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Society, Politics & Law

Making sense of China

Updated Tuesday 18th March 2008

Why are celebrities protesting against Chinese activities in Africa? Why is Africa important to the Chinese? What are the implications for the rest of the world? Giles Mohan begins an investigation.

As an academic who beavers away on what sometimes feel like obscure and esoteric research projects, the past few weeks have been stuffed with news stories directly relating to my work. In mid-February Steven Spielberg stood down as the artistic director for the forthcoming Beijing Olympics. His reasons were China’s questionable role in Sudan, in North-western Africa.

For some time now there have been calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics in order to protest against China’s political record. This has seen Hollywood stars, journalists, and members of the US Congress – to name but a few – joining in condemning China and using the Olympics to throw a bright spotlight on the country’s democratic deficit. But what has a remote corner of Africa got to do with all of this?

The Bird's Nest Stadium, home of the Beijing Olympics Creative commons image Icon achimh under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
The Bird's Nest stadium, home of Beijing Olympics

China’s economy is growing. We all know that. Every day we hear about its trade balance, foreign exchange reserves, environmental damage, and the rapid growth of its cities. But where does the energy and raw materials for this growth come from?

China does produce its own energy and is building controversial hydro-electric schemes, is investing in nuclear technology and, despite the doomsayers in the west, is encouraging energy conservation. But it still needs to import oil and gas in particular and one of China’s main source areas is Africa. Not all of Africa, but key oil-producing countries such as Nigeria, Angola and Sudan. So, here’s the first clue to Spielberg’s grievances.

Sudan has China’s biggest investments in the African oil sector. It has developed good diplomatic links with the government in Khartoum and many Chinese can be seen walking the city’s streets. But Sudan also has a long-standing conflict between a Northern based government and the South West of the country.

The Chinese have invested heavily in Sudan and are seen to perpetuate this bloody conflict by supplying arms and training to the Sudanese as well as the revenue from the oil itself. Until recently the Chinese have also stayed out of international efforts to resolve the crisis and use an argument that China respects national sovereignty and therefore the conflict is a matter for Sudan to resolve.

In its hunt for secure energy resources China is accused of ignoring, and even perpetuating, human rights abuses. Hence, this slightly hypocritical ostrich-like response from the Chinese has become the focal point for the international condemnation of China more generally.

While undoubtedly a major issue for China, Sudan, and the international community we need to see China’s role and Sudan’s response in wider context. It is here that all this media coverage impinges on my research.

This is the first blog for a project entitled The politics of Chinese engagement with African development. I am what is called the principal investigator and I work with two colleagues at Durham University; Dr Marcus Power and Dr May Tan-Mullins. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which is one of the UK government’s research councils.

As we saw with Sudan, in order to meet China’s increased demand for resources from Africa and to expand its markets China has had to secure political influence. Over the past few years China has pumped in much aid and technical support to Africa and for the first time since the end of the Cold War African leaders have genuine choices about which aid donors and investors to work with. But given the problems of governance across much of the continent these new economic and political choices will have major impacts on African leaders, political parties, civil society groups and other aid donors.

Our research assesses what impacts Chinese aid, trade and investment are having on the politics of specific African countries. This will be examined through case studies of Angola and Ghana, which represent different examples of China’s development ‘partnerships’ in Africa. Angola possesses oil resources that China desperately needs, whereas Ghana lacks strategic resources, but is an important market and political ally.

Over the coming months I, and my Durham colleagues, will be posting blogs on topical issues in the news which relate to this work as well as reflecting ‘from the field’ as we travel to China, the US, Angola and Ghana to interview key players.



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