Money and Mandarin lessons fuel China's African invasion

From Liberia to Ethiopia, Beijing is constructing a 21st century empire thousands of miles from home

This afternoon more than a dozen Liberians are expected at the Samuel Doe sports stadium in the capital, Monrovia. In a makeshift classroom with some plastic chairs and a whiteboard their teacher, Li Peng, is waiting to finish the group's second week of instruction in Mandarin Chinese. Early attendances at the free daily lessons provided by the Chinese embassy have been poor, but officials are blaming heavy rain rather than light interest. The class is still struggling with the basics and few Chinese listeners apart from their teacher would recognise the strange "hellos" and "goodbyes" being called out.

"Learning Chinese may prove difficult," Mr Li admitted. "But if they work hard they will make it."

The West African country set up to settle freed American slaves in 1843 is English-speaking and the going is hard.

John Cooper, a 57-year-old who has been attending the two-hour classes and works at a nearby youth centre, is determined to master Mandarin.

"Traditionally, we Liberians are closer to the Americans than we are to the Chinese," he says. "But the irony is that the Chinese are more open to us than the Americans are."

Liberia's government has no Mandarin speakers, and China's ambassador, Zhou Yuxiao, admits that he's uncomfortable that multibillion-dollar accords between the two countries are signed with one side unable to read the documents.

"We feel a little bit guilty at not being able to help Liberians to speak our language," he told the Associated Press.

On the same day last week that the Mandarin lessons were getting under way at the stadium in Monrovia, a much larger crowd was gathering about 300 miles to the northwest at another sports stadium, this time in Conakry, the capital of Guinea. The people had gathered to protest against the military junta and a young army officer, Moussa Dadis Camara, who with wearying predictability has been considering going back on earlier promises to hold free elections.

While Liberian students were grappling with Mandarin vowels more than 150 Guineans were being murdered. Scores of women were then raped. The massacre prompted international outrage, and the African Union meets next week to discuss possible sanctions. But it was revealed this week that China was preparing to throw the regime a lifeline in the form of nearly £4.3bn in oil and minerals deals.

It has left many wondering which is the real face of China in Africa: is it the quest for understanding being led by Mr Li in Monrovia? Or the naked pursuit of raw materials whose sale props up abusive governments like the one in Conakry?

China's engagement in Africa was supposed to have changed, experts say. Beijing's doctrine of "non-interference" in the domestic affairs of other countries was put to one side last year as it helped to nudge Sudan, one of its major oil suppliers, into allowing a beefed-up UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur. Then on a visit earlier this year China's president, Hu Jintao, signalled Beijing's intent to double aid to Africa.

According to Ian Taylor, a senior lecturer in international affairs at the University of St Andrews, the apparent contradiction is the product of a "clueless" approach to Beijing – "a tendency to treat China as if it's 'China Inc'."

Speaking from Beijing, he said: "There is no one Chinese policy towards Africa – it is a mixture of often-competing actors and influences that may or may not gel with official policy."

Chinese trade with Africa has grown from less than £6.3bn at the beginning of the decade to pass £60bn at the end of last year – only the European Union and the US do more business.

There are now some 800 Chinese companies operating in Africa and the investors in talks in Conakry are not from Beijing but from the Hong Kong-based China Investment Fund. Yet only two months ago officials in Beijing said that China would not be investing in Guinea.

"It's not clear if the CIF has the support of Beijing," said Dr Chris Alden, author of China in Africa. "Just like ordinary Western actors in Africa, China has independent actors who take decisions without reference to central government."

And some analysts suggest China's no-strings-attached approach in pariah states like Sudan and Zimbabwe is not the whole story.

Some 25 years after Band-Aid seared Ethiopia into the Western consciousness and conscience, China's engagement with Addis Ababa may say more about the Sino-African relationship. Whatever the achievements or shortcomings of famine-inspired aid in the Horn of Africa nation, they are being dwarfed by the Chinese-backed transformation of the country.

Ethiopia boasts none of the reservoirs of raw materials China is normally associated with, but Beijing has been doling out the credit to build roads and hydroelectric dams and is now financing a £940m expansion of the state-owned mobile telephone network.

In a recent paper for The South African Institute of International Affairs, Dr Monika Thakur found China's role in Ethiopia contradicted the spectre of the hungry dragon invoked by some in the West.

"China's activities in Ethiopia, and in Africa in general, are part of its continuing emergence as a global power, and as such are no different from what major powers traditionally have done," she wrote.

"Overarching judgements as to whether China's engagement is a blessing or a curse for Ethiopia are still unclear. What is certain is that the country can derive much from China's economic engagement."

The government in Addis Ababa has enjoyed the increased influence over Western donors that Chinese help has afforded.

"I think it would be wrong for people in the West to assume that they can buy good governance in Africa; good governance can only come from inside," Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, told the Financial Times recently. "What the Chinese have done is explode that illusion."

Mr Zenawi's government does not attract headlines in the way that Sudan's Omar al-Bashir does, but his administration has overseen the violent suppression of opposition in the wake of disputed elections. And he has since jailed popular opponents, such as opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.

Dr Thakur warns that Addis Ababa could use Chinese assistance to avoid change – which could lead to "authoritarian stagnation".

However, China's own emergence as a great power, and the legitimacy of the one-party rule in Beijing, has been based on economic growth. Those looking for a champion of human or political rights are likely to be disappointed.

"The jury is still out on the significance of China's actions on Darfur," argues Dr Alden. "It's up to Africans to decide if China is having a positive or negative impact on rights in Africa. On the whole China is having a fairly neutral impact – it's really more about economic development."

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