China tries to avoid colonial abuses in Africa

CHINA has embarked on a series of joint projects with Britain in Africa, with the aim of avoiding the abuses and mistakes committed by former colonial powers as it rapidly increases its economic role on the continent.

It invested $US4.5 billion ($5.8 billion) in infrastructure in Africa in 2007, more than the G8 countries combined. The number of Chinese companies operating in Africa has more than doubled in just two years to 2000, with about 400 operating in Nigeria alone, according to new research.

In contrast to the "one dimensional" stereotype of state-owned enterprises extracting natural resources, most of the investment is from privately owned firms.

However, many of the business practices followed by those companies, such as a preference for using Chinese workers, coupled with Beijing's belief that human rights are the preserve of host country governments, have led to claims that the rapid rise of Chinese influence in Africa has not helped its human rights.

"The Chinese firms that are moving are building infrastructure but what they are not doing, neither the Chinese Government nor the companies, is raising any issues about how the population is being treated," Irene Khan, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, said.

"Therefore we find that the Chinese presence is not helping the human rights situation. It might be aggravating it when revenues and resources are being paid [to] hugely corrupt and oppressive governments."

In an apparent reflection of Chinese anxiety over its reputation in Africa, embassies and companies have been urged by Beijing to forge closer links to local communities.

China has also entered into a partnership with Britain's Department for International Development, intended to control the social and environmental impact of Chinese investment.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, the department is working with the Government and Chinese companies to fund the drafting of social and environmental standards that road building projects will have to adhere to, and to carry out assessments of the impact of the new roads.

Most attention has focused on the multibillion-dollar infrastructure-for-resources deals China has signed with African governments.

The problem facing such government-to-government programs is that the projects are not carried out by central planners, but by a plethora of Chinese firms. Evidence from more than 100 interviews in China and Africa indicates that more than 80 per cent of the companies are private.

Dr Jing Gu, a research fellow at Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies, which carried out the research, said Chinese businesses were well placed to tap into what some called "the last golden land" because of similarities to the Chinese market of the 1980s and '90s. However, some local resentment was building up, she said.

Guardian News & Media