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China has exported lessons of development to continent

Updated: 2015-11-27 09:12
By Peter Frankopan (China Daily Africa)

Establishing good ties is the easy part; keeping it going takes time - and hard work

When Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in South Africa for the summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, he will be greeted by hope and expectation from the heads of states who will gather from across the continent to join him.

Xi's visit comes at a crucial moment in the development not only of China's Belt and Road Initiative, but also of Africa's long-term future. In many respects, the prospects look rosy. China is now Africa's biggest trade partner, accounting for $220 billion in bilateral trade last year - a figure that is expected to rise in coming years. The 1 million Chinese nationals who live and work in Africa also suggest that cultural links are becoming more extensive and stronger.

 China has exported lessons of development to continent

A Chinese engineer gives a lecture to workers in Kenya. What the locals need are training and more with management experience who can take on projects in the future. Provided to China Daily

It is easy to forget that Africa is not a continent that offers only potential, for its contribution to the Chinese economy is already significant, if not essential. Apart from the minerals that help fuel China's industrial production and growth, oil from countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Angola and Sudan make up nearly a quarter of the country's imports, a very substantial amount.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that one of Xi's first visits abroad after taking office was to countries in Africa to make contacts, build ties and create alliances. For China, Africa is not just part of the future; it is part of the present.

China is keen to present itself as a reliable ally, interested in long-term partnerships rather than short-term gain. The aim is to build a network of alliances that are centered on cooperation and mutual interest. The model, appropriately enough, is provided by a great Chinese admiral.

Zheng He was one of the great explorers in world history, setting out in the 15th century on a series of ambitious expeditions that sought to open up new channels of trade. His journeys took him to Africa, visiting Mogadishu in what is now Somalia, and Malindi in modern Kenya. Zheng took back kings, leaders and ambassadors with him when he sailed home, who were treated with dignity and generosity by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) emperors of the time.

Lavishing rewards on important visitors was not only a good way to demonstrate the benefits of peaceful relations but also to win goodwill and ensure that Chinese traders who followed the great fleets would be well received when they reached places that had contact with Zheng earlier.

In fact, China's connections with Africa go back earlier than this period - because geographers, scholars and merchants had been interested in the far side of the Indian Ocean long before. Zhao Rugua, for example, who wrote Ju Fan Zhi (Records of Foreign Countries) 200 years before Zheng's expeditions, included detailed information about the coastal cities of East Africa, Zanzibar, North Africa and Egypt, while Zhu Siben's map of 1315 represented the continent in a shape that is easily recognizable.

But it is Zheng's visits that have struck a chord with Chinese politicians - and not only because he provides a neat reference point to show that China's contacts with Africa have a long pedigree. The most striking thing about Zheng's expeditions is the way they contrasted with the manner in which Europeans behaved when they established contacts and built their empires in Africa.

As Chinese president Hu Jintao put it in 2007, Zheng He "brought to the African people a message of peace and goodwill". This was very different from the Europeans, he continued, who dealt in Africa with "swords, guns, plunder and slavery". China, in other words, was - and is - a partner that can be trusted, a partner that is not out to enrich itself at the expense of the local populations; and willing to work together for mutual benefit.

The focus on Zheng is not new. Five decades ago, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was keen to draw attention to China's most famous admiral to make a distinction with the way that Europeans treated Africa and Africans, and the way the Chinese had done so and would do so in the future. Zheng opened up relations with Africa, he said on a visit in 1963; it was time to "renew contacts with old friends".

China has exported lessons of development to continent

All things considered, therefore, China should be welcomed with open arms across Africa, as investors, as partners, and as friends who - as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently put it - will not make the same mistake as the Western colonizers who stripped the continent of its assets, exploited its inhabitants and divided its people.

In this respect, then, China has also put its money where its mouth is, and what is more, exported some of the lessons learnt at home. Perhaps the most important is the concept of special economic zones, implemented with considerable success in China, and now established in six African countries that aim to upgrade infrastructure, services and institutions and, in turn, prompt economic development. As in China, too, the triple strand of building transport networks is being championed. This was articulated by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last year, who talked of high-speed rail lines, a comprehensive road system, and regional aviation connections that would pull Africa together and spur exchange and growth.

And yet, amid the applause that will greet Xi, there are grounds for a more sober view. For one thing, despite the levels of bilateral trade, China's direct investment in Africa is still small - dwarfed by the UK and smaller even than that of Italy.

Civic society across many countries in Africa has also developed rapidly in recent years, meaning that transparency, accountability and environmental damage factors are scrutinized more carefully.

Africa's experiences with Western colonizers too are also important, for a new generation of leaders has emerged that is suspicious and demanding. It is not enough to construct railways, airports and sports facilities, many of which have been built by the Chinese: what the local populations need are job opportunities and training, more with management experience who can take on projects in the future, and perhaps most of all, investors who force governments to respect the rule of law. The greatest contribution China can make is to insist on financial transparency across all the sectors it has interests in, and to ensure that funds are distributed by governments to those most in need to help social mobility.

It is important then to remember that while Zheng He's expeditions were ambitious, far-reaching and swashbuckling, they flattered to deceive: economic contraction in Ming China meant that although the door to trade and new contacts with Africa had been opened, none followed it up. If China is to build a long-term platform for the future, it needs to learn from the fact that establishing good relations is the easy part; keeping it going takes time and hard work.

The author is senior research fellow at Worcester College, Oxford. He is also the director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. His bestselling book, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, is published by Bloomsbury.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/27/2015 page6)

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