Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, special representative on African Affairs for the People's Republic of China, and Charles Stith, director of the African Presidential Center and former Ambassador to Tanzania, spoke about China's role in Africa at a Boston University forum last Friday. (Don West photo)What is China up to in Africa?
A senior diplomat who is China’s special representative to Africa, Ambassador Zhong Jianhua, answered that and several other pointed questions at a forum sponsored by the African Presidential Center at Boston University.
The address was Zhong’s first in the United States on China-Africa relations since being named to his current position in February. During the address, Zhong outlined his country’s growing ties to African countries in trade, investment and development aid.
"We see Africa as very hopeful and an important part of the world, politically and economically," Zhong told an overflow audience of 350 last Friday. "In the first decade of the 21st century, Africa’s annual economic growth rate was averaged at 5.7 percent, and six of the 10 fastest-growing economies were in the African continent."
The former ambassador to South Africa and Britain said China’s relations with Africa are guided by the principles of "enhancing friendship, treating each other as equals, extending mutual support and promoting common development."
One result is the expansion of trade between the continent and the world’s most populous country. Last year, the value of African exports to China exceeded that of Chinese imports to the continent
Zhong said "for three years in a row, China has been Africa’s biggest trading partner country. Bilateral trade rose to $166.3 billion from only $10 billion in 2000, while Africa’s exports in China went from $5.6 billion in 2000 to $93.2 billion in 2011."
Investment has bumped up too. By last June, Zhong said, China had invested $15 billion directly in Africa, although he did not specify over what time period. He said Africa has become the fourth-largest destination of the country’s investments overseas.
With the government’s encouragement, more than 2,000 Chinese companies operate in Africa and employ a workforce that is 85 percent African, the ambassador said.
Zhong said China has doubled development aid to Africa, but did not cite the current total. The funds have been used to reduce poverty, prepare for disasters and build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and facilities to supply water.
China’s expanded investment and trade in Africa has drawn criticism that was reflected in some questions from the audience at B.U. and, via video link, three historically black colleges—Morehouse College, North Carolina A & T State and Elizabeth City State University.
A B.U. questioner noted the operations of a state-owned Chinese oil company in Sudan, where the current government has been accused of fostering atrocities against residents of the Darfur region. The man asked if Africa was merely a place for China to obtain the oil and natural gas it needs to fuel its industrial expansion.
"I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Chinese cooperation in Sudan," Zhong said. "We don’t see it as killing people."
The ambassador added that "33 percent of Africa’s oil goes to Europe, 30 percent goes to the United States. Only 18 percent goes to China, yet the international community labels China greedy?" He called criticizing the Chinese share "not fair."
Another questioner suggested China was exploiting the continent as an extractor of natural resources, the same role European powers played during the colonial era.
"I know the Chinese role in Africa has been scrutinized," Zhong replied in part. "However, as new players in the game you have to deal with that."
He said China has encouraged African countries to take the revenue from selling raw materials and invest the money in infrastructure, to support their own development.
"I know we are being criticized for supplying people all these cheap goods. But if it means people have access to products they did not before and the people like those goods, what is so wrong with that?" Zhong added.
On foreign aid, the ambassador was asked how much China is doing to promote clean energy and combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other chronic diseases in Africa.
Zhong’s responses to the two questions cited China’s limitations, despite its emergence as a major part of the global economy.
"China is still a developing country" that lacks the capacity to do a major project in Africa on clean energy, he said.
China also lacks the ability to provide funds to combat AIDS in Africa, the ambassador said, like the United States has done.
"Compared to the U.S., we are a small brother," he said of the nation of 1.3 billion.
Zhong read his official prepared text stiffly and in a soft voice, but grew more audible and animated when responding to questions.
"While conceding China’s engagement in Africa is not perfect in every sense, Ambassador Zhong’s sense of the good that China does is consistent with my conversations with African leaders," said Charles Stith, the director of B.U.’s African Presidential Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.