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THE EXACT number of protesters shot dead at a demonstration in Guinea last month is unknown. Estimates vary between 150 and 200. Soldiers of the ruling junta beat and raped survivors.
The massacre was condemned by the EU, the UN secretary-general and the African Union. On what foundations, observers asked, does the Guinean regime stand other than murderous repression?
The answer came last week, with reports that Chinese investors are planning infrastructure, oil and mining projects in the country worth up to $7bn. The deal appeared to confirm a trend: China propping up noxious regimes in Africa in exchange for natural resources, no questions asked.
That process rightly provokes outrage. But such opprobrium would have more impact in Africa if China’s approach did not happen to mirror much of western policy over the last 150 years.
In 1996, trade between China and Africa was worth $3.5bn. Last year it was worth at least $66bn. Just behind the US, China is Africa’s largest trading partner. Some 900 Chinese companies operate in the continent bringing with them an army of at least 750,000 ex-pat managers and migrant labourers. This burgeoning partnership will be one of the most important economic and strategic axes of the 21st century. Its nature is generally interpreted in two ways.
First, it is said to be a modern remake of European colonialism. At best, that view casts Chinese investors as adventurers on a wild economic frontier. At worst, it casts them as plunderers taking mineral wealth from under the feet of dispossessed Africans, buttressing bad governments â€šÃ„Ã¬ in Zimbabwe for example â€šÃ„Ã¬ and corrupting good ones.
The second interpretation is that China simply invests in Africa to the mutual benefit of both.
Beijing does not just use natural resources, it finances infrastructure. New roads and bridges appear on a daily basis across the continent. China, goes this view, is building the new Africa that the west only ever talked about.
Both accounts contain truth and distortion. China is clearly unperturbed by human rights abuses except, occasionally, when they generate unwelcome publicity. It is also clear that officials bearing cash from China’s notoriously corrupt state-backed enterprises are unlikely to raise standards of governance and transparency in recipient countries.
Also, China desperately needs new markets for its mass-produced cheap goods, and work for its surplus of unskilled labour. African countries could become the arena for a Chinese-run commercial structure leaving no room for local businesses to grow. Beijing has no political or economic incentive to foster a self-sufficient African middle class.
But if the charge is that Chinese involvement is bad for Africa, it presumes western investment would be better. Perhaps it would. In recent years, trade and aid policy in the west has started taking seriously anti-corruption, governance and democracy issues.
But those principles have never been implemented to an extent that mitigates what Africans have actually experienced from the west: support for apartheid, military dictatorship, monopolisation of natural resources.
African governments face a choice between a new partner, accused of bad intentions, and the old one, proved guilty of bad practice.
And choice is key. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the west acquired a near monopoly in African trade. That it made human rights part of the terms of discussion is laudable; that it failed to make much progress is a tragically wasted opportunity. Now the monopoly is lost. If western democracies want to influence African development they must compete with the offer from Chinese autocratic state capitalism.
It is meaningless just to assert the moral superiority of trade with conditions of good governance and transparency attached. It is time to start proving it with sustained investment aimed at fostering civil society that will yield real political benefits for Africa.
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Copyright The Guardian