China bites back at Egypt summit: the fourth Sino-African summit was held at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, last month. Once again there was a very strong highest-level African presence. Critical issues, such as China's true intentions in the continent and its track record so far, were thrashed out, as Anver Versi and Khadija Sharife report.This series of Sino-Africa forums has always attracted considerable global interest given the stakes at issue. Sharm el Sheikh proved no different. The Chinese once rolled out an impressive investment programme but this time, they also defended their policies against increasing criticism from the West.
Among the African heads of state attending were Sudan's Omar al Bashir and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe--both under the hammer from the West. The strong Chinese delegation was led by prime minister Wen Jiabao, commerce minister Chen Deming and foreign minister Yang Jiechi.
Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, co-hosting the event, reminded the assembly that Egypt had been the very first African country to recognise the People's Republic of China more than 50 years ago and that it had supported the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) from its inception.
Against the backdrop of the global economic recession and its impact on Africa, the Chinese made it a point to draw the distinction between making pledges and keeping to them.
In 2006, China had put forward their 'eight development measures' which covered virtually all angles and which they believed would begin the transformation of the African economy.
These had appeared grandiose at the time and critics, albeit mostly Western, had scoffed at the scale of the pledges and dismissed them as so much pie in the sky.
So, three years down the line, the silent question at the conference was just how many of the pledges had been achieved and to what extent? Would the Chinese skirt around the issue as Western donors had done when they had failed to fulfil even more grand-sounding pledges made at two G8 summits?
On the contrary. The Chinese delegation appeared to relish the opportunity to unfurl their list of activities to the delightfully astonished African delegation.
On his return home from the forum, Zimbabwe Foreign Affairs Minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, echoing the views of most delegates, said: "At the last summit in Beijing in 2006, China pledged to assist in a number of ways and so far 95% of those promises have been fulfilled. We are confident that by the end of the year all the targets will have been met."
But there was more. Despite the economic crisis which had taken a substantial toll on China's export income, Premier Wen Jiabao announced: "We will help Africa build financing capabilities. We will provide $10bn for Africa in concessional loans." In these cash-strapped times, this was very welcome news to Africa and he was cheered. Of the $10bn new funding, one billion dollars has been earmarked for small and medium businesses.
He also announced eight new measures to support African development in the areas of agriculture, debt relief, market access expansion, climate change, health, education, environmental protection and the promotion of investment. In addition, import tariffs on 95% of products from the continent's least-developed countries have been reduced.
China biggest trading partner
In 2008, China replaced the US as Africa's largest trading partner, with the volume of trade reaching $107bn, representing a tenfold increase since 2000.
With foreign direct investment rising from $491m in 2003 to $100bn in 2009, a twentyfold increase during the past decade alone, China is now not only Africa's single largest source of low-interest capital, but also--given tariff reduction--its most equitable trading partner. An interesting aside during this forum was Beijing's belligerent defence of its Africa policy--which has come under aggressive attack from the right-wing Heritage Foundation of the US which has accused the Chinese of aiding and abetting "oppressive and destitute African dictatorships by legitimising their misguided policies".
Wen countered by pointing out that China's interest in Africa had not begun over recent times. "As early as in the 1950s and 1960s, China and Africa fought shoulder to shoulder in the historic struggle against imperialism, colonialism and hegemony and worked side by side in the hard endeavour to revive our respective national economies."
Robert Mugabe also waded in. He said Beijing had built a strong economy without engaging in looting and plundering of the developing world--as the West has done for centuries.
Impressive Chinese roll-out
To underline China's contribution to African development, Premier Wen stated that it had already developed 2,200km of railways and 3,300km of roads and 1,600 processing projects. He dismissed derogatory comments implying that China's interest in Africa resembled 'neocolonialism'.
Instead, he emphasised the need to improve social welfare, agriculture, infrastructure and living standards on the continent through the latest round of the 'eight measure' initiative.
Included in the list are 30 anti-malaria centres, 30 hospitals, 50 schools, debt cancellation, increased cultural exchanges and economic and trade cooperation, as well as 100 clean-energy power stations.
Just how well had China fared in fulfilling its previous 'eight measure' pledges? These had included the following targets: extending $5bn in preferential loans and buyer's credits; increasing preferential zero-tariff treatment from 190 to 440 products; training 15,000 professionals; providing over $37m and 30 hospitals to provide healthcare and fight disease (specifically malaria); creating a China-Africa development fund with a capital of $5bn; providing Chinese companies with incentives to engage in Africa; doubling various forms of assistance ranging from economic to cultural exchanges; establishing 100 schools in rural regions and doubling government scholarships to Africa; and finally, dispatching 100 agricultural specialists to the continent in a bid to develop food security and skills training.
In response, Wen said that by 2008, the construction of 49 out of 100 rural schools was well under way, while in 2009, 30% of anti-malarial clinics had been completed, with 19 out of 30 hospitals and a further 10 anti-malarial clinics under construction; $4.65bn in preferential loans and buyer's credits had been disbursed; 478 products had achieved zero-tariff status; 20% of the $5bn development fund had been secured (with 50% invested in 24 projects, encompassing tourism, telecommunications and machinery manufacturing); 90% of the assistance plan had been allocated; 32 of 33 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) had received 150 interest-free loans; 100 agricultural experts had been dispatched to almost 40 African countries as had 1,000 Chinese medical professionals; and 263 training programmes had been conducted in 49 countries. By any standards, this was a very impressive performance and brings into sharp relief African disappointment expressed during the G20 Pittsburg summit that grand pledges made by Western nations during similar gatherings had not yet been kept.
Wen sought to underscore the Sino-African relationship by quoting from a poem. It said: "Time-honoured friendship, like gold after repeated smelting, keeps its true colour." China, he was emphasising, was not a fair-weather friend, unlike some. The point was made.
But while it was all smiles and handshakes in the conference halls, there were whisperings of certain Chinese shortcomings that are beginning to cause considerable concern.
Chief among these is China's failure to take serious account of the socioeconomic impact of environmentally sensitive developments such as mega-dams, oil and gas production, mining, and agri- and timber-related activities such as logging and cash crops. Its treatment of workers, conditions of work and pay structures have also come under heavy criticism in Africa.
Evidence suggests that this seeming indifference is not because China has double-standards but because its activities on foreign soil replicate its own domestic practices.
But change seems to be on the way. Civil society movements and NGOs within China have been working with state ministries to strengthen the implementation of environmental laws through the Ministry of Environmental Protection. This body has been given the right to block loans to polluting companies, for example.
According to International Rivers (IR), a human and environmental rights organisation: "Starting in 2006, Chinese government agencies also issued a series of guidelines to improve the working conditions, environmental performance and community relations in the Chinese overseas project."
While the intentions may be good, Chinese companies' environmental record and treatment of workers remains poor. Perhaps the secrecy with which many companies surround their activities prevents complaints reaching the ministry concerned, but Chinese officials at the highest level are well aware that this issue remains a sore point. There have been improvements, for example the conduct of China's Export-Import Bank (China Exim Bank) in Gabon, but a lot more has to be done if the shine on the golden friendship between China and Africa is not to tarnish.