister of commerce and industry, Charles Ugwu, noted last October that the volume of trade between the two countries, outside of oil and gas, was in excess of $6 billion. The flooding of the market by cheaper Chinese goods has cut dramatically into Nigeria’s indigenous textile manufacturing industry. The Nigerian general secretary of the textile, tailoring and garment union, Issa Aremu said this has led to the closing of 65 textile mills and the laying off of a total of 150,000 textile workers over the past 10 years.

Such figures have understandably caused protests and violence in some notably already unstable areas. They have also contributed toward a drop in popularity for Beijing and the need for China's first comprehensive country risk report - Sinosure. As Beijing trade has become a much more politically sensitive issue for the Nigerian government, the regime in Abuja has also fostered ties with Delhi, making it India's largest trading partner on the continent.

In Zimbabwe, locals have coined a new term to describe the phenomenon of growing Chinese imports. "'Zhing-zhong', means that something is substandard," said Eldred Masunugure, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Zimbabwe, Harare.

Protests against the Chinese have not, however, just simply been peaceful and/or resulted in the creation of new words. There has been a steady progression toward more violent warnings against Chinese expansion. Nigerian militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have warned Chinese companies to 'stay well clear' of the Niger Delta or risk facing attacks. They have also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack near the port town of Warri, stating that the blast was a "warning against Chinese expansion in the region" and that "the Chinese government, by investing in stolen crude, places its citizens in our line of fire."

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Things aren't running as smoothly as anticipated by Beijing and as such it has begun to adjust its policies. Hu's visits are the first high profile example of this and consequently should be no surprise to anyone. China has sought to capitalize on the sine qua non of African politics - the anti-colonial discourse. However, its South-South rhetoric and short-term policies have not allowed it to overcome growing discontent. The rapidity of its engagement of country elites and resources under their control has belied, until recently, its much shallower roots in wider African society.

Much of the problem resides in the fact that Beijing's original One Africa policy was systematically naïve and failed to understand that Africa is one of the most diverse regions on the planet. One policy for an entire continent seems wholly inadequate in the absence of a Europe policy for example.

However, while China at least has an African policy, African countries do not have a China policy. The closest is Mugabe's choice to 'Look East', which it is easy to suggest is not the high point of political development on the continent. A considerable number of Africans therefore view Beijing as a resource pariah, contributing little to the everyday citizen.

The African Union's New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) agreement is not enough to counter this growing trend. Even though Beijing has given lip service to the multilateral document, which seeks to take care of the continent’s development agenda via a new relationship with the international community, in truth, on the ground level all deals are still conducted behind closed doors and bilaterally.

This has allowed Beijing to emphasize their connections with specific leaders but it has also left them open to very direct criticism about their 'irresponsible' behavior. Indeed, the headache of Darfur for Beijing does not seem to have been alleviated by their more active approach to United Nations peacekeeping in the region. Rather it has highlighted their duality.

Such criticisms, often hypocritical, have angered and bewildered Beijing. However, more long-term policies are now coming into place promoting stability and good governance.

Part of Beijing's expansion in Africa, outside of deals with smaller countries, means a reinforcement of the ever-increasing role of non-state corporate actors. On the frontline of Sino-Afro relations, this multitude of local government officials and companies manufacturing in the region is the fertile ground from which future interactions will stem.

More crucial to African countries than state visits or corporate globalization will be whether China weathers the current financial storm. If it fails to maintain domestic stability, the whole world will suffer, however it is Africa with its more intense and more diverse set of relations which will be affected most.