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Keith B. Richburg: Playing the long game in Africa

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping shakes hands with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe while South African President Jacob Zuma looks on during the China-Africa cooperation forum in Johannesburg on Dec. 4.   © Reuters

Compare the state visits to Africa this year by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, as the two superpowers vie for clout on the world's fastest-growing continent. Then ask: Which leader is playing the long game?

     Start with Obama, who visited Africa in July. At a session of the African Union, held in Ethiopia, Obama warned African leaders that the tradition of "big man" rule was undermining the continent's gradual path to greater democracy. "Nobody should be president for life," he intoned, adding: "When journalists are put behind bars for doing their jobs or activists are threatened as governments crack down on civil society, then you may have democracy in name but not in substance."

     Earlier in his Africa sojourn, in Kenya, where his father was born, Obama admonished his visibly uncomfortable hosts for their harsh treatment of homosexuals. He compared Africa's homophobia to past racism in the U.S., and said treating gays differently "because of who they love is wrong, full stop." He also pointedly criticized Kenya's entrenched corruption, calling it "the single biggest impediment to Kenya growing even faster."

     In early December came Xi's turn to visit.

     The Chinese leader arrived on the continent not with homilies about democracy, human rights or corruption. Instead, Xi came bearing financial gifts -- $60 million for an African rapid response military force; $156 million in emergency food aid for drought-stricken areas; some debt forgiveness on past loans; and, the biggest prize of all, $60 billion in new grants, loans and credit to support Africa's development needs.

     As for lecturing his hosts about one-man rule, treatment of gays, or the proclivity of African leaders to siphon funds from government coffers, Xi left little doubt about where China stands. "China strongly believes that Africa belongs to the African people, and that African affairs should be handled by the African people," he told African heads of state in Johannesburg. "We should remain committed to political equality and mutual trust. We should respect each other's choice of development paths and not impose our own will on the other."

     Small wonder that the assorted African leaders at the summit responded to Xi with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. China was offering more in aid and loans than the U.S., with no strings attached, and without tiresome admonishments about stealing elections, harassing political opponents and jailing troublesome journalists.

     Among those heaping lavish praise on Xi was none other than Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Africa's most notorious despot, whose three decades of misrule turned one of the continent's most successful countries into an economic basket case and ground zero for political repression. "He is doing to us what we expected those who colonized us yesterday to do," Mugabe gushed about Xi.

SHADES OF YESTERYEAR   China's massive push into sub-Saharan Africa has been debated, dissected and scrutinized -- hailed by many as a "win-win" relationship that has fueled the continent's impressive growth over the last decade, and derided by others as a kind of neo-imperialism, not unlike the old "scramble for Africa" among the colonial powers at the end of the 19th century.

     Indeed, China is now Africa's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade valued at an estimated $200 billion last year. More than a million Chinese traders and laborers now live on the African continent, and tens of thousands of African traders are now in China.

     China is also investing heavily in African infrastructure, building highways, railways and dams from scratch as well as modernizing whole areas, such as the devastated parts of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. 

     There is no question that China's push into Africa has improved the economies of African countries and people. Economic growth in recent years among the 45 countries comprising sub-Saharan Africa -- predicted to hit 4.3% in 2016 after a slight dip this year -- is directly traceable to China's demand for Africa's energy, commodities and raw materials.

DAMS NOT DEMOCRACY   But China's motives are not necessarily altruistic, and rising complaints have been heard -- especially from African civil society organizations -- that much of Beijing's aid, trade and investment deals carry far greater benefits for China than for Africa.

     For example, many of those big-ticket infrastructure projects come with the stipulation that mostly Chinese workers be employed in the building. This measure helps Beijing's government find employment for its laborers at a time when China is trying to shift its economy away from investment-led growth, meaning fewer building projects back home.

     Moreover, China is the world's largest steel producer. With their own economy slowing, Chinese manufacturers desperately need a market for all the excess steel -- and Chinese-funded construction projects in Africa offer a lucrative new frontier.

     Some Africans warily eye Beijing's promises of vast amounts of new "aid," like Xi's latest offer of $60 billion during the Johannesburg summit. A breakdown shows that much of that money will be in the form of credits and loans to be repaid, as opposed to grants. Recalling the unmanageable financial obligations incurred with the World Bank and other institutions, those African voices worry that more borrowing will plunge their countries further into debt.

     China's relationship to Africa is largely based on trade. But, in terms of direct investment, which stood at $2.5 billion in 2012, it is still far behind the U.S. and Britain, and barely ahead of France and India.

     Nonetheless, China's growing commercial endeavors in Africa have attracted criticism. Some Africans have complained about cheap Chinese goods flooding the markets and putting local African companies out of business.

     Perhaps the biggest criticism is that China has been hauling away Africa's raw materials and returning manufactured goods, while doing nothing to train or transfer knowledge to Africans. A former central bank governor from Nigeria warned that Africa was setting itself up for "a new form of imperialism."

     But much of the criticism of China's business conduct in Africa is coming from those African voices barely heard, and never seen, at the leaders' summits where the investment and aid deals are inked. The human rights groups, the lawyers, the small traders, the labor leaders, those advocating for gay rights and those independent journalists struggling for press freedom in Africa are primarily the ones who are warning that Africans should be wary of China's gifts. As it happens, they are the same voices that are scarcely heard -- and swiftly silenced -- in China.

     In its foreign policy priorities, China has shown a preference for state-to-state relations, according to its principle of noninterference in what it deems other countries' "internal affairs." In practice, that means shaking hands and cutting deals with despots -- whether visiting Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where Xi on his recent visit promised to build a new parliament building, or rolling out the red carpet in Beijing for an indicted war criminal, such as Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir.

     When Obama, in Nairobi, made his criticisms of Kenya's corruption and mistreatment of gays, his remarks drew a sharp rebuke from ruling party officials. "It's a breach of the principle of sovereignty and equality of states," fumed Irungu Kang'ata, a ruling party member of parliament. "He can't come to Kenya to tell us things that are unacceptable."

     Obama is betting that, as Africa moves inextricably toward democracy, the people will remember which country stood up for human rights.

     China, with its large checkbook, may be winning today's scramble for influence among Africa's leaders. But when most of those aging leaders and their repressive systems are gone -- and history suggests they will be -- my bet is that the African people will reward those countries that stood against oppression. In this geopolitical rivalry, it seems Obama, not Xi, is the one playing the long game.

Keith B. Richburg was foreign editor of The Washington Post from 2005 to 2007 and served as the paper's bureau chief in Paris, Manila, Nairobi, Hong Kong and Beijing.

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