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Africa's Chinese love affair

By Lindsey Hilsum

Updated on 03 November 2006

Lindsey Hilsum watches Africa's leaders descend on Beijing.


More than 40 of Africa's 53 heads of state are in town. Five didn't come because they still recognise Taiwan not China, others had elections or other inconveniences.

President Bozize of the Central African Republic rushed off home after accusing his neighbour, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, of starting a war in his country last Monday.

Beijing is decked out with red lanterns, 80 per cent of government cars have been taken off the roads so the traffic keeps flowing and all over town there are posters of elephants, giraffes and, rather bafflingly, a man from Papua New Guinea with a bone through his nose.

That hasn't spoilt the fun for the African leaders who are just thrilled that China wants to talk about trade, investment and brotherhood rather than the pesky subjects western leaders like to bring up like human rights, good governance, corruption, genocide and all that.

It hasn't been difficult to find African leaders to talk about how much they love China, and how annoyed they are with the West.

It's interesting that even President Festus Mogae of Botswana, praised by western leaders as a democrat who has steered his country on a steady course of economic growth, feels the difference.

"I find that the Chinese treat us as equals. The west treats us as former subjects. Which is a reality. I prefer the attitude of the Chinese to the west, but there's bugger all I can do about it!" he said, chuckling away, when I interviewed him in his hotel suite.

President Museveni of Uganda, never one to mince his words, was even more scathing.

"The western ruling groups are conceited, full of themselves, ignorant of our conditions, and they make other people's business their business, while the Chinese just deal with you who represent your country, and for them they represent their own interests and you just do business," he said.

Now, you can be as cynical as you like about that. Museveni was the darling of the West for nearly 20 years, as he tackled Aids better than other African leaders, and brought a measure of prosperity to his country. But then he overplayed his hand.

He got the Ugandan constitution amended so he could run for a third term of office, and his rival somehow ended up in prison for a while during the election campaign. Western countries protested, or, as he put it to me, "meddled and heckled." From the Chinese (who had just rebuilt his State House, incidentally), not a sausage. Hakuna Matata. No problem.

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The cynicism of observers doesn't alter reality. The Chinese are big in Africa now. Their volume of trade is bigger than Britain's and soon they'll overtake France and maybe the USA.

They have the muscle and they take Africa seriously, because they need Africa's oil, copper and other commodities to fuel their own relentless growth.

Their companies are investing in Africa to learn the management systems and structures needed to become multinationals. For them, Africa is just a first step, the next stage is Europe and the USA.

I find myself torn as I watch this summit. On the one hand, I am outraged by the mass killings in Darfur and the insouciance of the Sudanese government, feted here because of their oil wealth.

It makes me angry to attend press conferences where no Chinese journalist will raise the difficult questions with an African leader. But on the other hand, I get irritated with the sense you can get in Britain that the only thing which matters in Africa is what the wanzungu, the white people, do.

Africa has a unique opportunity as China overtakes the west as the continent's most important trade and investment partner.

They cannot complain they're not getting a fair deal because of western bullying and old imperialist ways. The Chinese are not imposing any ideology, it's willing buyer, willing seller.

So Africa can strike a better bargain, insist on technology transfer and job opportunities, taking the best advantage of this new opportunity.

European ministers will tell you that Africa needs to improve its record on corruption and human rights in order to develop, not just because this is morally right. But China gives the lie to that wishful thinking.

China grows at 10% a year, and has lifted 400 million of its own citizens out of poverty over the last two decades.

Yet its human rights record is pretty poor, and even the government admits that it's riddled with corruption. African leaders can see that, so there's no point in saying it ain't so.

In the last few weeks, I've spent a little time with some African businessmen and students who form the Afrika United football team, which plays in Beijing's amateur league.

They're bright guys, who are here because they think China is the future. I find they're not very interested in democracy, because they watch what's happening here, and see the benefits to ordinary Chinese people.

That's the real challenge to European thinkers dealing with the new reality of China in Africa, not that the leaders are looking east, but that intelligent, well educated African people are too.

So much for spreading democracy, China has something else to offer, and many Africans are beginning to think that's a better way forward.

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