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    China Business
     Nov 3, 2006
China as Africa's 'angel in white'
By Scott Zhou

SHANGHAI - Amid increasingly harsh Western criticism of its "neo-colonialist" conduct in Africa, the Chinese government has issued a circular demanding that Chinese investors and workers on the continent behave themselves better.

The new policy was issued on the eve of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum and summit in Beijing this weekend to mark China's 50th anniversary of cultivating relationships with African countries, with an apparent additional aim of winning the hearts

and minds of the Africans.

Over the past few decades, some 16,000 Chinese doctors have worked on the continent as a goodwill gesture to Africans. The tradition can be traced back to the late chairman Mao Zedong, who in the 1960s began to send "angels in white" to Africa and barefoot doctors to the rural areas of China. The tradition continues even today to show China's goodwill and build its image among Africans.

However, recent efforts to bill China as an "angel in white" for Africa have been seriously challenged by a new kind of emissary as trade and business have grown by leaps and bounds. That has led to criticism, especially by Western countries, that China is engaged in some new kind of "neo-colonialism" in Africa.

Apparently in response to such criticism, Beijing has moved to readjust its Africa policy. The move seems somehow reluctant as it comes at a moment when China's success in African arouses in Western countries criticism perhaps sometimes tinged with jealousy. Beijing is afraid that a barrage of criticism from Western countries could sow discord between China and its African friends.

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.

So far, Beijing's interests in Africa have paid off handsomely, particularly in helping to ease its increasing thirst for oil. China imported 38.3 million tons of crude oil from Africa in 2005, accounting for 30% of its total oil imports. Four African countries - Angola, Sudan, the Congo Republic (Congo-Brazzaville) and Equatorial Guinea - were among the top 10 oil exporters. In the first six months of this year, Angola overtook Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil exporter to China.

This epitomizes Africa's economic exchanges with China: exporting raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. A trade pattern in China's favor is taking shape: China is flooding Africa with cheap manufactured goods while shipping back oil, timber, copper, diamonds and other raw materials - some might say, the essence of colonialism.

Africa increasingly depends more and more on trade with Asian countries, especially China. Asia is the third-most-important market to Africa, after the United States and the European Union. China led the skyrocketing growth of Africa-Asia trade with an annual growth rate of 30% from 2000 to 2005. China-Africa trade will be well over US$50 billion this year.

But development economists are deeply worried about the emerging economic partnership. The World Bank is interested in introducing the "Chinese model" of development to Africa, but some experts doubt the trade-and-investment model with China will do anything helpful in nurturing the continent's competitiveness in world market.

"Africa is under-trading manufacture goods with China, but over-trading oil with China," concluded Harry G Broadman, a World Bank economic adviser on Africa. The history of economic development teaches that countries relying largely on natural resources will end up with weak economies. Also, development experts pointed out that China cannot provide world-class technology, management know-how and infrastructure to its African friends.

A 'neo-colonial' power
Any outside power making inroads in Africa is bound to be haunted by charges of colonialism. China cannot take it for granted that it can get rid of that perception easily.

A sense of moral superiority over Western countries may be the cornerstone of China's soft power in Africa. Beijing is adept at tapping into the colonial history inside the collective memory of African countries whenever Western countries criticize China's ignorance of human-rights issues on the continent. China is equally ready to label its Western competitors as the real "neo-colonists".

By blaming Africa's underdevelopment on colonialism, Beijing believes it has established the moral high ground. From training "fighters for freedom" in the revolutionary 1960s and early 1970s to providing scholarships to children of African elites, China has been exporting its values for years. By successfully linking neo-colonialism with the neo-liberalism of Western countries, China has been able to win the hearts and minds of African elites.

But that policy has been undermined by the behavior of many Chinese companies in Africa. 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.

The Chinese government hopes that in the spirit of "angels in white", this weekend's forum and summit, not to mention writing off $10.9 billion in debt owed by 31 African countries, could be a good chance to put some new ingredients into the "Beijing consensus" between China and 50 African countries.

Scott Zhou is a Shanghai-base analysts on China's politics, economy and international relations.

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