Dealing with the dictators While the west is attaching strings to its poverty-relief aid efforts in Africa, China is rushing to do business with the troubled continent in a bid to increase its influence

Gavin Du Venage – The South China Morning Post

July 17, 2005
SECTION: News; Pg. 11
LENGTH: 1080 words
Dealing with the dictators While the west is attaching strings to its poverty-relief aid efforts in Africa, China is rushing to do business with the troubled continent in a bid to increase its influence, writes Gavin Du Venage
It may seem unfair to blame China for Zimbabwe’s “Operation drive out rubbish” – President Robert Mugabe’s campaign to destroy the shacks that shelter up to 300,000 of the country’s poorest people.
But even as the haze from thousands of burned shelters still hangs in the air over the country’s cities, many hold Beijing responsible.
The demolition campaign began unexpectedly in May. Massed phalanxes of police swooped on unsuspecting shack-dwellers, forcing them onto the streets and destroying their homes. Few managed to save their meagre belongings and this, it seems, may have been the point.
“It has been mentioned in many, many circles around here for months now that one of the prime reasons for ‘Operation drive out rubbish’ was in response from complaints from some Chinese businesses that local traders were hurting them,” says Richard Tren, co-author of a study released last week into the consequences and motives behind the brutal campaign.
Mr Tren, along with Bulawayo’s outspoken Catholic Archbishop, Pius Ncube, and US academic Roger Bate from the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, published the study that links the recent arrival of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs to the campaign.
They point to the fact that police paid special attention to homes with market gardens or whose owners had begun selling goods from their premises. In several instances, large suburban homes were also targeted. For instance, police recently raided a plush home in the exclusive northern suburb of Greystone Park in the capital, Harare.
The owner, Rebecca Chanakira, had begun raising chickens to supplement her income and had her entire flock of 3,000 birds confiscated.
Zimbabwe has always had a tiny Chinese community, many of whom regard themselves as Zimbabweans. But in recent years President Robert Mugabe has allowed Chinese businesses to set up en masse. Mr Tren says at least 10,000 have arrived in the past couple of years to set up small shops, factories and other concerns.
“Of course the person ultimately responsible for the clean-up campaign is Mugabe,” Mr Tren says. “But there’s clear evidence that it is his ‘Look East’ policy that is a major factor in its planning.”
Mr Tren adds that Chinese farmers are also now reported to be setting up on tobacco farms abandoned by white owners who were driven off a few years ago to make way for landless blacks.
It has been in Mr Mugabe’s interests to court China. He has received fighter planes, military hardware and even lavish knick-knacks for his fabulous Saddam Hussein-style palace. In a rare interview with a western media outlet last year, Mr Mugabe defended the US$ 9 million construction bill for his new home.
“You say it’s lavish because it is attractive,” Mr Mugabe said. “It has Chinese roofing material, which makes it very beautiful, but it was donated to us. The Chinese are our good friends, you see.”
Mr Mugabe is not the only African tyrant wanting China’s friendship.
Earlier this month, the Group of Eight industrialised nations pledged to boost aid to Africa by about US$ 25 billion a year, provided the beneficiaries combat corruption and adhere to basic human rights’ principals.
Sudan, with one of the world’s most repressive regimes, is not expected to meet G8 criteria. The Sudanese government stands accused of everything from sponsoring civilian massacres to backing militias that use rape as a weapon of war. People living in Sudan’s conflict zones are so poor they eat leaves to survive.
The government in Khartoum is unlikely to receive much aid, despite the dire position of its people, until it can convince donor nations it is serious about ending the civil war and, especially, stopping atrocities against civilians.
Beijing, meanwhile, has not let Sudan’s human rights’ violations deter it from investing heavily in the country’s oil sector, nor selling the Sudanese weaponry, despite western protests.
In West Africa last week, PetroChina International, the oil trading unit of China’s largest oil producer, and Nigeria’s National Petroleum Corporation signed an oil supply pact that will result in the sale and export of 30,000 barrels of crude a day to China to help power the expanding economy.
Nigeria may be a democracy these days, but Transparency International, the Berlin-based non-governmental organisation established to expose and prevent corruption, this year named Nigeria as the world’s most corrupt country among 90 nations assessed.
Western oil companies are now under severe pressure from governments back home and rights organisations to ensure that oil royalties they pay do not end up in the hands of corrupt officials.
PetroChina is unlikely to come under similar scrutiny and analysts are predicting that China’s stake in Nigeria’s lucrative oil industry may be about to rocket.
“The G8 stipulations for aid are very good, they will promote good governance and therefore sustainable development,” says Lyal White, Asia specialist at the South African Institute for International Affairs. “China of course makes no stipulations and this is a problem.”
Mr White says China’s investments in Africa have become so aggressive it has even started speaking to regimes that cling to diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
“We keep hearing of talks with Chad and the possibility of investments there, in spite of the country’s relationship with Taiwan,” he says.
China’s scramble for Africa is not all negative, however, at least, not when compared with the colonial forerunners that began the original exploitation of the continent’s resources. “The Chinese are willing to work the dregs,” Mr White says. Mineral concessions worked to exhaustion or oil wells now abandoned as unprofitable are all game for Chinese companies.
“They are prepared to go in and start operations in places that the French, British and Americans have long since given up on,” he says.
They are building roads and power lines and opening up communications in areas that western competitors regard as too remote to be worth the effort.
Whatever the benefits Chinese investment is bringing, it is unlikely to be very much different from colonial-era exploitation that has weighed so heavily on Africa in the past.
A new scramble for Africa may be under way, and although the winners are yet to be decided, it’s almost a sure bet the losers will be Africa’s long -suffering people.
Copyright © 2005 The South China Morning Post

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