The Beijing-owned English-language newspaper China Daily isn’t pulling any punches with its brand-new Africa Weekly, which on Friday rolled off the presses for the first time in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Dec. 14 issue has a clear focus: why China’s initiatives in Africa, which tend to be commercial rather than developmental, are better than the assistance-based models more common to the West.
In Africa, this is a subject of heated debate. Critics of the Chinese model point out that business ventures in developing countries can be exploitative, but others argue that Western aid programs exert too much control over the governments they purport to assist.
Fit To Print
The cover-story illustration in the China Daily’s first Africa Weekly issue says it all.
Three men in business suits stand around a small-scale model city. Presumably, the man in the middle is African, the man to his left is European or American, and the man to his right is Chinese. “Which Way Forward?” reads the headline.
The African man is leaning to his right.
The associated article, titled “Africa Ponders Which Path To Take,” focuses on whether Africa can follow in China’s footsteps by using manufacturing to boost its economic output.
Then there’s another feature story: “Africa Moves Away From Western Development Model.” This one quotes two African leaders -- Ghanaian President John Mahama and the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi -- explaining why Chinese investments are more beneficial than Western assistance.
“It makes it simpler to access these critical investments without having to go through contortions, and so in a way it is better Ghana and China have a strategic relationship,” Mahama said. “This is also of benefit to Africa, and that is the reality of the world today.”
On the final page is the newspaper’s “Last Word,” which features Chris Alden, an academic with the London School of Economics.
“I think the first and most important legacy China has had is in breaking the Western donor cartel,” Alden said. “This monopoly of ideas that had been produced out of the World Bank or adhered to by the [U.K.-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] had patently brought limited results in development terms," he said.
It is no secret that China has been ramping up its activities on the African continent. Chinese foreign direct investment, or FDI, in Africa reached $12 billion last year, according to data from the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. That’s 100 times more than the FDI in 2003. Overall Chinese trade with African countries is expected to surpass $200 billion this year.
Plenty of private companies in the U.S. and the European Union also invest in Africa. But, in general, the West puts far more emphasis on development.
“U.S. aid is often conditional and the United States is more frequently involved in Africa’s internal political affairs,” the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in a report this year. “The United States also still provides far greater aid than China. In 2009, it gave $8 billion in assistance to Africa, while China gave an estimated $1.4 billion.”
Critics of Western aid programs argue that development assistance is not as benign as it sounds. By imposing conditionality for the disbursement of aid, for instance, the West is impinging on the sovereignty of African governments. Assistance can be used as a diplomatic tool to secure cooperation; it can also go to waste if weak or corrupt governments fail to allocate the funds for their intended purposes.
Meanwhile, China’s investors in Africa have been criticized for being a little too cavalier about pursuing profit at any cost. Business deals have already forged connections with some unsavory partners, including the dictatorial regimes of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, some Chinese firms -- particularly mining and oil companies -- have been accused of exploiting workers and displacing communities.
Which Way Forward?
The new edition of China Daily barely touches on these complications, but its overall point is a salient one: Chinese investments in Africa have the potential to generate positive growth for all parties involved.
China has much to gain from its relationship with Africa. As the most populous nation on earth, it is hungry for resources -- commodities and raw materials -- to keep up with economic development. Fuel is especially key: About one-third of China’s imported oil comes from Africa.
Africa, too, is reaping some clear benefits from Chinese investments.
“Sino-Africa partnerships can play an important role in fostering growth and development of African economies,” according to the African Development Bank Group. “Economic diversification based on high competitiveness through skills and technology transfer would be the main catalyst of China’s contribution to Africa’s transformation. Thus, the infrastructure renaissance brought about by Chinese investment provides expanded opportunities for accelerated economic diversification in Africa.”
Whether ongoing Chinese investments result in a net positive in Africa remains to be seen. It will depend, in part, on the ability of African governments to enforce regulations that prevent exploitation by private enterprise -- and that’s something Western aid dollars can help to effect.
For the China Daily, the goal is not only to push Beijing’s agenda. Publisher Zhu Ling hopes the new edition will open the lines of communication between China and its trading partners all around the world.
“The relationship between China and the African continent is one of the most significant relationships in the world today. It is growing and complex and not always understood -- not just by those in other parts of the world but Africans and Chinese, too,” he said in the Africa Weekly's inaugural issue. “We hope to set that right.”