Hu Defends China's Role in Africa

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 8, 2007

JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 7 -- Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday sought to reassure Africans that his country's aggressive investments in oil, copper and other natural resources do not amount to a new wave of colonialism, saying China would "not do anything harmful to the interests of Africa and its people."

Hu's comments, made in Pretoria on the sixth stop of an eight-country tour of the continent, came amid rising anxiety that China's economic power is strangling African manufacturing while locking up vital resources for years. Although China has made massive purchases of oil from Angola, Sudan and Nigeria, the flood of finished goods to Africa has created a large trade imbalance.

Commentators increasingly compare the relationship to that of European countries and their African colonies, in which the ruling powers extracted natural resources at marginal cost and forced the colonies to import costly manufactured goods. But Hu sought to distinguish China by invoking his country's experience with colonialism.

"For more than 100 years in China's modern history, the Chinese people were subjected to colonial aggression and oppression by foreign powers and went through similar suffering and agony that the majority of African countries endured," he said at the University of Pretoria, according to a transcript released by South African officials.

He added, "China has never imposed its will or unequal practices on other countries and will never do so in the future."

China has long-standing relationships with many countries in Africa, dating to the era when its communist government backed liberation movements seeking to overthrow colonial and white supremacist governments. In the past decade, China has dramatically escalated its role through a combination of major construction projects and investments in materials needed to keep its manufacturing boom at home alive.

Chinese companies have built railways, water treatment plants, telecommunication systems, highways and port facilities, often subsidizing projects or working for much less than the bids of competitors. And Chinese companies have not been content to merely buy raw materials; increasingly they are investing in production capacity, purchasing oil blocks in Nigeria or copper mines in Zambia. China also has delivered billions of dollars in aid and loans.

African governments have largely welcomed the largess, as well as the lack of accompanying demands for human rights reforms, expanded democracy or increased financial transparency often made by Western investors and their governments.

In advance of Hu's trip to Sudan last week, Andrew S. Natsios, President Bush's special envoy for Sudan, traveled to Beijing to urge China to help persuade President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to accept a strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the war-torn region of Darfur. After the talks, Natsios said that "our policies and the Chinese policies are closer than I realized," adding that China would "play an increasingly important role in helping us to resolve this."

But U.S. officials now say Hu did little to press Bashir, instead calling on countries to "respect the sovereignty of Sudan," while writing off debts and providing an interest-free loan to build a new presidential palace.

"There have been some mixed signals, obviously," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington.

Among Africans, concerns about rising Chinese clout are more often economic. Textile mills from Nigeria to South Africa have closed as inexpensive Chinese imports have flooded markets. At the same time, Chinese purchases of mining concessions have stirred nationalist backlashes.

Hu canceled a stop last Sunday in a mining community in Zambia after threatened demonstrations against the alleged plunder of the country's natural resources, according to news reports. The main opposition party in Zambia, which accused China of dumping inexpensive goods and bankrupting Zambian traders, fired a top official for attending a welcoming ceremony for Hu.

There was little such rancor in South Africa, which has an especially close relationship with China. Many South African companies have major investments in China, and Hu on Tuesday signed deals opening his country's markets to South African agricultural products.

"The Chinese government will continue to take steps to increase import from Africa to balance the trade between the two sides," he said at the University of Pretoria. "We encourage Chinese companies to increase investment in Africa, provide technical and management training and help Africa develop processing and manufacturing industries so as to ease employment pressure and enhance the competitiveness of its exports."

In addition to South Africa, Sudan and Zambia, Hu also has visited Cameroon, Namibia and Liberia and has planned stops in Mozambique and Seychelles.

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company