He Wenping at SOAS

At SOAS last night, He Wenping a professor at the Chinese academy of social sciences offered a revealing lecture on the makeup and functionality of Chinese aid. She broke down the Chinese approach into two distinct periods, pre and post Deng Xiaoping reforms. She said that since the late 1970s Chinese aid had taken on an economically pragmatic bent which attempted to maximize economic growth in China and Africa. However she also maintained that China continued to operate under the mandate laid out by Zhou Enlai in the 1950s. Uniquely she pointed out that Chinese experts in Africa endeavoured to keep to the 8th principle which was to live in a style not too dissimilar from native contemporaries. The new system which took shape in October 1995 introduced a variety of different aid schemes, the idea behind which He described with Deng’s phrase, “crossing the river by groping for stones”.

The preferential loan scheme created at this point was preceded by the founding of the Exim bank in 1994, which could offer interest free loans to Chinese firms operating in Africa. These loans were subsidized by the Chinese government in order to make the venture attractive to the banks. Sudan was the chief beneficiary of this new approach. In 2003 with the founding of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) China further blurred the lines between aid and development. The forum has met triennially, the 3rd forum of which in 2006 represented China’s coup de gras in Africa cooperation introducing aid measures unprecedented in Chinese history. The 2009 summit to be held in Cairo will represent another great step forward as China’s African policy is again likely to see great changes. She stressed this new approach was based on encouragement and optimism and an approach which called for support rather than instruction.

However the non interference approach has proved difficult to uphold as definitions of non interference and domestic affairs have both been called into question. During the building of the Tanzara railway Chinese technicians refused to take over management roles of the project, preferring to leave them to local officials. However He points out that more recently Chinese engineers have realized the necessity to manage their projects on the continent in order to ensure the best results. In Sudan non interference has also proved difficult to sustain but He saw this as a difficult definition as regards domestic affairs, broaching the idea that genocide surpasses domestic affairs.

China pursues its aid project in Africa as a series of bilateral relationships believing that tailored solutions to the problems that each country faces are both appropriate and respectful of each countries sovereignty and diversity.China’s approach is more than anything, results driven which was shown by the recent remarks by China’s special envoy to Africa Liu Guijin. He equated the International Criminal Courts against Omar al Bashir as equivalent to neglect of a house fire. He said that before trying to find the arsonist one should attempt to extinguish the fire.

The results He says, are the buoyant growth rates of around 6% in Sub Saharan Africa, which have as yet been only minimally affected by global financial turmoil, due to Asia’s role as a driver for growth in Africa which has relieved the dependence on Europe and the USA that the continent has traditionally suffered.

After witnessing Nigerian criticism of China this week I asked He Wenping whether she thought China would respond to Nigerian complaints by building more factories in the country. He’s response was that she felt it was very likelyChina would begin to move factories to Africa but most likely in the medium to long term and not necessarily in the short term. The country would have to be ready for technical improvements which might rely on Free Trade zones such as the one planned for at Lekki outside Lagos which is still under construction. The Lekki free trade zone seems likely to be unaffected by the suspension of the railways contract as officials announced this week that they were planning to increase the number from 5 to 10 across Africa.

Two very interesting articles were posted today on the Pambazuka news site on China’s changing foreign policy and its effects on Africa. The first is by Chris Colley and it explains how Chinese policy has matured recently with special reference to the Beijing Olympics, and the second is by Ian Taylor commenting on these developments and how they affect Africa. The conclusions were that China was offering fundamental opportunities to African economies but that in the long run, the decisive factor in determining African development would be the effectiveness of African elites in effectively using that opportunity. This view is fundamental to the operation of Chinese aid and represents the clearest difference between the approaches of China and the west.