Bright B Simons, Evans Lartey and Franklin Cudjoe : Emperor Hu’s new clothes for Africa

Feb 8 2007, ACCRA, Ghana – On Saturday, Chinese President Hu Jintao’s whirlwind visit to eight African countries in 12 days will come to an end, marking a bold new foray into the "Dark Continent".

Six centuries ago, another Chinese dignitary touched on the shores of Africa; he returned to Beijing with a giraffe, an exotic gift no doubt, but so underwhelmed were the occupants of the Forbidden Palace about such returns on their massive investment
that Admiral Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet, loudly hailed when it set sail, was grounded by the Ming emperor, and no more global expeditions were again sanctioned by the imperial court.

A fine eunuch Admiral Zheng may have been, and a pious Muslim, too, as far as one can tell, but he was still only an emissary; whereas Hu is nothing short of the emperor himself.

He may lack the charisma of some previous visitors to the continent who are said to have left an indelible, and enduring, impression on its inhabitants, such as former US president Bill Clinton, say, but this lack Hu has made up for with gifts, and plenty of them.

Liberia received US$25 million, in cash. The impoverished West African country was also promised three schools for its underdeveloped hinterlands, a couple of new structures for its crumbling university, and bales of anti-malaria drugs to stock its empty hospital cabinets.

Zambia had $61 million in debt wiped off, and was promised a hospital, a new stadium and a range of assistance packages in emergency relief and food security.

Everywhere he went, Hu left a glittering trail of gratitude and affectionate praise. Everyone seemed urgently to need something, China always seemed perfectly willing and ready to oblige. Which raises the question: What influenced the selection of countries?

From what one can gather, it was apparently random. This is Hu’s fifth visit to the continent since he joined the Politburo (the inner sanctum of the Chinese Communist Party), his third since he became president in 2003. Apart from South Africa, all the countries on his list had until this week never benefited from a visit by Chinese delegations at this level. In that context, commentators reading too much into the decision not to include such countries as Zimbabwe and Nigeria on the list are missing the point.

No specific political statement is being sent out. On his last visit, another set of countries, including Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria, enjoyed the privilege; now it is the turn of the current eight – Cameroon, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Sudan and Zambia. If there is a political strategy at all, it is most likely based on a desire to visit as many African countries as possible, in as many different regions as possible.

So back to that Zheng He allusion, then. What is Hu hoping for? Does this trip offer anything of interest to Sino-African-relations addicts or not? Is it merely a rehash of boring old themes of "buying friendships" and "spiting the West"? Has Hu – to put it colorfully – any new clothes? There may be something worthy to look at.

Is the honeymoon over?
That bit about Hu having been feted everywhere he went is all true. But only if you are content with the choreographed public relations displays on official news bulletins on the various state televisions. Allow yourself to be distracted ever so slightly away from the drumrolls and footlights, and darker patterns emerge.

In Liberia: Hu’s visit coincided with and was mired in some controversy. The Speaker of the West African country’s Senate was reported to have been meeting with Taiwanese officials in Gambia, a neighboring country, just around the same time that preparations were being made to receive Hu in Monrovia.

The embarrassment was naturally palpable. Government supporters in the Liberian legislature scrambled to express their outrage. The Speaker – Edwin Snowe – was promptly impeached. He appealed the decision to the law courts on procedural and constitutional grounds and won the case. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated former minister in a number of past governments, nevertheless decided to hold her State of the Union address outside Parliament and the national capital in contravention of custom and protocol.

The controversy continues to rage. Snowe won’t resign and the government’s supporters in the legislature won’t back off. In possible recognition of the constitutional uncertainties surrounding the impeachment issue, Snowe’s opponents have decided to try another tack – they are seeking his prosecution on corruption grounds regarding some transactions he was privy to in his days as a top executive in the country’s oil monopoly.

It is far from clear what the outcome of all this will be. What is certain, though, is that relations with China these days carry
geopolitical baggage with domestic implications; the surprising thing is the number of people who still don’t get it.

