Roar of the Asian tiger: How China bought up Africa

More than 40 African nations will be represented at a summit in Beijing this week, a very public indication of the huge investment one of the world's fastest-growing economies has made in the world's poorest continent. Clifford Coonan reports
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The Sphinx, a herd of elephants and the lions of the Serengeti look down from billboards overhung with construction cranes on to Beijing's ring roads, teeming with cars, cement mixers and other symbols of a booming economy. Sharp-suited African politicians discuss oil, timber and precious metals with equally well-tailored Chinese officials in the lobbies of Beijing's top hotels.

More than 40 African heads of state are in Beijing for this weekend's China-Africa forum to discuss the growing importance of trade between the world's fastest-growing economy and the world's poorest continent. China's trade with Africa is set to exceed £27bn this year and the intense discussions bear out the fact that this is a congress of real import.

The Sino-African summit is the biggest international gathering Beijing has hosted for many years. All told, 48 African countries will send delegations, most of them top leaders, for the ministerial summit which starts on Friday.

The forum marks an astonishing publicity coup for China, and is proof that in this modern-day "scramble for Africa" China is streets ahead when it comes to winning influence in the mineral-rich but often politically unstable continent.

"China is opening itself up to Africa, coming with assistance. We have nothing to lose but our imperialist chains," said Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who is attending the summit.

The Chinese have cleverly taken advantage of the fact that Africa has not been a diplomatic priority for leaders in Washington or the capitals of Europe for many years now. Beijing has actively wooed African nations to boost its diplomatic muscle on the continent, win contracts for Chinese companies and help to meet its ever-growing energy needs.

Traditionally these meetings are "cultural" events, marked by people wearing traditional dress sitting around banqueting tables discussing poetry in regional dialect. But this summit has an edge as sharp as the delegates' suits.

Africa is rich in oil and other natural resources, while China is the world's second-biggest consumer of oil and petrol after the United States. Its factories need iron ore and copper to keep churning out the industrial goods fuelling the country's economic boom, and China has been unstinting in its efforts to maintain good relations, investing £3bn in Africa this year alone.

The giant billboards welcoming the African delegates are written in English, French and Chinese. One sign seems to feature a tribesman from Papua New Guinea, but let's not quibble about details. Beggars have been taken off the streets, the airport touts offering overpriced taxis are gone, and the schools are being let out early to keep traffic moving. Police leave has been cancelled, and commuters are being told to take the bus instead of driving. Beijing city authorities view the congress as a dry run for hosting the 2008 Olympics.

In many ways, the congress marks the culmination of China's 21st-century quest for influence in Africa, which is reminiscent of the undignified scramble in the 19th century when leading European colonial nations fought for their places on the continent. The current scramble is one in which China has played a strong diplomatic hand, backed by its growing economic clout and its increased political flexibility.

China has been busy in recent years wooing African nations to boost its influence on the continent. But Beijing has been criticised for ignoring human rights and environmental standards and failing to attach demands for transparency and accountability to offers of aid, loans and investment to Africa.

Chairman Mao Zedong always dreamt of China leading a Third World alliance of non-aligned nations in a crusade against the capitalist running dogs. But where the poverty of Maoism failed to deliver that sought-after role, socialism with Chinese characteristics, which translates as Chinese capitalism, may yet deliver this alliance.

Back during the Cold War, when everything was simpler, China and Soviet Russia fought for influence among African states. China has steadily built up its influence in Africa since the 1960s and 1970s when it offered its support to newly independent African states, especially Communist ones, and backed independence movements. Beijing has always operated a "no strings attached" policy of economic aid, unlike Western donors, which demand that African countries pledge to fight corruption and improve human rights.

Its enthusiasm for building economic ties with some of the worst human rights offenders in Africa, such as Sudan, has earned it widespread international criticism. However, increasingly reliant on Africa's resources, China defends its economic links with governments accused of civil rights abuses.

"Chinese investment has promoted economic growth in African countries, increased job opportunities, brought technical applications to African countries and improved living standards for African people," the deputy commerce minister, Wei Jianguo, has said.

China has diplomatic relations with 49 African nations, and in the 10 years between 1995 and 2005 trade between China and Africa has multiplied tenfold, from £2bn to nearly £20bn.

