Traditionally, aid and trade with Africa has been subject to various conditions set by the providers. The West has been the main proponent of this idea, advancing the idea that aid and trade cannot come with no strings attached. Africa has called out the West for trying to use aid and trade for purposes of advancing its own political aspirations in Africa. As if deliberately taking advantage of the weakness of the relationship of the West with Africa, China had of late come in with ideas that are in direct opposition to the West’s. Where Western capital attempted to use its financial clout to influence the political future of African countries, China is silent and turns a blind eye. It turns a blind eye even where tyrants rule and oppress their own citizens. Beijing’s one true motivation seems to be getting commodities at the best possible prices and getting a market for its own products. This has been the fuel for the commodity boom which has now been affected by the slowdown in Chinese growth.
All about the money?
A New York University study says trade between Africa and China rose from $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011 which translates to a sixteen fold increase. The Aid budget also rose from $1.7 billion in 2001 to a solid $189 billion in 2011. The trade and aid have not been selectively given to the so called “democracies” in Africa; everyone, even the dictators have a fair share. It has been said that, “China is easier to do business with because it doesn’t care about human rights in Africa – just as it doesn’t care about them in its own country. All the Chinese care about is money.”
This makes them a dictator’s best friend does it not? Sudan’s humanitarian crisis of yesteryears was in a way fuelled by China’s reluctance to respect the United Nations weapon embargo. Between 2003 and 2006, China sold $55 million worth of small arms. In the resulting upheaval, 2 million people were unprotected from their homes yet China still associated with the Sudanese government.
In the words of Zhou Wenzhong, Deputy Foreign Minister, “Business is business. We try to separate politics from business.” In short, they only care about the money and not the political make of the countries they deal with.
In 2009, Moise Dadis Camara seized power in Guinea and launched a campaign of rape and slaughter. A Human Rights Watch report included eyewitness accounts of soldiers shoving guns into women’s vaginas and firing them. A 35 year old teacher who was gang-raped by three red berets described seeing a woman bayoneted through the vagina a few meters away. She said she was raped by 3 red berets and, “about three meters away another woman was being raped, and after they had finished, one of them took his bayonet and stuck her the vagina, and then licked the blood from his knife.” The United Nations called for action against Guinea and yet China International Fund signed a $7 billion deal with Guinea. It was revealed the CIF did not have direct connections with the Beijing government but still, it was a Chinese firm obviously following the blue-print of a country known for a policy of political indifference. China has after all been known to support despotic Omar al-Bashir, the same man who targeted non-Arabs in his country. In 2004, “China threatened to use its UN Security Council veto to block the adoption of political sanctions and an oil blockade against Sudan”. However, it is unfair to pretend China only deals with the despots. On the contrary, democracies like Botswana, South Africa and Mauritius among many others have solid alliances with China. It seems, where there is potential to make money, China does not pretend to ride a moral high horse.
Engagement over isolation?
Deborah Brautigam, the director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) rightly concluded, “The Chinese believe you get more progress on issues by constructive engagement and diplomacy than by embargoes and sanctions and constructive engagement requires an attitude of respect.” She added, “It’s a consistent policy-unlike ours where we apply embargoes and sanctions on the basis of inconsistent criteria. They (The Chinese) are more likely to follow the lead of regional organisations like the AU or the League of Arab States when it comes to issues in those regions, than the U.S. or the E.U.”
If China’s approach has been that of engagement over isolation, has it been effective? That is highly debatable as some tyrants have used the “engagement” to cash in and enrich themselves at the expense of their countries. China does not take action against them in line with its principles of limited political intervention. Where the West criticises some governments for human rights abuses (albeit inconsistently; with brazen selectivity), China is usually quiet. So at the end of the day, the true question ends up being: is the Chinese policy of limited intervention a more intelligent political solution to the dictatorial regimes in Africa or it is simply deliberate capitalist ignorance in order to get the best bargain? This is a moot point. One however struggles to see how the engagement with dictators has brought tangible solutions to the leadership crises in some African states. China puts business first and everything else follows. If it has to pay lip-service to tyrants so as to advance its economic interests, it does so.
Image Credit: MG Africa