China refused to allow Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, to take part in the opening session of the Olympic Games, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The paper said Mugabe had traveled to Hong Kong but was then persuaded by China to go home.
While the report was not confirmed, it is consistent with China’s increasing desire to distance itself from pariah states in Africa and elsewhere that used to be treated as old friends. Mugabe has become an embarrassment and Beijing reportedly put pressure on him to conduct negotiations with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change on a possible government of national unity.
Another African country that has drawn intensive Western criticism is Sudan, whose government is accused of waging a genocidal campaign in Darfur. So closely is China identified with the government of President Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir that a campaign was waged by the actress Mia Farrow to dub the Beijing Games the “Genocide Olympics.”
China, a big investor in the energy sector in Sudan, was accused of not using its leverage to put pressure on the government to end the violence in Darfur, where an estimated 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million forced to flee since fighting broke out in 2003 between rebels and the central government.
But here, too, Beijing has made significant changes. It has pressured the Bashir government to accept peacekeepers from the African Union and the United Nations and has sent 315 military engineers to Darfur, making China the first non-African troop contributing country to deploy in Darfur. Beijing’s involvement with Africa can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s, when it was keen on fomenting world revolution. Then, from the 1970s on, China was interested almost exclusively in economic growth and, in recent years, saw Africa as an important source of raw materials, particularly oil.
China’s current policy toward Africa has been commended by the United States. Thomas Christensen, deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in June told a congressional subcommittee: “After years of acting primarily to protect Khartoum from international pressure, since late 2006 China has shown an increased willingness to engage with the international community on Darfur and has applied diplomatic pressure on the government of Sudan to change its behavior, as well as to engage in a political process for a peaceful negotiation to the Darfur conflict.”
China is also active in other countries, including Nigeria and Angola, the continent’s largest oil producers, as well as Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of Congo.
China’s activities in Africa have not all been smooth sailing. In the Sudan, the rebel Justice and Equality Movement attacked a Chinese-run oil field as part of a campaign to force Chinese oil companies to leave.
In Zambia, anti-Chinese sentiment became an election issue in 2005 after an explosion at a Chinese-owned copper mine. In part because of China’s economic activities, Africa registered 5.8 percent growth in 2007. In July, the World Bank reported that China was funding desperately needed infrastructure projects, such as hydropower, railways, ports, dams and highways in poor countries throughout Africa.
Newspaper headlines, meanwhile, focus on China’s oil deals, creating the impression that it is locking up supplies. Not many people appreciate that the bulk of Africa’s oil exports still go to the U.S. and Europe, not China. As Christensen said, “Contrary to what many assume, China’s large oil companies are not dominant players in Africa’s energy industry. With the important exception of Sudan, where the China National Petroleum Company is the major operator, Chinese oil companies are relatively minor players in Africa.”
Chinese are moving to Africa in record numbers, although Chinese settlement there is not new. In fact, during the apartheid era, Chinese were classified in South Africa as “colored” and denied educational and business opportunities as well as the right to vote. Taiwanese immigrants, however, were treated as “honorary whites.” When the apartheid era ended, Chinese did not receive the compensation given to black Africans.
Recently, however, Patrick Chong, a South African citizen of Chinese ancestry, went to court and made an unusual petition. He was successful and is now officially deemed an “honorary black.”
From a historical perspective, Chinese connections with Africa are long and complicated. China’s ties with the continent today need to be seen in context and not be simplistically labeled as condoning bad practices, including genocide. For its part, Beijing needs to be aware that, especially in the 21st century, business is never simply business.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.