China is giving the triennial two-day ministerial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing the full-court diplomatic press. President Hu Jintao, seen above addressing the gathering against a backdrop of African flags, promised to have doubled China’s credit lines for African governments to $20 billion by the time the meeting reconvenes in 2015. The idea is to reinforce the notion that the Beijing consensus model of development is better for the continent than the Washington one.
Many African leaders have sufficient concern about Western development aid, with its baggage of conditionality and legacy colonial perceptions, to make Beijing a preferred partner on large-scale development projects. But it is a pragmatic choice, not unalloyed affection. Chinese investment is concentrated in natural resources and infrastructure construction (and in a relatively few resource-rich African countries), while cheap Chinese manufactures and workers flood in. That raises concerns among African policymakers that China’s trade and investment doesn’t necessarily boost the continent’s overall capacity and competitiveness or its intra-continental trade. Growing popular unease over Chinese insularity, labour practices and immigration has led to local violence on several occasions from Algeria to Zambia.
Aware that it has an image problem, Beijing is countering these concerns with a diplomatic charm offensive, and, inevitably, a five-point plan. Hu promised to diversify and rebalance China’s Africa trade and investment, and to create more local jobs by supporting African manufacturing. This Bystander, for one, will believe it when he sees it.