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Editor’s Memo

Beyond the China summit

By Dumisani Muleya

CHINESE President Hu Jintao hosted more than 40 African leaders — including President Robert Mugabe — in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

last weekend for the China-Africa summit amid fanfare.

China basked in global publicity as the emerging giant in Africa, competing for economic turf and political influence with Western powers, the United States, Britain and France, whose sway is supposed to be declining.

China’s trade with Africa was worth US$40 billion last year.

Nearly all African countries were represented at what was the largest such event yet held by the country. The event was characterised by a lot of symbolism and rhetoric, as well as ringing resolutions that might have well overshadowed the need to come up with solutions for Africa’s myriad problems.

For a few days African leaders coming from countries collapsing under the weight of misrule and mismanagement such as Mugabe and the likes of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan hid behind the Great Wall of China from the consequences of their policy failures at home.

They enjoyed admiring Chinese success attributable to good economic policies — which some of them are immune to — and reforms introduced after 1978. Hopefully African leaders learnt something about how to reform and build a successful economy from the backwoods.

It would have been a waste of time and public resources if African leaders did not pick up any good lessons from Beijing. But some of them have previously been to countries like Malaysia and learnt nothing.

The event came at a time when China is fast spreading its wings across the world’s poorest continent (which ironically is one of the richest in terms of natural resources) trying to gain a vice-grip on its resources.

Copper, cobalt, platinum, timber and iron ore are all on Beijing’s shopping list in Africa.

While China ideologically and materially supported African liberation struggles and may help some countries to reconstruct their economies, it must also be noted it is not a charity organisation that dishes out gifts to African nations for fraternal reasons.

Times and global dynamics have changed. China is hunting for resources all over the world to service its rapidly expanding economy. Beijing is no longer hidebound in a rigid ideological mindset. It is a rising power trying to secure its place in a changing global order. This is the context of its open show of power and wealth. The competition for trade and investment is hotting up and China has now joined the new but similar scramble for Africa with western powers which have traditionally exploited the continent for centuries. Given the chance, China would want to be the new imperial power on the continent.

Probably because of changed circumstances China would offer a better deal for Africa, but the underlying motive is the same: to expand its influence for economic and political hegemony.

However, it is those countries willing to reform that will benefit from the Chinese largesse, not those who emulate a model the Chinese themselves long ago discarded. This means Mugabe must now quickly put his ducks in a row and reform if he wants to benefit from China via his Look East policy. Sabre-rattling without rhyme or reason while the country is on the skids will not help anyone.

This is China’s story. Coming from a background of a failed Maoist land reform programme and political repression, China launched economic reforms in 1978 by dismantling its command economy.

It deepened reforms of the economic system, capital, commodity, labour and technology markets as part of its socialist market economy vision. This strengthened the regulatory function of the market rather than the state.

Now, as its economy grows, China offers new hope as a major investor, trading partner and provider of aid to Africa. It’s also viewed by others, especially in the third world, as a counterbalance to the west in their efforts to build a new world away from the one dominated by one country or one power bloc.

African leaders, especially dictators, are also comfortable with China because it does not tie aid to such political imperatives as democracy and human rights.

China’s foreign policy is premised on the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries whatever the circumstances. African despots who hide behind the cloak of sovereignty to conceal human rights abuses find this most appealing. China emphasises non-interference because it is extremely sensitive about its own human rights record. This shows China, just like Western powers, is driven by self-interest.

Although Mugabe wants to cast himself as China’s best friend in Africa, the real benefits of Chinese investments are going where there are more resources and a chance for better returns. China has offered very little to Zimbabwe in terms of trade and investment besides the paltry aid, low- quality equipment and machinery, fighter jets, and suspect passenger planes.

In fact, Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao recently omitted Zimbabwe from their African tour. This shows Zimbabwe is not a special case for China. Harare must reform if it is to benefit from its “unshakeable” relationship with Beijing.

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