China Wages Classroom Struggle to Win Friends in Africa

November 20, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
BEIJING – As the teacher, a career Chinese diplomat, spoke, his class of African diplomats scribbled furiously.
At the United Nations, China opposed the United States invasion of Iraq and has defended the right of Iran and other developing countries to use civilian nuclear power, said the teacher, Yuan Shibin. China, he noted pointedly, swept aside American objections to making an African the secretary general.
There was nothing subtle about his message, which will be repeatedly hammered home to the African diplomats during their three month, all-expenses paid stay at the Foreign Affairs University here. “China will always protect its own interests as well as those of other developing countries,” Mr. Yuan said. By contrast, “U.S. national interests are not often in conformity with those of other nations, including China.”
The classes are one element in a campaign by Beijing to win friends around the world and pry developing nations out of the United States’ sphere of influence. Africa, with its immense oil and mineral wealth and numerous United Nations votes, lies at the heart of that effort.
Since 2000, Chinese trade with Africa has more than tripled, reaching nearly $30 billion in 2004. Beijing has signed at least 40 oil agreements with various African countries. Medical teams from China are training counterparts in numerous African countries and providing free equipment and drugs to help fight AIDS, malaria and other scourges.
“China is making a determined effort to make sure that its interests are represented,” said Drew Thompson, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They are making sure they have a seat at the table, and that their relationships are comprehensive and not just economic. It isn’t competitive in the way the cold war was. It’s more a case of seeing to it that their message is on one of the many cable channels out there.”
China’s efforts to cultivate African ties date to the earliest days of the independence era on the continent, when Beijing armed and trained liberation movements and sent its workers by the thousands to build roads, railways and stadiums. Today, Chinese bankers and oil executives are as common a sight as Westerners in African capitals.
Meanwhile, several Chinese ministries, including Science and Technology, Agriculture, Commerce and Education, are working with African governments to train officials and develop human resources.
While the aid seems aimed at winning African hearts, the classes in diplomacy, constantly refined over the past decade, seem aimed more at swaying African minds. In addition, to impart a sympathetic view of China, they put forth a distinctly Chinese view of the world on questions about everything from economic development and history to democracy.
“Soft power is said to be coercive, persuading people to do what you’d like them to do, as opposed to hard power, which means forcing them to do what you want to do,” said Qin Yaqing, vice president of the Foreign Affairs University, a state-run school that trains China’s own diplomats and works with foreign trainees. “In traditional Chinese philosophy we have something similar to this, and it is called moral attraction.”
China’s appeal to Africa and much of the third world centers on the idea that nations will be drawn to an emerging superpower that does not lecture them about democracy and human rights or interfere in what Beijing considers “internal affairs.”
The other pole of attraction is, of course, China’s remarkable quarter century of economic growth, which has lifted it from the ranks of the poorest to make it one of the largest and most powerful economies.
For developing countries, many of which have grown disenchanted with the so-called Washington consensus, a mixture of lowered trade barriers, privatization, democracy and free markets, there is intense interest in trying to learn from China. There is talk of a rival “Beijing Consensus,” which emphasizes innovation and growth through a social-market economy, while placing less emphasis on free markets and democracy.
Officially, China denies that it is promoting a competing program. “Yes, a lot of African countries have been coming to China,” said Liu Jianchao, deputy spokesman of the Foreign Ministry. “But although people may call it a Beijing Consensus, we are not trying to pose as a model for other countries.”
Although he emphasized that he was speaking for himself, Mr. Qin of the Foreign Affairs University gave a serviceable summation of what many see as the official Chinese view. “Many of these countries in economic crisis get advice from these institutions that just can’t work,” he said. “China has a certain development experience that is relevant to these countries, and my advice is derived in part from Samuel Huntington, whose view is that democracy is a luxury.”

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