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Trail of the Dragon

Having won over the hearts of Africa’s political leadership and having made inroads into the continent’s economy, China is now going for the ‘people’. MIKE MOTHIBI reports on recent China-Africa People’s Forum.

In Africa, China means business. With a good measure of stealth, the Asian giant has moved into the continent without its real motives detected and is now consolidating its position.

Last week Nairobi, Kenya, hosted 200 delegates from 18 African countries and China in a conference dubbed China-Africa People’s Forum. The delegates were drawn from the civil society notably, the NGO community and pockets of the media. And as the tag line of meeting went, the Forum was to “Enhance Partnership and Promote Friendship between China and Africa.”

China’s association with Africa dates many decades back. It was, however, only in the 2000s that China began to take a more active interest in the continent. In the year 2000, The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was set up to consolidate and promote the traditional relationship that has existed between the two.

Initially FOCAC met only at a ministerial level. In 2006, China moved this initiative a gear higher, inviting African head of states and governments to Beijing for a Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. This was a turning point in the Sino-Africa political and economic relations. Since then China has surged to become Africa’s largest trading partner having outpaced Europe and the US in 2009. China’s trade with Africa is presently in excess of US Dollar 100 billion per annum - a massive leap from what it was only at the beginning of the century.

China has also been steadily investing in the African continent since the resurgence of this relationship. The country’s investment projects cover 49 African countries in fields such as manufacturing, mining, trade, construction, communication and agriculture among others. China’s penetration into Africa has aroused a fair amount of cynicism among the country’s detractors who read many motives other than genuine economic cooperation.

The west and the US in particular are watching with both awe and frustration as China makes serious inroads into the geo-political space they once dominated. Detractors talk of Chinese imperialism and warn Africa to be careful in its dealings with China. China’s detractors say that country is only in Africa to get resources to fuel its surging economy.

China counters this by maintaining that Africa is an equal. Even as China and Africa are miles apart, literally and economically, China plays up the fact that both are developing countries and as such they are equals who can relate at the same level without one seeking to play a patron. Having made serious inroads in the political and economic sphere in Africa, China is now moving to the realm of social engagement. Last week’s People’s Forum resonated with FOCAC only this time at a civil society level.

The Forum adopted the ‘Nairobi Declaration,’ which among other things undertook to institutionalise the China-Africa People’s Forum and have it hosted alternately between China and an African country. Another undertaking outlined in the declaration is that “there shall be mutual respect, mutual learning, equal dialogue and experience-sharing among all partners, and that we should further tighten coordination and cooperation on international arena for NGOs to protect the common interests of both China and Africa.

Quite evidently, having won Africa’s political leadership and made economic inroads, China is now advancing to the people, the common man on the street. China may be seeing these people to people initiative as an avenue to deal with issues such as xenophobia which have become a matter of concern where the Chinese are deemed to be taking the jobs of the locals. Chinese construction companies are known to bring their own labourers and machinery for their projects and as such do not help in dealing with the problem of unemployment – a big headache in the economies of African countries.

In other jurisdictions, the Chinese have been blamed for the collapse of the local textile manufacturing sector as a result of their importation of cheaper stuff from China.

(By Mike Mothibi, Editor of the Botswana Guardian, 9 September 2011)

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