In Zambia: Hu’s visit was dogged by rumors of possible attempts to derail formal state receptions by aggrieved union members acting in solidarity with their colleagues in a copper mine owned by Chinese investors. Reports of the incident at the heart of their
grievances are confused, but it appears that in an attempt to assist police quell a violent riot at the mine, Chinese managers may have shot into the agitated crowd, hitting six protesters. The Chinese management of course denies this, insisting that all seven of the protesters who suffered gunshots were the victims of Zambian police.

Hu’s press conferences had to be strictly "no questions, please", perhaps in recognition of the sensitivity around the mine issue. But it could as well have been due to the Chinese president’s famous dourness (something perfectly to be expected of someone who spent a decade grooming elite cadres at the quintessentially proper Central Party School in Beijing).

Nevertheless, the overzealous efforts by the Zambian authorities to shield the visiting dignitary from all controversy or discomfort cast an unnecessary pall over the visit. It may also have provided additional encouragement to a growing alliance between the opposition faction led by the firebrand politician, Michael Sata (who openly favors diplomatic overtures to Taiwan at the expense of deepening ties with China) and the country’s unions, which have in recent years expressed indignation over the poor working and safety conditions in many Chinese-run businesses, particularly in the mining industries.

In Mozambique: Public and elite resentment over China’s role in this country’s fast-modernizing economy is rarely a prime topic of general conversation, yet Hu’s visit managed to catalyze the eruption of some simmering tensions. No sooner had the visit been announced than critical environmentalists went into full gear, describing the country’s much-lamented deforestation crisis as a "Chinese takeaway".

Chinese investors are accused of bribing locals to front for them in the acquisition of logging concessions, and then to abuse those concessions once they have by such vicarious means obtained licenses. They are alleged to be violating minimum-wage regulations; wantonly harvesting rare marine resources, without the appropriate permits; and in several provinces, such as Nampula, running counterfeit operations that churn out forged documents by the truckload.

Snapshots in perspective
So what are these generally negative snapshots of Hu’s visits meant to portray – that his trip was a failure? Not at all. That he was on a mission to legitimize exploitation? Crude, simplistic and false.

The framework of the "new" Sino-African relations should be set into some sort of pragmatic context. Too much of the recent commentary about China-Africa ties is too wide-eyed and unannotated to be of much use in gauging critical trends. The widespread notion that the new turn of the relationship is not only qualitatively different from what has been before, in the Cold War, with the West, with China itself in the past, but also unanchored to general global developments, is plainly useless when faced with concrete facts on the ground.

Let’s take the principal shibboleth: China’s relationship with Africa is one of no strings attached.

From the selected snapshots above, it is obvious that a great many of the concerns that have dogged Africa’s dealings with major powers are also present in the relationship with China. In fact, one is easily swayed to the view that the concern should be with Africa itself. As long as it appears to remain "static", even as other parts of the world evolve, or, in the case of Southeast Asia, surge forward, China’s relationship with others will appear exploitative, unbalanced, strained. Such a situation is almost as certain as a law of physics.

If Africa’s needs and offerings remain fixed, even as the needs and offerings of its partners undergo rapid transformation, then any relationship it enters, no matter how well-meaning, will develop serious compatibility frictions. This is plainly self-evident, so it amazes us that many people believe that the "new" Sino-African relations will thwart this inevitability. In particular, we find the attitude to China’s economic cooperation with Africa unbelievably naive.

This perception of Sino-African diplomacy is parodied in a play by Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka in which a character representing the late Idi Amin of Uganda in a fit of anger over the actions of his Russian allies explains why he prefers his newfound "non-interfering" Chinese technical advisers: "What’s more, they bring their own food!" Like all simplistic generalizations, the notion that Chinese aid to Africa carries no strings is of course a myth. It is false even when the assertion is qualified by comparison with Western aid.

What people often mean is that no "transparent" strings are attached. In that sense perhaps so, but only if the uncritical distinction between it and Western aid is then also removed, because in the past several Western aid programs in Africa have similarly come with no "visible" strings attached. One can think of
French military-technical assistance to its former colonies (which Lansana Gberie, a security expert, asserts to have been worth many millions of dollars in 1984) or the United States’ anti-communist projects across the continent: in what was then Zaire, apartheid South Africa, and Angola.

