The international press has called him China’s “Mr. Africa.” He is Zhong Jianhua, the recently appointed People’s Republic of China special representative for African affairs, and on September 21 he paid a visit to BU as a guest of the African Presidential Center.
The former Chinese ambassador to South Africa, Zhong is the second appointee to serve in the post of special representative, created in 2007 to promote Chinese investment in Africa, defend that investment before its international critics, and troubleshoot in regions where African civil conflicts jeopardize China’s economic interests. Addressing an overflow crowd in the Metcalf Trustee Ballroom, Zhong defended his nation’s position in Africa and called on the international community to be fair. Africans, said Zhong, “should be allowed to choose their own path of development.”
These are boom times for the Chinese in Africa. Africa’s biggest trading partner, China buys a third of its oil from the continent and its investment in mines and textile factories has pumped life into the economies of African republics large and small, among them Kenya, Sudan, Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, Gabon, South Africa, and Namibia. According to The Economist, manufacturing’s share of total Chinese investment, 22 percent, is catching up with that of mining, which as of 2011 amounted to 29 percent. The Heritage Foundation estimates that from 2005 to 2010 nearly 14 percent of China’s investment abroad was in sub-Saharan Africa, and China’s loans to poor countries, most in Africa, exceed the amount allotted by the World Bank. Facing little or no competition, China’s broad reach in Africa translates into billions in new infrastructure, finance, and free-trade ports.
But increasingly, many Africans are displeased with what they believe are shoddy business practices and worker exploitation on the part of China, which has also drawn international criticism for its role in the illegal trade in elephant ivory. “Once feted as saviors in much of Africa, Chinese have come to be viewed with mixed feelings, especially in smaller countries where China’s weight has been felt all the more,” The Economist reported.
BU Today sat down for a conversation with Zhong about the challenges, rewards, and public perception of China’s expanding role in Africa.
BU Today: What is your chief mission as China’s special envoy to Africa?
Zhong: There are two parts of my job. The first and most important part is to handle matters people don’t like to handle, like the Sudan conflict. We have interests there, particularly the Chinese Petroleum Company. So we are trying to do our best to promote peace. I traveled to Juba in South Sudan recently to offer help for a peaceful settlement, and I could sense a kind of progress. I was also in Somalia.
The second part of my job is public diplomacy, including answering your questions and meeting with media, including Chinese and foreign media.
How do the Chinese people view their nation’s expanding role in Africa?
People in the Chinese press ask why the Chinese are investing in Africa, and I respond that the Chinese were in Africa a long time ago. It’s not like we just discovered it. I have to introduce to the Chinese people why Africa is important. On the China side, we have a long way to go. For many, all they know about Africa is there are black people living there.
Chinese people are quite conservative. For centuries we called ourselves the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world, and felt we don’t have to care about other guys beyond our borders. That’s why China was beaten so soundly in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the globalized world we are being humiliated for not knowing about the outside world. There is a lot of work to do to make the general public understand why we need Africa.
How much do Chinese media report on Africa?
Not as many as I’d expect. And it’s not only a problem of media. It’s a problem of the readers: if they are not interested, there’s no coverage. Chinese media are also being affected by economic factors. If you want success, you better carry news of man bites dog, not dog bites man—carry news of crime committed against Chinese in Africa. According to statistics I have, Chinese are much less likely to be victims of crime compared to local people in Africa. It’s reported that every day is dangerous for Chinese in Africa, and it’s not true.
What is being done to counter these stereotypes?
The Chinese embassies have a big task to educate people about what they are going to expect, how to respect the local people, and how to do business under the local law. For those who are already in Africa, there is a need to understand what kind of market they’re in. China is backward in doing business. We are only one generation along in the reform of our policy, compared with more than 10 generations in other countries.
You have a lot of love for the African people.
Yes. Africans are the most honest people I’ve ever known. Before I went to Africa I was in Los Angeles. I enjoyed my posting and had a lot of friends there. And then I went to South Africa and had a better relationship with the local people. In 2008, at the start of the Beijing Olympics, we had a reception for Chinese National Day in Pretoria. Every ambassador came forward to congratulate us, but the African ambassadors said, “I am really happy because this is the success of my brother.” That’s the feeling you get from African people, almost all over Africa.
What are some of the major success stories of Chinese investment in Africa?
Though it was built in the 1970s, I’d say one of the biggest is the railway between Zambia and Zimbabwe—not just economically, though it was made to transport copper from Zambia. It was built to go around South Africa, which was still under the apartheid regime, so this was not only for transport of minerals but a practical project to help frontier countries be economically independent from apartheid. The project involved about 60,000 Chinese technicians and engineers, and more than 100,000 local people joined the project.
Nowadays we have signed deals employing more than 2,000 local people in South Africa mines, with only seven people from China, an investment of $400 million U.S. dollars. And there’s Hisense, a Chinese brand for electrical appliances, such as refrigerators and TV sets. They have trained more than 2,500 local South Africans to work on the assembly line, and the company accounts for about 40 percent of the South African TV market and also supplies neighboring countries. And we have IT companies working around the continent.
How do you respond to Western concerns about the explosion of Chinese investment in Africa?
The fact is that the Western interests have been in Africa for over 500 years. They have established their influence in that continent. But some Western people probably have that feeling like, this is my backyard, what are you doing here? But I don’t know why they regard it as their backyard. This attitude is embarrassing for the local people.
Outside of economics, what is China’s political bond with Africa?
In those struggle years, the 1960s and 1970s, there was the fight against colonialism. China supported those national liberation movements. Unfortunately, it mingled with the Cold War, but China supported them, particularly in South Africa, and some of the liberation fighters were trained in China to fight guerrilla wars. And during the Cold War they supported us, when we were under pressure. It was quite a comradeship, as we would call it. After the finish of the Cold War, we’re facing our own challenges. We learned we have to open to the world, participate in the world economic system. So we went around the world, and also to Africa. And that led to our new relationship with Africa.
Is African culture traveling back to China in any way; for example, do Chinese listen to African music?
There are fans of African arts and music, and you go to some places in China and find that people have started to become fascinated with African cultural discovery. But it’s not that popular yet. For the general public, most are quite ignorant about Africa.
Have the Chinese encountered conflicts involving resource development in protected African preserves or parklands?
We always regard Africa as Africans’ Africa. It’s up to them to decide which part should be national park. We obey the law. There’s no argument on that. This is not the way Chinese do things. We never override what they have decided. We always have respect. The Chinese have been humiliated by other countries, and we don’t want to do that to people in Africa.