China: 'A blessing or a curse for Africa?'

China promised on Tuesday to do more to strengthen Africa’s economic sinews even as the continent enjoys its fastest burst of growth in 30 years on the back of booming Chinese demand for oil and minerals.

Central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan said Beijing would redouble efforts to share the lessons of its economic take-off and would encourage more Chinese companies, especially smaller privately owned firms, to invest in Africa.

“Economic cooperation between Asia and Africa has great significance, huge potential and a bright future,” Zhou told finance ministers gathered for the first annual meeting of the African Development Bank to be held in Asia.

The choice of Shanghai, China’s futuristic financial metropolis, as the venue for the meeting underscores the gulf in living standards between many parts of Asia and Africa thanks to Asia’s success in harnessing high savings and attracting foreign capital.

“The Western world, and now the Asian world, is way ahead of us. How can we compete against them when their educational levels are so high, and their technology skills are so strong?” Madagascar’s President, Marc Ravalomanana, asked rhetorically.

Ministers queued up on Tuesday, a day before the meeting formally opens, to say how much Africa can learn from Asia.

But there was also an undercurrent of concern that the continent risks becoming too dependent on Asia, especially China, which is scouring Africa for raw materials to feed the world’s fourth-largest economy.

Kenyan Finance Minister Amos Kimunya acknowledged that strong demand for commodities was boosting African growth and that more companies were investing in Africa.

“The question we must ask ourselves, and answer today and from now on, will be: Is this a blessing or a curse for Africa,” Kimunya told the forum at which Zhou spoke.

Active role

The central bank chief said China’s aim was to encourage basic industries to shift to Africa, just as they have moved in turn over the years from Japan to South Korea to China and now to countries like Vietnam in search of cheaper places to produce.

“In addition, Chinese financial institutions will attach more importance to their involvement in Africa. We will take a more active part in infrastructure building in Africa and provide support in terms of financial sector development,” Zhou said.

China has been actively wooing Africa.
President Hu Jintao hosted the continent’s leaders at an unprecedented summit in Beijing in November and has offered billions of dollars in loans, aid and debt write-offs.

Between 2001 and 2005, Africa’s exports to China rose to $21,1-billion from $4,8-billion. Its imports from China, mainly low-cost manufactured goods, trebled to $18,6-billion.

Buoyed by rising trade and investment with Asia as a whole, Africa’s economy should grow by 5,9% this year and 5,7% in 2008, according to the African Development Bank.

That would be the sixth year in a row in which growth was almost double its long-term average.

To build on this platform, Ravalomanana said African countries must find reform-minded leaders to replace “big chiefs” hungry for power, status and control.

But donors and foreign governments must honour their promises to double aid to the world’s poorest continent. China has pledged to do just that by 2009.

“We want to be in the driver’s seat of our development, but it is difficult when we do not get the funds and resources we need to succeed,” Madagascar’s president said.—Reuters

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