China’s aid, in the absence of these caveats, comes with "strings attached" – in fact it provides enough rope for either partner to
hang itself. Foremost among these is the injunction against dealings with Taiwan and the unstated – publicly, that is – commitment by the recipient nation to favor Chinese consortiums for the development of whichever projects the aid is earmarked for.

For example, sports stadiums have become one of Beijing’s most favored development projects in Africa. This is because of Chinese companies’ track record of building these across the continent. In Mozambique, for instance, China is both the biggest fund provider and builder of roads.

China’s Exim Bank makes no effort to hide its mandated purpose of using loans as means of securing contracts, particularly in high-value processes, for Chinese companies abroad. The 800 Chinese companies in Africa are viewed by Beijing as fulfilling both political and economic roles, and as part of a diplomatic effort to project influence.

In Nigeria, to cite a further example, oil concessions have gone to Chinese companies as part of multibillion-dollar infrastructure loan arrangements. The same is the case in Angola. Perhaps to redeem the "no strings attached" argument, it can be said that these are commercial "strings" and differ in that respect from the more complex conditions often insisted on by Western aid givers. Such a contention will be flawed on several levels.

All donor countries have their priorities, which evolve according to different timelines. Western donors may calculate that promoting free markets means eventually securing better trade relations with Africa. China may emphasize immediate gains through political negotiations. The difference is of style and emphasis, not of fundamental structure, which at any rate, in our view, is tied to the very orientation of Africa itself, and far less so to the disposition of Africa’s partners.

Moreover, the premises ought to be better established. It has become fashionable to lump all Chinese assistance under the heading of "aid", making little distinction among grants, loans and technical assistance of different sorts. No doubt this is partly because of the opacity of most of these transactions. Still, it does not excuse the lack of imagination.

The relevant context is that to date Africa has received half a trillion dollars from its traditional donors and less than $7 billion from China. This is not to denigrate China’s giveaway – after all, it is a hard-up country itself – or to ignore the massive recent spike: this year it is projected to lend three times as much as the World Bank to Africa. But the fact remains that it gives different kinds and levels of assistance under vaguely elucidated terms and conditions. That is not the same thing as "giving without strings".

Until faltering reforms in Africa see a greater transformation of the African economy and political system, China’s engagement with the continent will be constrained like so many before it in realizing possibilities.

Just as Hu was about to leave Beijing for Africa, a breeze of good news swirled like an omen into the airwaves. Five Chinese telecom workers held hostage in Nigeria had just been released. But the enthusiasm was short-lived; four days later, nine employees of Chinese petroleum giant China National Petroleum Corp were grabbed by gun-toting rebels right from company premises in the south of the country. Perhaps CNPC is already taking some crash courses in occupational-hazard awareness from long-term foreign operators in the Nigerian oil industry – the Shells and the Mobils.

The unfortunate episode seemed to signify: welcome, if you gonna play, you gotta learn the ropes. Hu, and China, shouldn’t expect an easy ride in Africa.

Whether Emperor Hu’s clothes are new or not doesn’t matter, as anyone who has read the fairytale [1] knows, because they both mean the same thing. What matters, especially in Africa, is that they fit.

Note 1. "The Emperor’s New Clothes" is a Danish fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen and first published in 1837, as part of Eventyr, Fortalte for Born ( Fairy Tales, Told for Children ). It was originally known as "Keiserens Nye Klaeder". The story is a type of fable or morality play with a cautionary message: just because everyone else believes something is true, it doesn’t mean it is. – Wikipedia

Bright B Simons is an adjunct fellow at the Center for Humane Education (Imani). Evans Lartey is director of development at Imani, which is a think-tank based in Accra dedicated to researching economic trends to glean practical public-policy insights for the benefit of government, business and civil society in Ghana. Franklin Cudjoe is the executive director of Imani.