“How would you feel if we went and killed all your pandas?”
That was the question put to a Chinese journalist by a Kenyan game warden. The query didn’t make the final cut of a Chinese documentary on the ivory trade last year. But the fact that the question was asked so directly hinted at how attitudes to Chinese influence in Africa have started to become more critical.
Hence the careful planning of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s weeklong trip to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya this month. Gone were the high-profile announcements about oil and mining contracts that have served as centrepieces for trips in the past. In their place were pledges of jobs, investment in infrastructure, and technology transfer.
For Africa’s game wardens, there was even a promise of more money for wildlife protection too.
This more “brotherly” approach is designed to counter allegations that Beijing’s behaviour in countries like Angola, Zambia and Nigeria is that of a neo-colonialist – something that China finds hard to stomach because of its own experience at the hands of expansionist imperial powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
“I sincerely wish to assure our African friends that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa,” Li announced shortly before his visit.
According to the African Development Bank, 85% of Chinese exports from Africa are raw materials, such as oil and minerals. So Africans want to see more evidence of words becoming deeds.
“Engagement must be on terms that allow the Chinese to make money while developing the continent, such as incentives to set up manufacturing on African soil and policies to ensure employment of Africans,” Nigeria’s central banker Lamido Sanusi told the Financial Times last year.
In a speech to the African Union in Addis Ababa, Li also acknowledged that there had been “growing pains” in relations but promised an “upgrading” in business ties that will see more job creation for Africans. He said that China would push for more technology transfer for machinery makers and garment factories. Li also committed to building more airports, roads and railways. A few days later he signed a $3.8 billion deal to fund a railway line from the port city of Mombasa to Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Noting that the presidents of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan were at the signing ceremony, Li highlighted their “common desire to develop [a] railway network in East Africa.”
“Both history and reality tell us that when China develops well, Africa will get opportunities; when Africa develops well, China will stand to benefit; and when China and Africa all make progress in development, the world will become a better place for mankind to live,” he said.
Chinese state media hailed the trip as a great success, quoting local experts to prove its point.
“Everybody is coming here and lecturing us about human rights and all these things… This is the first world leader to come… and make commitments on technology transfer,” Bright Simons, a ‘social innovator’ from Ghana, told Xinhua.
The same source quoted Francis Chigunta from the University of Zambia as saying that the pledges “defeat long-held beliefs by some that China has the colonial mentality with its engagement in Africa”.
“When facing the sour grapes attitude of the West, the Chinese enterprises should polish their brands and concentrate on building good infrastructure in Africa,” the Guangzhou Daily urged.
Li – who was accompanied by his wife Cheng Hong, a professor of American literature – certainly struck a more approachable figure than some of his predecessors on trips around Africa.
And on his final day in Kenya he visited a monument to fighting ivory poachers – just a few miles from the elephant orphanage in which the warden confronted the Chinese TV journalist. Here he made a pledge of $10 million towards battling the trade in endangered species.
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