With oil from Nigeria, Angola and Sudan, iron ore and platinum from South Africa, timber from Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon, China's shopping list in Africa is a long one.

This week's meeting will focus on trade and economic development rather than more contentious issues such as arms sales to Angola.

"China is the biggest developing country and Africa is a continent where the most developing countries are situated," said He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "They need each other."

China has been generous with its aid. Last year the country lent Angola £1bn to repair infrastructure wrecked during the civil war. The following month, China gave Kenya more than £20m in aid to modernise its state-run utilities.

Africa's trade with China accounts for some 10 per cent of its total trade, but the figure is growing as trade with the European Union decreases.

The human rights group Amnesty International says China's secret arms exports to Sudan are fuelling human rights violations and helping to sustain conflict there.

The World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, has accused China and its banks of ignoring human rights and environmental standards when lending to developing countries in Africa. He was referring to the Equator Principles, which have been adopted by Western banks in an attempt to ensure lending is ethical, sustainable and in accord with environmental and human rights principles, but which Mr Wolfowitz believes may be disregarded by Chinese banks.

Mr Wei said he had not heard of cases of Chinese firms destroying the environment in Africa, but promised tough action if they do. "We will mete out severe punishment ... and revoke their licence to operate anywhere outside China," he said. "The Chinese government attaches great importance to the responsibility of Chinese enterprises when they operate in Africa. When approving possible projects, we would not agree to those projects which have the potential to have these effects on the environment."

Popular resentment in Africa has been building, with some countries complaining about the flood of cheap manufactured goods from China, which they say is damaging local industry. There has also been unrest over labour standards at Chinese-invested companies. Zambia has been an ally for many years, but China became an issue in the September presidential election, when the opposition candidate questioned the benefit from Chinese investment, prompting a miffed reaction from Beijing. In July, scores of African workers at a Chinese-owned Zambian mine rioted over low wages.

Analysts say that a combination of China's hunger for raw materials and its manufacturing strength could choke efforts by African nations to diversify from being commodity exporters. Chinese clothing and textiles, plastics and electronics are flooding the markets in Africa and local companies have little chance of competing.

Angola overtook Saudi Arabia this year to become China's largest supplier of crude oil, and the Chinese state energy company Sinopec has offered big bonuses for oil exploration and production contracts in Africa.

On a tour of Egypt, Ghana, Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda earlier this year, the Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, offered Luanda a £1bn credit line.

China has also come under fire for investing in oil-rich Sudan, whose President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was expected to attend the summit. The assistant foreign minister, Zhai Jun, said Mr Bashir and Chinese leaders would discuss the situation in Darfur, where three years of fighting has killed more than 200,000 and forced 2.5 million from their homes. "We believe the humanitarian situation should be improved and we support an active role for the UN in this," Mr Zhai said.

However, he also intoned the long-held Chinese mantra that human rights issues were a domestic problem and not for foreign governments to meddle in. "It is never our view that a country should interfere in another country's internal affairs and human rights," he said.

Many African nations like the Chinese model of single-party rule with a firm grip on key industries and companies.

This summit is all about showcasing Beijing, which has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past few years as it gears up for the Olympics. The world's leading architects have been brought in to help bring about a metamorphosis. Whole swaths of the city have been demolished, with ancient courtyard houses replaced by shiny glass skyscrapers and huge dual carriageways criss-crossing the medieval city.

It is not just about oil and aid. A conference for 1,500 entrepreneurs from both sides will be held on the sidelines, which will examine co-operation on agriculture, water projects, construction, energy, transportation and pharmaceuticals. There will also be an African product exhibition.

China also invited rival Taiwan's diplomatic allies in Africa - Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Malawi, Gambia, and São Tomé and Principe - to attend, although it is not clear whether they have taken up the offer or not.

China has also said it wants to strengthen its ties with Africa by promoting high-level military exchanges between the two sides.

Beijing's Communist Party Secretary, Liu Qi, has called for "all-out efforts to create a seriously friendly atmosphere for Sino-African relations". The grass around the airport and the conference venues is being painted green. But don't make the mistake of thinking this summit is just for show.