Africa has proved to be a particularly important place of power projection for China. China’s President Hu Jintao, and Premier Wen Jiabao, made a much publicized state visit to ten African states. During those visits, China made a great point of extending its financial resources to the host states—while aggressively working to lock up access to the vast natural resources of those states for Chinese industry. Deals were made with leaders who have questionable human rights records, but the deals were effected on terms significantly advantageous to China.
But the Chinese state is very sensitive to the ramifications of this activity. Between 1949 and the opening of this century, the Chinese leadership missed no opportunity to fiercely criticize the great Western powers for sending their leaders to Africa for the purpose of supporting regimes willing to permit the exploitation of the natural resources of those states on advantageous terms. But now it seems that some one has suggested that China finds itself in the same boat. It has joined the ranks of the great neo-colonial powers. And the Chinese ought to be sensitive to these issues. Like the Japanese and the British, China has a long imperial history, marked by conquest and the subordination of weaker states. While Chinese imperial history is more remote in time than that of its British and Japanese rivals, it is clear that the Chinese national character, as evidenced by its history, traditionally is susceptible to imperialist tendencies.
Sensitivities were particularly high on the eve of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, held in Beijing November 3-4, 2006., similar in scope to a similar Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held in 2002. It is with this in mind that a recent story appearing in the People’s Daily Online provides a window on Chinese policies and Chinese sensibilities in its foreign relations. The story, “’Neo-Colonialism’ Fallacy Aims to Sow Discord in Sino-African Cooperation,” Oct. 30, 2006 (Xinhua News Service), appears to provide the official response of the propaganda organs of the state to the charges of Chinese colonialist ulterior motives in cultivating relations with the current crop of African leaders of states rich in exploitable resources. The article declares that the “fallacy that China is exercising ‘neo-colonialism’ in Africa is apparently aimed at sowing discord between China and Africa and blocking the establishment and development of a new Sino-African strategic partnership.” Id.
The article asserts that China has been careful to base its relations with African states on the principles of “equality and mutual benefit.” Id. The article spends time developing the idea that the historical experience of Chinese aid to Africa belies the neo-colonialist label. Id. That is true enough, especially since China traditionally sponsored political and guerrilla movements that had as their aim the toppling of the government and the establishment of Marxist-Leninist states. This is described in the article as a history of “cooperation on an equal footing” characterized by non-interference in their respective internal affairs, “enhanced coordination in international affairs and joint efforts to promote democratization of international relations to safeguard the legitimate rights of developing countries.” Id. Much of this, of course, is code for the Chinese efforts to recruit African states in its anti-Western campaigns, an effort that was generally successful from the 1970s.
But back then, China was one with African states. Now China is becoming a patron state, and that may change things. Evidence that this old era of solidarity based on equivalence of development status is over can also be gleaned from the article. The article brags about the great growth of bilateral trade (up almost $30 billion between 1956 (immediately before the Cultural Revolution) and 2005). Id. And indeed, the Chinese have been quite honest about their reason for their irritation: charges of neo-colonialism might interfere with their plans for crafting their relations with African states on an advantageous basis: “The fallacy by some people from the West is aimed at containing the development of China-Africa ties and blocking China’s peaceful development so as to maintain their established interests in the world arena.” But then, China’s aims in Africa is identical—to overtake the traditional interests of the West in the exploitation of Africa.
But old images die hard. And China is doing what it can to preserve the fantasy that it is a developing state like the African states the resources of which it seeks for its own economic purposes. Thus, for example, China still seeks advantage over its Western competitors, by suggesting that it shares more in common with Africa than does the West. But the past is little comfort to those selling resources and it is hard to imagine that African client states will not see through statements such as "the friendship between
China seeks advantage in the game by branding themselves as a more benign ‘partner.’ They also seek to avoid the developed states' responsibility for aiding African states. By posing as just another developing state, it can pretend a horizontal solidarity with African States and foist on the West the costs of unequal trade agreements. Thus, the leaders of these states said: "Leaders of China and African countries also urged developed countries to increase assistance to Africa." Beijing Summit Adopts Declaration Highlighting China-Africa Strategic Partnership (Nov. 6, 2006). The irony could not be lost on African leaders. Someday soon the West may begin to urge Chinese aid to developing states in its own version of these strategic cooperation meetings. Especially where Chinese interests are barely hidden. At the recently concluded Beijing Summit, for example, Beijing "The agreements cover operation in infrastructure facilities, communications, technology and equipment, energy and resources development, finance and insurance." Id.
Still, Chinese can little afford to appear as yet another exploiter of Africa. That characterization would make it more costly to enter into the competition for African resources. China believes that differentiation from the traditional exploiter class will reap rewards and lower the costs to it of entering in o advantageous agreements with African states. The Chinese understand that and are willing to play hard to create and preserve its branding efforts as a kinder and gentler political and economic giant.
The future will tell whether the Chinese will make better exploiters than those imperial powers that came before it. Chinese sensitivities in this respect are high as well. At the same time that the People's Daily harshly criticized what it called Western fallacious accusations that it is engaged in neo-colonial activities in Africa, "the Chinese government has issued a circular demanding that Chinese investors and workers on the continent behave themselves better." Scott Zhou, "China as Africa's 'Angel in White'," Asia Times Online, Nov. 3, 2006. Zhou reported that "The State Council, China's cabinet, last week issued "Nine Principles" to "Encourage and Standardize Enterprises' Overseas Investment", which in plain words could be interpreted as a warning to Chinese enterprises in Africa: behave yourselves. . . . The principles require Chinese companies, most of which are state-owned enterprises, to abide by local laws, bid contracts on the basis of transparency and equality, protect the labor rights of local employees, protect the environment, implement corporate responsibilities and so on." Id. This is the sort of thing one expects from E.U. or U.S. organs. China is quickly learning the art of managing its global enterprises, and the difficulties of maintaining the image of developing state while its enterprises compete with developed states to exploit African resources and control their markets.
As China suggests, the neo-colonialist “fallacy will dissolve itself” only if the newly formed relationships actually yield the “abundant fruits” promised by Hu and Wen. Id. The price of failure is ironic indeed: China will rejoin the ranks of the club of developed states. It will be much harder, then, to compete as an ‘outsider’ state as a member of the ‘insiders’ club. As Zhou suggests, "China's moral case is spoiled by support for authoritarian regimes caring nothing about human rights, bribing its way into big contracts, leaving one big empty hole after another on the continent after extracting minerals, and making Africa both a supplier of raw materials and a market serving China's "world workshop" economy." Zhou, id. The state authorities in Beijing are aware of this as well, as the hurried issuance of the "Nine Principles" suggests. Whether China will be able to participate in global economic competition in a way that avoids the behavioral pitfalls into which their Western competitors has fallen remains to be seen. The indications are that this is will a difficult trap to avoid.