China has to play a role in divided Africa

KEN KAMOCHE – The Nation (Kenya)

Copyright The Nation (Kenya)
Becoming a major player on the world stage is not for the faint-hearted or the paranoid. For centuries, China kept itself isolated, afraid of contamination from the barbarians.
In recent decades, however, China has struggled not just for acceptance into the international community, but for recognition. First as the spokesperson for the developing world and more recently, as a power in its own right.
But what role exactly does China wish to play on the global stage, a stage that has seen entities like the former-USSR disintegrate and fade away into oblivion as the Cold War drew to an end?
China sees itself filling in a void that yawns wider by the day as both Russia and the European bloc of nations fail to provide a credible countervailing force to America’s hegemony.
But how well prepared is China for the sort of prominent role that super-powers crave? China might well enjoy economic prowess that shatters one record after another, from biggest this to fastest that.
However, respect from the rest of the international community doesn’t come from creating super-multinational firms, having the fastest growth rates, or being the largest consumer of resources and hence the world’s largest polluter. Respect, credibility and acceptance come from a morally-sustainable position that relates to global leadership, social justice, peace and goodwill.
The first real test for China has to be Africa, in particular its handling of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, as well as its handling of the strongmen in Myanmar. China buys a third of Sudan’s oil exports and is a major investor in neighbouring Myanmar.
Trade pragmatism taking precedence over everything else might be good for economic statistics, but it raises questions about a country’s sensitivity to the plight of those who suffer repression in the hands of rogue regimes.
If China could stop hiding behind the so-called non-interference principle, and exercise a little more of its clout with Myanmar and Sudan, its credibility would be substantially enhanced.
This is where concerns about China’s ability to handle criticism become important. The imminent Beijing Olympics have already generated a fair bit of controversy with the inevitable linking of sports to politics, something China rejects. Yet, as far as I know, China was among the nations that boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran and China, citing “political reasons”. On that occasion, China seemed untroubled by the link between politics and sports.
China should not be surprised if critics now link the Beijing games to China’s policy on Darfur. In both cases, the political issues touch on the much-vaunted national sovereignty and reflect a widely shared revulsion at the widespread abuse of human rights.
The critics that China is taking exception to include high-profile entertainers like Bono, Mia Farrow, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg, who has withdrawn his involvement in the games thus incurring the wrath of Beijing. Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Desmond Tutu have also added their voices.
The games will in all likelihood go according to plan. China will obviously do well and set new records in the medal haul. National pride will run high, the 5,000-year-old civilisation will announce its arrival on the world stage, on its own soil, in the most majestic way imaginable.
The withdrawal of the Swiss dressage team from the equestrian events to be held in Hong Kong due to concerns about the summer conditions, and Haile Gebrselassie’s threats not to participate on health grounds have generated some adverse publicity for the games.
The pressure is intensifying, and the leaders in Beijing need to realise that this is not just a chance to showcase national prowess.
In fact, any excessive jingoistic displays of national pride of the type we have come to expect from other superpowers, coupled with a failure to use that high-profile clout to bring pressure to bear on Sudan and Myanmar, will, if anything, generate more negative sentiments towards China.
China’s response so far has been to meet criticism with criticism while reiterating the material support they have given to the people of Darfur.
It is not enough, and it shows that China needs a little more experience in handling criticism as it takes on a larger role in global affairs. Paranoia and defensiveness will not help.
It is regrettable that Africa in particular has to look to China for some form of leadership in this crisis. It is as though Africa itself has no voice, no courage, and no commitment to challenge a rogue regime that exists in its very heart.
In the past, when the African political landscape was littered with dictators, the non-interference principle served as a convenient ploy to protect would-be human rights abusers from criticism.
Today, we have a critical mass of legitimate administrations and respected leaders to spearhead measures that will bring about a resolution to the Darfur crisis. That Africa has risen to Kenya’s help in its moment of need shows that it can be done. Africa can solve its own problems. Unfortunately, Darfur has been allowed to fester, as has Zimbabwe.
Ken Kamoche is the author of A Fragile Hope, which has just been shortlisted for the Commonwealth First Book Award.
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