Nation & World

Looking at China’s role in Africa

5 min read

Panel examines increasing influence in Darfur, elsewhere

China’s increasing influence in Africa is a double-edged sword that wields the potential for prosperity and despair.

In recent years, the Asian nation has poured billions of dollars into Africa, investing in trade, building infrastructure, pumping oil, mining copper and other raw materials, and developing Chinese-run businesses. But while the massive investment has meant economic growth, it has also led to the loss of jobs and the support of suppressive regimes.

That was the message from a panel discussion Oct. 24 co-sponsored by Harvard’s Committee on Human Rights Studies and the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center’s Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution. The diverse panel included a Harvard expert on Africa, a famous actress dedicated to human rights, and a Zambian politician who has denounced China’s involvement in his country.

The event, part of the 2007-08 Committee on Human Rights Event Series “China as a Global Player,” took place in the Barker Center’s Thompson Room.

Ambassador Liu Guijin, the Chinese Embassy’s special representative for African affairs, was also scheduled to participate but was unable to attend. In his absence, it fell to Africa expert Robert Rotberg, adjunct professor of public policy and the director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, to make the case for China’s both good and bad influences in Africa.

As China expands to become a global force, so does its need for greater access to natural resources, Rotberg said. It has found welcome partners in many African nations rich with oil, copper, and other valuable raw materials, nations that are willing to open their doors to trade and other economic opportunities.

The benefits of such collaboration include investment in infrastructure, African access to cheaper consumer goods, and even the potential growth of Africa’s gross domestic product, said Rotberg. But, he argued, the negative affects — like the stripping away of Africa’s natural resources, the loss of African jobs to Chinese laborers, the flood of cheap goods that bankrupt local African industry, and the support of violent rulers — can’t be ignored.

“China as an investor … has buttressed the harsh rule of seriously authoritarian governments,” Rotberg said. “It manages — particularly with its aid — to reinforce the least participatory instincts of many rulers in Africa.”

Recent international pressure has made China begin to back away from its support of Sudan and Zimbabwe. The international community should continue to press for such positive movement from China, said Rotberg, and should continue to try to persuade China to encourage good governance, the transfer of technology, and effective institution building in the countries with which it engages economically. At the same time, he said, the international community should welcome China as a force for the growth of Africa’s GDP.

“China is really, if it focuses itself, a force for long-term good in Africa,” he said.

Actress Mia Farrow, UNICEF goodwill ambassador and representative of Genocide Intervention Net, was less forgiving in her assessment of China. She said Sudan’s Chinese oil revenues fund the government’s attacks on the people of Darfur, and that Chinese arms shipments are destined for the region.

“China,” she said, “has underwritten genocide in Darfur.”

The actress recently returned from her seventh trip to Darfur, where Sudan’s military and government-backed militias have waged a violent campaign against rebel groups and civilians. She detailed the area’s suffering with a moving slide show.

“No one is yet able to count the dead, and the dying continues,” she said as she showed shots of devastated villages that had been burned to the ground.

Farrow said the refugee camps in the neighboring countries of Chad and the Central African Republic have become cauldrons of despair, filled with mourning women and starving orphans. She showed the crowd slides of pictures drawn by children in the camps.

“My children draw rainbows and flowers,” she said. “Here, you see attack helicopters.”

To stop the genocide, Farrow said the international community, particularly the sponsors of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, must call for China’s action to end the violence in Darfur.

“What message have we sent to the people of Darfur?” she asked the crowd. “Just that they are completely dispensable.”

The third voice in the discussion belonged to Michael Sata, the outspoken leader of the Zambian populist party, the Patriotic Front. Sata has been openly critical of China’s policies in Zambia and is a strong supporter of Taiwan, which Beijing deems a rebel province.

Sata continued his criticism of China last week and contended that the country is only interested in self-serving policies, programs, and investment — and wholly unconcerned with aiding African development.

“It’s a partnership of the horse and the rider,” he said, where Africa is the horse and China is the rider.

One of the lone dissenting opinions came during the question-and-answer session from a Chinese national and fellow at the Kennedy School of Government. He said the panel’s criticisms were “unfairly put on China.” Farrow responded, saying that she took issue with the unjust policies of the Chinese government, not the Chinese people.

“I have respect for each and every individual in China,” she said, “ but this is a governmental policy and they must examine their own position, which is really a moral position.”