Despite its extravagance, Chinese aid not always welcomed in Africa

May 12, 2013

By ATSUSHI OKUDERA/ Correspondent

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania--There's a towering presence in the foreign aid landscape in Africa, once the domain of Western donor nations and Japan: It is China.

Chinese assistance is mind-boggling in its dimensions and extravagance, and growing all the time.

China's presence is everywhere. Take the Dar es Salaam Station in Tanzania, the terminal of the eastern portion of the 1,860-kilometer Tan-Zam Railway, which links Tanzania in the southeast to landlocked Zambia. Six rail tracks loom in a sea of weeds as they stretch westward.

Every single sleeper along those tracks is engraved with the letters: "Made in the People's Republic of China." The railroad, opened in 1976 with labor and a cash injection from China, represents a particular landmark in Beijing's assistance to Africa.

"China is willing to actively participate in the renovation and operation of the Tan-Zam Railway," visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping told Jakaya Kikwete, his Tanzanian counterpart, on March 24. Xi also pledged to offer $20 billion (2 trillion yen) in loans to African nations over the next three years.

While Beijing has not published its own statistics on official development assistance (ODA), the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has estimated the amount at $2.47 billion in 2011. In 2009, 46 percent of China's ODA went to Africa.

Lu Shaye, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Department of African Affairs, is clearly tickled pink about his country's expanding aid to Africa.

"The amount has increased many times over 2006," Lu boasted. "I suppose we are offering more than some of the major industrialized nations."

The sheer scale of Beijing's assistance is something to behold.

On March 24, the day of Xi's visit, Tanzania's national soccer team played a match at the country's national stadium, built with China's aid, eager to win a place in the 2014 World Cup to be held in Brazil.

"This is our stadium, and China has built it for us," a local thirtysomething man said excitedly before the game started.

The sheer lavishness and speed of China's aid have astonished Japanese and Western officials.

Tanzania's economy continues to grow by around 6 percent annually.

At Dar es Salaam Port, a distribution hub, cargo ships must wait in line to be berthed. At night, it is common to see more than 10 vessels forming a string of light into the distant horizon.

Plans are in place to construct a new port 65 km to the north. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) initially considered providing assistance.

But word of China's funding surfaced abruptly around the time Xi's latest visit was proposed. Chinese media reports said a Hong Kong enterprise will undertake the project, which is said to be worth $10 billion, or 40 percent of Tanzania's gross domestic product. The package would include the creation of an economic development zone.

"Japan nowadays cannot afford to lay out such a big sum," a JICA official said.

In the past, politics played the key role in China's relations with African nations, which included a tug-of-war with Taiwan over their diplomatic backing. But Beijing later set its eyes on Africa's rich natural resources and promising markets, which could help fuel China's growing economy.

It began bolstering economic ties in earnest around 1993, when China became a net oil importer.

African resentment against Western-style aid, which was offered on condition that the recipient nations moved forward with democracy and economic reforms, also helped.

China was welcomed because its aid had "no strings attached," according to a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official. That, together with its injections of cash, gave China the opportunity to dramatically expand its presence on the continent.

But China's characteristic style of aid, which steers clear of rules set by advanced industrial nations, has drawn criticism in its own way. One example involves the planned expansion of the Port of Walvis Bay in Namibia.

The government of the Southwest African nation entrusted JICA with preparatory research on development. The Japanese agency expected to join hands with Germany, France and the African Development Bank to extend concerted loans to the project, worth between 20 billion yen and 30 billion yen.

Late in 2011, however, the Namibian government abruptly informed JICA that a Chinese company had won a contract for the project. Japan and the other industrialized nations had no choice but to back out.

The government-affiliated Export-Import Bank of China is believed to have proposed 20-year loans at a super-low annual interest rate of 2 percent, which qualifies the deal as an ODA project under standards set by industrialized nations. And those standards say that aid projects funded by taxpayers' money should undergo transparent and fair bidding processes.

Beijing apparently insisted there was no problem in a Chinese company winning a contract without an open bidding process, because the preferential loans are of a commercial nature and do not qualify the project as an ODA program.

Some aid beneficiaries in Africa have also complained.

Natural resources and raw materials, such as oil and iron ore, account for all 10 top export items that are shipped from Africa to China. But Beijing brings its own aid workers and equipment from home, without transferring technologies to local communities, those critics say.

"It is time for Africans to wake up to the realities of their romance with China," Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote in a British newspaper in March. "China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism."

By ATSUSHI OKUDERA/ Correspondent
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This international convention center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was built with Chinese aid. The photo was taken March 25. (Atsushi Okudera)

This international convention center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was built with Chinese aid. The photo was taken March 25. (Atsushi Okudera)

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  • This international convention center in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was built with Chinese aid. The photo was taken March 25. (Atsushi Okudera)
  • The national stadium in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was built with Chinese aid. The photo was taken March 24, the day of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit, when Tanzania's national soccer team played a match here, eager to win a berth in the 2014 World Cup to be held in Brazil. (Atsushi Okudera)

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