The question shot out like a bullet during a joint press conference that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir held at the end of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in Beijing several weeks ago.
I could not believe that the person who fired out the question was a Chinese journalist from the Xinhua News Agency. Addressing Foreign Minister Yi, she said: “In January, there was a China cooperation forum with Latin American countries.
Today, a cooperation forum has been held with Arab countries. In a few weeks, a cooperation forum with African countries will take place. Can you explain to us what China is trying to accomplish through all these forums?”
It was a question I might have expected from a journalist working with Reuters or Associated Press. I had not imagined that the official state-run news agency in a “communist” country had reached such a level of development and audacity because, generally, in such important conferences, the questions are agreed upon in advance, especially when it comes to a senior official in a major power such as China.
Yi answered the question frankly and succinctly: “China’s first aim is to build world peace, security and stability. In its capacity as the largest developing nation in the world, China seeks to help friendly developing nations in Asia and Africa, and thereby to improve the standards of living of their peoples.
China does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations. It seeks to build genuine partnerships with other countries on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation in the framework of mutual gain.”
In fact, the Chinese journalist’s question has surfaced with increasing persistence in recent years in the international, and especially the Western media.
The China-Africa Cooperation Forum was founded in 2000. Its last summit, attended by around 50 African leaders, most notably President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, was just held a few days ago.
The China-Arab Cooperation Forum was established in 2004 and its eighth session, which I had the honour to attend as a representative of Al-Ahram, was held in Beijing several weeks ago. CASCF has 22 member states.
More recently came the Forum of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) which has 33 members.
In addition, there is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which includes “China’s neighbours” in Central Asia and which was recently joined by India, Pakistan and Russia.
Vladimir Putin attended the last SCO conference in China, even though Moscow eyes the organisation with suspicion as it believes that China is trying to pull the rug out from beneath what Russia regards as its “natural” sphere of influence in Central Asia.
Grander yet, is the Belt and Road Initiative unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013 and which currently has 68 member states. Some $150 billion worth of projects, especially infrastructural projects, are in the process of being carried out on what is also known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road.
The Belt and Road Initiative, which will link China by land and sea to dozens of countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, triggered a flurry of speculation, suspicions and even outright accusations.
But, China’s other cooperation forums with the Arabs, Africans and Latin Americans stirred no less of a storm of suspicion and allegations in the Western media, especially with regard to Chinese-African relations, China’s huge investments and infrastructural projects in many African countries and its generous aid deals to help those countries escape the vicious cycle of poverty and want.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the success of the recent Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC), which brought together a throng of African leaders and featured a major $60 billion aid package that President Xi Jinping unveiled in his opening address, would provoke a rush of questions and suspicions among analysts and Western media concerning China’s intentions or “ambitions” in Africa, dubbed “China’s Second Continent” by Howard French in his 2014 book by that title.
Chinese-African relations and cooperation have taken enormous strides since FOCAC was launched 18 years ago. China has been Africa’s first trading partner for nine years running.
Chinese investments in Africa have increased 100-fold and the volume of trade between China and Africa exceeded $100 billion during the first six months of 2018 alone.
In his address at the FOCAC conference, the Chinese president pledged a $60 billion aid package to Africa over the next three years.
It consists of $15 billion of aid and interest free and facilitated loans, $20 billion in the form of development funds; $10 billion to finance development projects, a $5 billion fund to support Chinese imports from Africa and $10 billion new Chinese investments in Africa.
On top of that, Xi announced that his government had decided to write off the debt from interest free loans due by the end of 2018 for poor and debt encumbered African countries.
More importantly, as Peter Gary, professor of development studies at the National University of South Africa, put it, China is offering Africa much more than support, aid and investment.
It is offering the “Chinese experience” in combatting poverty, a model that African countries can learn from and emulate in order to end the continent’s chronic poverty and shift from an agrarian or fishing based economy to an economy based on industry and production.
The Chinese approach contrasts sharply with that of European colonising powers which plundered (as they continue to do today) Africa’s wealth and resources and used them to fuel their own industrial revolutions, in return for which they offered Africans the scraps and handouts needed to survive as “slaves” employed in extracting and mining the raw materials to be shipped to the West to keep their factories running.
Instead of teaching Africans how to industrialise and training them on advanced technologies, Western powers were determined to prevent the Africans and Arabs from accessing modern technologies for fear of what they might do with them.
This is not China’s way, at least not yet, according to an exceptional article by Nick Van Mead in The Guardian entitled “China in Africa”. China’s projects, such as the transformation of the tiny fishing village of Bagamoyo in Tanzania into Africa’s largest port, the 290-mile railway from Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa, the 470-mile railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, not to mention the Tazara railway line from Zambia to Dar Es Salaam that the Chinese build in the 1960s, all stand as proof that rather than merely giving fish to Africans, China is teaching them how to fish.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Bringing the Chinese experience to Africa