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Interview: Kenyan scholar dispels lies on Sino-Africa relations

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by Bedah Mengo and David Musyoka

NAIROBI, Dec. 19 (Xinhua) -- This Christmas, as they head to their rural homes or beaches for merry-making, many Africans will be using quality roads built by the Chinese.

Millions of others will be wearing clothes or shoes made in China as they enjoy Christmas festivities.

There is growing economic and socio-political engagements between China and Africa, with the Asian nation's investment in the continent surging in several folds, bettering lives.

Africa will benefit greatly from Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent multiple business deals and new grants, loans, export credits, and investment funds offered during the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in South Africa early this month.

However, a lot of myths have been peddled in the media and sometimes in books based either on ignorance, deliberate distortion or misrepresentation of facts to discourage development of stronger and deeper relations between China and Africa, according to Dr. Gerishon Ikiara, a lecturer of International Economics at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

As the magazine Foreign Policy said in a story published on December 4, there are roughly five myths about Chinese investment in Africa.

The first myth widely peddled by some writers is the often repeated argument that China's engagement with Africa is not based on genuine intention to positively transform Africa's economic situation, but that it is mainly driven by a huge appetite to extract natural resources from Africa.

Ikiara told Xinhua that the myth is usually aimed at sowing seeds of suspicion in Africa to undermine growth of long-lasting relations between the two.

"A serious review of China-Africa relations in the last 20 years shows that on the contrary, China's engagement with Africa has been broad-based, better than the relationship between an average Western donor and Africa," he noted.

This is especially true of Sino-Africa engagement in the last 15 years and more so since the establishment of the FOCAC which promotes a consultative approach in which China and its African partners jointly agree on priority projects as a way of achieving a win-win formula which has been highly appreciated by many African leaders," he said.

A look at China's areas of engagement in various African countries shows projects cutting across many sectors aimed at capacity building through training of skilled labour, expansion and modernization of infrastructure, agricultural development for improving food security, environmental conservation and industrialization programs including creation of special economic zones.

The second myth about China's engagement with Africa centres around China's financial involvement in the continent.

There has been a tendency to exaggerate the scope of Chinese official assistance to Africa partly by those who want to create impression that China is engaged in a neo-colonization.

"While Chinese financing of a wide range of projects in Africa has risen rapidly, using Chinese Exim Bank and other resources, a review of global donor financing has been generally increasing and that there are other donors whose lending portfolios have been expanding even faster than that of China," noted Ikiara.

In his view, some of the estimates of Chinese financing in Africa at the levels of 189.3 billion U.S. dollars as the lending in 2011 or the 1 trillion dollars as the lending for 2013 as reported by a Hong Kong newspaper are unrealistic.

In the just concluded FOCAC summit held in Johannesburg, South Africa, China pledged 60 billion dollars as committed financial resources for Africa for the forthcoming FOCAC period 2016-2018.

This figure is an indication of what China is willing to allocate to Africa in a three-year period for programs undertaken in the context of FOCAC, which is regarded as the flagship framework for Sino-Africa development cooperation.

The third myth focuses on employment practices of Chinese companies with regard to labour resources in projects implemented by Chinese companies in Africa, which hosts the highest levels of unemployed youth and adult proportion of population in the world today.

The myth says that Chinese companies mainly employ Chinese labour force at the expense of locally available human resources.

There are also stories that the Chinese companies use prisoners from China as part of their employees as a way reducing labour costs.

"This perception is not supported by facts on the ground. In Kenya, for instance, in one of the largest projects being implemented by a Chinese company, the Standard Gauge Railway project, out of about 30,000 employees, about 10 percent are Chinese nationals.

The Chinese nationals are mainly in the managerial, supervisory and technical cadres.

Available information indicates that many of the Chinese companies which have won large projects in Kenya and other countries in Africa usually give a significant proportion of the activities as sub-contracts to local firms, noted the don.

"As the story published in an American magazine indicates, this third myth is empty. Studies done on Chinese employment practices show that about 80 percent of workers in Chinese projects in Africa are sourced from within African countries. In addition, the Chinese companies have started technical training institutes to train local staff for construction and maintenance functions."

The fourth myth is that Chinese aid and financing are used by China as a vehicle to gain access to oil concessions as well as mining rights to Africa's natural resources. This narrative tends to recur quite often in western media. Little evidence has been produced to give this perception any credibility.

"A look at the priority project list agreed by African and Chinese leaders for the coming three-year FOCAC period gives a highly balanced sectoral program very different from the perception created by this myth. The priority areas cover infrastructure, agriculture, environment, food security, reduction of poverty, education and health, mining and natural resources, among other priority issues, said Ikiara.

The fifth myth postulates that China's interest in Africa is largely driven by her insatiable appetite for Africa and that the country could even plan to send part of her large population to settle in the continent and grow food to ship back to China.

According to Ikiara, the obvious aim of this myth is to make the African masses and their leaders wary of their relations with China.

Again, he said, there is no attempt to provide any evidence to support some of ludicrous and far-fetched propositions.

"Clearly, one of the outcomes of these myths regularly featuring in international media is that they tend to sow seeds of discord and suspicion which often serve to undermine a strong global coalition, involving the world's two largest economies in fighting poverty and underdevelopment Africa, the most marginalized continent today," said Ikiara.

However, the scholar noted that as the second largest economy in the world as well as a leading global producer of manufactured products today, China requires huge amounts of a wide range of raw materials some of which are readily available in Africa.

"It is important to note that in most cases, the exploitation of these natural resources is usually based on a win-win mutually agreed arrangements. African countries are in many cases motivated to export their natural resources to generate foreign exchange to support development," he noted.

 

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