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The emergence of China as a new economic power and the deep relations it has with Africa drew and received global attention. For Africa, which was formerly controlled economically by its development partners,now enjoys relations with a new and emerging power on a seemingly equal footing. The economic control of Africa and its natural resources have become the major issue for opposing interests by the big powers. As expected, China’s advancement into Africa is no exception; its relation with Africa has received condemnations from Africa’s traditional donors.
The growing discourse on the political and economic impact of the current relations between China and Africa differs among observers. Some African economic analysts believe that the mutual win-win situation benefit is a hoax. These analysts argue that China, who is importing its own workforce to work in aid projects granted to Africa, is a disadvantage for Africa but beneficial to China, since it allows China to solve its domestic unemployment problem. They claim that China offers astronomical projects to Africa, but that fewer jobs were created in recipient countries, especially for local people.
According to them, it is speculated that part of the Chinese government’s policy is to encourage Chinese entrepreneurs to travel abroad and seek greener pastures, and that Africa happens to be the destination these entrepreneurs were privileged to be. These investors are believed to come with fierce competition drives as they are allegedly supported by the Chinese government, especially in the informal economic sector, which is normally a reserved area for local entrepreneurs.
It has been pointed out that this situation has the tendency of causing conflict between the disadvantaged locals and Chinese entrepreneurs. In Dakar, Senegal, for instance, there were reports that half of the local traders were bankrupt because of cheap ‘made in China’ goods imported by Chinese businessmen. Consequently, unemployment was said to be on the rise and that life was increasingly difficult by the day.
Some economic analysts and political pundits in harsh criticism usually use the term neo-colonialism to describe the current relations between China and Africa. Some argued that China-Africa relations were not different from the relations Africa had with the West. Yet still, others are worried about the fact that China is cooperating with regimes denounced by the international community, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe.
For Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia and current Chairman of the African Union (AU), the case is totally different. In his public speech in China last week during his official visit, he fervently declared that current China-Africa relations is based on cooperation and mutual benefits on an equal footing, unlike the old and traditional “donor-recipient” relationship. He delightfully noted that current China-Africa relation is a new type of strategic partnership focused on the development and transformation of Africa.
In the ongoing discourse on current China-Africa relations, one of the most contentious issues is the issue of human rights. Not only Western, but also African scholars have seriously criticized China – Africa relations on human rights issues. They cite in particular, the “perceived” lack of China’s respect for human rights and reluctance to fight corruption. Some on the other hand argued, opposing the official U.S rhetoric focusing on issues of democracy and natural resources, emphasizing that the U.S perceives China’s presence in Africa as an obstacle to what they consider a fragile process of democratization and of course U.S grip on African resources.
In these modern times, information management is essential and critical, especially with respect to the terms and conditions of loans, investment and aid provided by developing partners to developing nations. For example, Brautigam, in her 2009 book entitled “The Dragon’s Gift: the real story of China in Africa”, used the term ‘gifts’ and ‘mysterious donations’ to describe loans, investment and aid projects offered by China to Africa because of the lack, according to her, of transparency in the funds paid to African countries.
Brautigam indicated that the aid provided by China raised very sensitive questions on transparency, corruption and human rights issues. Note that these issues have been raised several times by various people in the Western media. In 2006, for instance, Wieczorek Zeul, the then German Development minister, stated in an interview that China perceived development in Europe as an alarm that just sounded. She openly criticized China’s aid policy to Africa and insisted that loans to Africa “should be linked with conditions”.
The issue of loans without conditions is also one of the issues which stirred serious debate on current China-Africa relations. For example, in 2007, Philippe Maystdt, the former President of the European Bank, renewed this propaganda. He claimed that loans could drive the debt of Africa to dangerous levels if China continued to lend too easily; in other words, lend to Africa without conditions. He then, asked the European Union (EU) in 2007 to open a dialogue with China to discuss the problems of loans without conditions.
In the same year, Hilary James Benn, the former British secretary for International Development, cautioned the European Union during a visit to Malawi and boldly declared that “Chinese aid ‘do more harm than good’ in Africa”. According to him, the unconditional aid could lead to setbacks in terms of democracy and human rights developments. Furthermore, Louis Michel, while he was European Commissioner for development, during an annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 2006, advised the European Union to cease attacks on China on the issue of interest-free loans granted to the poorest countries. In fact, he strongly recommended inclusion of China as a partner for promotion of effective development of Africa, in other words, to politically or strategically muzzle China.
In a newspaper published by the China Youth Daily and the China Review in February 2007, Xavier Solana, a former Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, supported the proposal of Louis Michel. Perhaps, with these comments in mind, the European Union launched a conference on the 28th of June 2007 dubbed “Partners in competition, EU, Africa and China”. This brought together 180 think-tanks and experts, such as policy makers, academicians and representatives of civil society and businesses from China, Africa and the EU to deliberate on the way forward.
Notwithstanding this, some analysts see the relations as a positive commitment to the development of Africa. Even though some have highlighted the weakness of the relations and concluded that it was pernicious, thorough and objective analyses show that the engagement has still deepened. As Prime Minister Hailemariam officially asserted, indeed the partnership is largely appreciated on the African continent, as it has boosted its growth. He adamantly argues that as under-developed as the majority of African countries were several years ago, China succeeded in breaking through the ranks of major economic and industrial powers and made a positive impact.
It is therefore, not surprising that African leaders continue to seek ways to develop their countries with the assistance of China, especially and rightly so, as conditions imposed by Africa’s traditional donors did not lead to any definitive economic independence. No wonder the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in a striking metaphoric-speak, right or otherwise, stated that ‘the sun has set in the West and has risen from the East’ to state his frustrations at the West and his confidence in China.
Beyond these critics, one thing is clear; the cooperation between Africa and its economic development partners, EU, China and US, are strategically different, and each is driven by economic self-interests. It is of vital importance, therefore, that Africa approves on an equal footing, a strategic and most consistent partner, business or otherwise, who recognizes, shares and respects it’s difficult but critical needs, be it political, economic or social as well as sovereignty.