China Seeks Greater Influence in Africa

Last week, China hosted a meeting of the African Development Bank, the Board of Governors and 2,000 regional delegates coming together in Shanghai. Charlayne Hunter-Gault attended the conference, and she talks to Farai Chideya about China's increasingly prominent role in markets and political affairs on the African continent.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

It is time now for our weekly Africa Update. China took another giant step towards solidifying long-haul relationships with Africa last week. It hosted a Board of Governors of African Development Bank in Shanghai and 2,000 other delegates from around the continent and China, including the Chinese premier and top officials from many of China's financial institutions.

NPR special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, was there. And she joins us now to tell us more about the conference. Hey, Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So what exactly is this African Development Bank, and how big was this meeting - significant was this meeting?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, it was very significant. The bank, you know, is the premier development financial institution on the continent. Its purpose is to combat poverty and mobilize resources. The shareholders are from 53 African countries and 24 non-African, including China. And what they do is gather moneys from its members, it generates funds, and then it puts money into projects in different countries. And the significance of it is that this is only the second time the meeting has been held outside Africa. And clearly, the African private sector sees a lot of potential in this relationship. Both ADB President Donald Kaberuka and China's Premier Wen Jiabao talked about how this was aimed at a win-win partnership. And I think that's the goal for each side.

CHIDEYA: So are the African governments winning anything so far?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think they are. I mean the Chinese are getting more out of it by far, because they're getting 28 percent of their oil from Africa and I think that they're way ahead in their strategic planning. But I Africa is getting something out of the deal. I mean, at the Beijing summit last November, there were 48 African leaders, where top Chinese officials offered $5 billion in loans and credit to Africa and a doubling of aid. The trade has gone up 40 percent from previous years, 10-fold from 10 years ago. And now China is looking to spend some $20 billion in Africa over the next three years.

CHIDEYA: That is huge. And where do you think African government are going to spend that money?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, they talk a lot about infrastructure, which is what most Africans identify as the continent's most pressing need. But there are other areas, too; there's a whole litany of investments that the Chinese have made. They've made 900 infrastructure projects, given 20,000 government scholarships to African students; and they've got 18,000 medical practitioners on the continent and they say they are serving 180 million patients. So they're also doing a lot of other things. And so, right now, Africans, like those financial people in the ADB, think that this is a value-added on both sides.

CHIDEYA: I have talked to many young Africans, thinking of a Nigerian guy and some people in Zimbabwe when I was there, who say, well, actually this is the new colonialism, China's going to come in and buy us up. Are there a lot of concerns like that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Not really. Not in these four that I've been in. I mean part of this is about building trust. There is a lot of suspicion on the part of Africans. Some are saying, you know, this is the second scramble for Africa, particularly civil society. One participant at the Shanghai meeting even talking about how the Chinese don't share. They come in lock, stock in barrel. They own the project. They manage it. They bring workers to it.

But on the other hand, you know, they did acknowledge that there were some problems like the Chinese dumping of goods that are often inferior on to the African markets, sometimes driving out local merchants, discussions about the environment. But mainly it's been about China saying that it's not going to interfere in the internal affairs of the African countries, and there's already mounting pressure on China to do just that, particularly to put pressure on Darfur, which provides China with seven percent of its oil. And there are threats to stage protests ahead of the Olympics in Beijing, calling it the China-genocide Olympics unless they do something to put pressure on the Sudanese government to make changes in Darfur.

CHIDEYA: And so how are Western governments and non-government groups responding to this?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, it's interesting. I'm here in Berlin at a conference. The German government is having a world economic forum in which I have been a participant. And Western officials, including the Germans, very gingerly are - well, not so gingerly because Chancellor Merkel has talked about their concern that China's lending could lead to a new round of burdensome debt for Africa which the countries may not able to pay back.

And one of the critical discussions that they've had is how China has these no-strings soft loans. You know, America and the West ask the African governments when they give aid to respect human rights, to practice governance, et cetera, et cetera. But the Chinese aren't involved in any of that. They are just giving these soft loans. And there's a real concern on the part of the Western governments that this isn't going to help promote good governance in Africa.

You know, while the Western governments are weary about China, Africa's financial ministers meeting here in Germany are saying that the West has broken its promises to Africa, especially in providing aid for education and health. And Oxfam says that the G-8 countries will fall $30 billion short of their pledge two years ago to increase aid to developing countries by $50 billion by 2010. So, you know, there's a real competition now, if not a scramble for Africa between the West and the East.

CHIDEYA: Charlayne, thank you again.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai. It's been nice being with you from Germany.

CHIDEYA: NPR's special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She joined us from NPR's Berlin bureau.

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