China Offensive Roils Africans

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For Beijing, in its drive to secure economic and political influence in Africa, it must have seemed a good idea at the time.

However, after stumping up $200 million to build luxury headquarters in Addis Ababa for the 53-nation African Union - micro-managing building work down to the last detail, even to the point of bringing in all the construction teams from Beijing - China is in trouble over the most prestigious project it has undertaken in Africa.

Just weeks after it was officially handed over to African officials by Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the African equivalent of EU headquarters in Brussels has been dubbed "Africa's Hall of Shame".

Writing in New African magazine, Chika Ezeanya summed up the dismay felt across Africa about the new building, saying that with the handover of the new headquarters, "African countries collectively descended to a new low on the global index of state sovereignty, territorial integrity and actual independence of nations."

At the same time, Fekade Shewakena, in the Addis Voice, scathingly refers to the new headquarters as "a metaphor for the way most African countries are run . . . a symbol that perpetuates the beggar image that has defined most African countries for the better part of their modern history".

He adds: "Most African countries have decided to achieve development and modernisation by substituting working hands and innovative minds with hands stretched towards foreign aid and largesse.

"This Chinese handout symbolises Africa's failure and speaks about a leadership that has completely failed to understand that you can't have your pride and dignity and a respectable place in the community of nations while living on the handouts of others. Indeed, it is a testament and stark reminder to an increasingly frustrating reality that the leaders of Africa have given up on any attempt at self-reliance."

Such expressions of dismay are widespread among Africa's intellectuals as they search for signs of African pride and abhor what to many is being seen as a new colonialism imposed on the continent by Beijing as it pursues tactics that will secure sources of raw materials for decades to come. Chinese officials maintain they have no such designs. All they are doing in Africa is helping.

Their actions indicate otherwise. So do the numbers. China is now the continent's largest trading partner, having overtaken the US. Last year, Beijing's trade with Africa reached $114 billion, up from $10bn in 2000 and $1bn in 1980.

Hardly a day passes without the disclosure of some or other new deal involving the Chinese - be it a $1bn investment in Mozambican coal or in Sudanese oil. Sudanese President Omar

al-Bashir is a frequent visitor to Beijing.

China's economic offensive, aimed at securing raw materials, is broad-based and effective. So, too, is its political offensive. Recently, there have been reports of the South African government sending officials to Chinese Communist party training schools to learn how to run state-owned companies.

South Africa, despite being the continent's biggest and most efficient economy, is a prime example of the extent to which Beijing is exerting influence. Its Chinese community has mushroomed from a few hundred to more than 300,000.

Perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of Chinese influence on South African politics was seen when one of the ruling African National Congress' favourite sons, Desmond Tutu, failed to get a visa for his close friend the Dalai Lama to attend his birthday party last year.

To many critics, the new AU headquarters serves as a symbol of the shame they feel about the largely unchallenged run China has on the continent. There is opprobrium in spades for the Chinese among many African commentators.

But for the time being, most African governments, ever on the lookout for short-term largesse, seem untroubled. They could come to regret not taking a longer view.

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