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The Asian model of development is looking increasingly attractive in ways beyond aid. African governments look at Western economic instability over the past two years and find a better model in Asia's extraordinary growth. Special economic zones, one of the engines of China's growth for two decades, are popping up across the continent. But what really distinguishes Chinese businesspeople from their Western rivals in Africa is how risk-happy they seem. Barely a month goes by without the announcement of a new billion-dollar investment in one of the world's least stable countries. The latest? A stunning $23 billion deal in May to rebuild Nigeria's oil-refining capacity. For Chinese businesses, having the backing of a rich state that packages aid with commerce and has an extended time horizon cuts risk significantly. Wu Zexian, Chinese ambassador to Congo, elaborates on this new model of development assistance. "Before, African countries never profited from their resources. Now they help them build infrastructure. Other countries say, This country has a lot of problems. We say, This country has huge potential." The key is long-term vision. "Yes, there is a risk," says Wu. "But in 50 years, we will still be here. So will Congo and the mines. Short term: sure, problems. Long term: not much risk."
So how is Africa changing China? In 2005, 49 workers died in an accident at a Chinese mining-explosives factory in Chambishi, Zambia. Populist opposition leader Michael Sata accused the government of selling out the country to Beijing, a stance that earned him wide support in the 2006 and '08 elections. His views on China are colorful and expressed in terms that many Chinese would find deeply offensive. "In every part of Zambia, the Chinaman is there, packed eight to a room," he says at his office in Lusaka. "What the Chinaman is doing, nobody knows."
Zambia is just one country in Africa where China's presence has provoked criticism. In South Africa, China found itself rebutting warnings from former President Thabo Mbeki about a new "colonial relationship." In Ethiopia, China had to take sides in a separatist conflict in April 2007 when Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels killed 74 workers, nine of whom were Chinese, at a Chinese oil-field installation. The same year, a Chinese engineer was killed in an attack on a stone-material plant in Mombasa, Kenya, and Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped by rebels in Nigeria. Chinese migrants fought pitched battles with Algerians in their capital, Algiers, last year.
So China is trying to explain itself. Chinese bankers, academics and diplomats now take star turns at economic summits across the continent. "There is a mistrust of China," says Wu. "We have to speak to be understood." China has done more than just speak. It has also, in some cases, abandoned its long-standing policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Liu Guijin, China's special representative to Africa and its top diplomat on the continent, calls himself a "political troubleshooter" and says he spends a lot of time in Sudan mediating the conflict in Darfur. That sounds like a definite departure. "Perhaps we are having a flexible interpretation of noninterference," Liu replies with a laugh. After an earlier reluctance, China is now the fourth largest contributor of troops to peacekeeping operations; its soldiers are on the ground in Liberia, Sudan and Congo as part of U.N. operations.
One man's flexibility can be another's willingness to do deals with anyone. But China is becoming more sensitive to that criticism too. In Zimbabwe, China is often accused of helping keep Robert Mugabe in power. Not so, contends a senior member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Party, who says China went to "huge lengths" to ensure that MDC Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, not Mugabe, got credit for a new $950 million loan in July 2009.
Mirroring the changes taking place in China itself, China's relationship with Africa is "changing and maturing month by month as both parties better understand each other," says Geoffrey White, CEO of the trans-African conglomerate Lonrho. It was that spirit that persuaded China to drop details in its Congo deal that the IMF found objectionable as well as cut the infrastructure part of the deal from $6 billion to $3 billion. Liu says that while China and the West have "different priorities, different approaches and different ways of doing things, we need China and [the West] to make efforts to align their interests and policies."
There are limits to how far China will go. It will continue to pursue warm relations with all African countries, whether they are democracies or dictatorships, partly because each African country represents a potential vote against Taiwan's efforts to gain diplomatic recognition. China's commitment to nonintervention also remains strong; it has, for example, not supported the International Criminal Court in its attempts to prosecute Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes.
For all the tangled tale of aid, investment and diplomacy, what China has really brought to Africa is a change in the way the rest of the world thinks of the continent. China has helped transform the idea of Africa from a destination for charity to a place for business. In 2006, for the first time, flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) into Africa were greater than the amount of aid $48 billion of FDI, vs. $40 billion of aid, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And the numbers keep growing. In 2008, according to the U.N. trade body UNCTAD, FDI hit $88 billion. "Trade, not aid" is the new mantra of influential African leaders like Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
China's largesse, whatever the explanations for its arrival in Africa, has left a mark. As the representative of the Zambian Mineworkers Union at the Chambishi complex where the 49 workers died, Mwinbe Stanslas, 45, might be expected to sound a note of caution about China's expansion. He does not. "I've worked for the British, the Americans, a Jew and the Swiss," he says. "They all closed. The way the Chinese are investing, they're not leaving. My boy will get a job in this mine, and his boy after him. China is taking over. And I tell you, it's a blessing."